The ongoing sexual harassment was an open secret at the GLo Hotel, a city-funded shelter for migrant women and families in Sunset Park.
In conversations over WhatsApp and in meetings with the shelter leadership, female residents spoke of a worker related to the facility’s site manager who crudely propositioned them as he dispensed meals, offered them money for sex, and barged into their rooms late at night.
But the harassment went unchecked for at least three months after staff was notified of it. The shelter’s nonprofit operator was obligated to alert the city’s Department of Homeless Services within 24 hours of any suspected maltreatment of residents at the site, according to its $10 million contract. That didn’t happen.
On June 14, after receiving a written complaint from a worker at the shelter about wider issues, the executive director of the nonprofit 163rd Street Improvement Council sent a series of urgent messages to DHS officials. “It is my unpleasant duty to advise you that I have received allegations of sexual misconduct at the GLo,” wrote Cassandra Perry, executive director of the Bronx-based nonprofit, in an email obtained by THE CITY.
“My suspicion is that such allegations will continue to surface in an investigation,” Perry stated in another email. “In my mind, it is critical to begin the investigation ASAP.”
An investigation by THE CITY discovered that the problems at the shelter extend far beyond the harassment. Relying on confidential emails, recordings of shelter meetings, and interviews with more than a half dozen residents and staff members, including two women who said they were harassed by a kitchen worker, the investigation paints an oppressively bleak picture of how the 77-room shelter has turned into a fear-laden fiefdom of its director, Mark Desmond Leary.
Under Leary’s leadership, a culture of verbal abuse and threats directed at employees as well as residents of the hotel became pervasive. Leary had placed several friends and family members on staff at the GLo Hotel, including the accused kitchen worker, who is a cousin of Leary’s. That worker has not been on site for around two months.
One of the residents who told THE CITY she was harassed by the kitchen worker initially kept silent about what was happening. She, like other residents and employees, spoke to the CITY on the condition that their identities be withheld, fearing retaliation from shelter leadership.
“No one was going to believe me. He was related to the boss of the site,” she said in Spanish. “I didn’t say anything.”
Meanwhile, Leary has maintained a job at a different shelter provider in Brooklyn the entire time.
In response to inquiries from THE CITY, Neha Sharma, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Social Services, said Leary had been immediately suspended pending a review from an outside law firm.
A pending $13.9 million contract the 163rd Street Improvement Council was slated to receive to run a fifth shelter for migrants has been put on hold while the investigation proceeds, and the matter has also been referred to the city’s Department of Investigation, Sharma said.
Perry did not respond to a detailed list of questions about the shelter her nonprofit runs. Instead, a public relations firm that specializes in crisis public relations sent an emailed statement to THE CITY on Monday.
“163rd Street Improvement Council, Inc and its affiliates and subsidiaries take every allegation of impropriety seriously. We have begun looking into every aspect of the situation of the GLo Hotel, as it has just come to our attention” said Juda Engelmeyer, the head of HeraldPR.
“We are not prepared to respond to any accusation or allegation just yet,” the statement continued.
When reached by phone, Leary told a reporter “I have nothing to say at this time” and hung up.
Since the start of operations last October, THE CITY probe found an atmosphere of intimidation spread through the building. In a May 4 meeting with residents, staffers threatened to call child welfare workers on the migrants if they left their children unattended and berated them for cooking in their rooms, according to a recording made by a resident in attendance and shared with THE CITY.
“If I find you cooking in this building, I’m going to do everything I can to get you expelled from DHS shelter. There is no cooking in the building,” a staffer warned. “This is a DHS facility. This is not Burger King. You do not have it your way.”
Shelter residents citywide have the right to file complaints and not face retaliation. But the staffer went on to chastise them for trying to do so, anyway.
“Y’all running down, calling the ombudsman, 311, complaining about rights,” the staffer said in English, some of which was translated into Spanish by another employee. “I got complaints today that y’all saying my social worker and my case managers aren’t helping. You don’t have income. You cannot pay rent.”
“You’re making it hard for my staff. You’re not being compliant.”
Both staff and residents of the shelter say they grew increasingly fearful that they might lose their jobs or be thrown out of their rooms at any time if they complained.
The abrasiveness was starkly evident when Mayor Eric Adams tried to equip some GLo residents with cooking appliances, like toasters. His efforts were thwarted at the hotel’s front door.
Last Thanksgiving, he attended an event for asylum-seekers at a Boys and Girls Club in Crown Heights, and photos show him grinning with migrants, who got to take home air fryers and electric grills as well as toasters. A busload of residents from the GLo attended, grateful to receive new kitchen utensils they could install in their rooms.
But when they returned to the hotel, staff at the shelter said they could not enter with the appliances and had to hand them over, according to the office of Councilmember Alexa Aviles (D-Brooklyn), which received complaints about the incident. When one of the migrants later asked a social worker what had happened to their new items, she recalled, the employee turned hostile.
“They’re already in the trash,” she said the woman told her. “What are you gonna do about it?”
Massive Cash Infusion
For decades, the 163rd Street Improvement Council has provided housing support to low-income families and individuals with special needs in the South Bronx. In recent years, the nonprofit reported annual revenues of around $3.5 million and estimated it assisted about 500 families a year, mostly through three facilities to support individuals that it operated in the Bronx. But it had no specific experience operating a family shelter.
That changed as tens of thousands of asylum-seekers arrived in New York City over the past year and city officials scrambled to accommodate them. Last August, the city’s Department of Homeless Services sent out an urgent request seeking emergency contractors to find and operate “sanctuary facilities” for asylum seekers.
“DHS will start to accept proposals immediately,” its notice read. “Proposers are advised to be ready, willing, and able to provide services on a 24-hours’ notice.”
The 163rd Street Improvement Council was one of many nonprofits to tap into the flow of cash. But in the rush, not all of them had sufficient prior experience delivering the type of services they were now offering.
Last October, the Council was awarded its first emergency contract to open up a shelter for up to 77 migrant families at the GLo Hotel. The yearlong contract for $10 million, which included $2.8 million in rent to the hotel operator, was nearly three times as much money as the group had ever managed in a year and in a part of the city where it had never operated.
By early this year the nonprofit had been awarded four more emergency contracts — a massive infusion of more than $26 million from the city to operate three “sanctuary facilities” for migrants, according to records maintained by the city comptroller’s office.
Perry, the nonprofit’s executive director, soon tapped Leary to run the family shelter at the GLo Hotel. Leary was studying for a master’s degree in divinity at the New York Theological Seminary, where Perry was teaching as an adjunct professor. Leary was also a program director at CAMBA, a major social services provider based in Brooklyn. It seemed like a natural fit.
Among Leary’s first hires were his boyfriend, a cousin and his close friends, according to interviews with employees and social media posts. Leary never resigned from his position at CAMBA, a spokesperson for the nonprofit confirmed but did not answer further questions about whether they knew about his second job at the shelter.
It wasn’t long into Leary’s tenure before a 30-year-old woman from Venezuela began noticing how the eyes of one kitchen worker lingered over her lower body as she waited to be served. Dependent on the daily meals that the shelter was contracted to provide residents, she found it hard to avoid him, she said. The staffer’s behavior got increasingly aggressive and soon he began typing crude phrases into a translation app on his phone to communicate with her in Spanish, she recalled.
“He said we were all sluts; that all the women here charged money,’” she said, speaking in Spanish.
A second Venezuelan asylum-seeker told THE CITY that beginning last fall she too, became uncomfortable at the way the kitchen employee stared at her while she was in line to get food. On one occasion he pulled a wad of cash from his pocket, waving it in her direction, the 33-year-old said. “I have more money, you could be better off with me,” he told her through a translation app on his phone.
The implication was clear that he wanted to pay her for sex, she said. When she told him no, it only led to further harassment. “It was always a problem when I went to get the food,” the woman told THE CITY. “I would leave the building in fear, afraid I would see him outside.”
Both women, speaking independently, said the same employee would sometimes barge into their rooms unannounced. All families staying at the hotel were required to sign a roster each night before bed, confirming they were still at the facility. While most employees knocked on their doors to request their signature, the kitchen employee would simply walk in, sometimes even approaching their beds.
“We don’t have keys,” said another current resident from Venezuela, who said she’d heard about the employee walking into people’s rooms, which put everyone on edge. “In other words, you can enter my room whenever you want to.”
A Culture of Threats
Leary frequently lost his temper, both at his own staff and the migrants, according to interviews with a half dozen residents and staff of the shelter, who said he regularly threatened to fire employees and expel residents. Several residents described seeing other families’ belongings stuffed into trash bags by hotel staff and unceremoniously strewn on the sidewalk after they’d requested transfers.
“Mark hired us and we better listen to what he said,” one employee commented. “He would walk around like ‘I will take your job today.’
“Nobody wanted to tell on him because no one wanted to get fired.”
Most of the people who Leary hired didn’t speak Spanish. At so-called “house meetings” held on each floor, the two social services staffers who could interpret between English and Spanish gathered clients to share updates and enforce the shelter’s rules. But often, these sessions would devolve into patronizing lectures, where staff scolded residents for a litany of issues, according to five people who attended some of them.
“They have these meetings where they yell at us like they were our parents,” the 30-year-old asylum-seeker said. “They love to yell at us.”
Many residents stopped attending, finding them useless or humiliating.
By mid-June, the number of migrants in city shelters had ballooned to over 48,700 and city officials had poured out millions in emergency contracts to accommodate them, opening 174 emergency shelters, most of which were managed and operated by private contractors, similar to the situation at GLo Hotel.
Running out of space in hotels, city officials stood up emergency shelters in school gyms and church basements and asked a judge to do away with longstanding minimum standards governing city shelters, a matter that is still pending. Councilmember Shahana Hanif (D-Brooklyn), who chairs the Council’s immigration committee, has been arguing that these facilities need more structure, not less.
“We’ve been trying to bring the administration to our chambers to get answers. They’ve just kept using the line of, ‘We need to be as flexible as possible,’” Hanif said. “But flexibility doesn’t mean that we can’t, at the same time, protect the dignity of people who have traveled miles and miles for sanctuary.”
Learning about the allegations at the GLo from THE CITY, Hanif said she was speechless.
“We are in the dark about who these providers are, and what the standards are to meet the needs of asylum seekers,” she said.
While the contract to run the Sunset Park shelter included a budget of $150,000 for counseling services and about $67,000 for recreation activities, according to a copy of the document obtained from the comptroller’s office, employees and residents said they have not had access to either.
A van that was supposed to shuttle residents to appointments was instead used by the hotel’s director of operations, another friend of Leary’s, to personally commute to and from her job at the GLo Hotel, according to a written complaint and multiple employees. The director did not respond to a request for comment from THE CITY.
One of the several social workers on site became a particular source of anxiety for residents.
“You ask her about your case and she never knows anything. You have to find other means to find help,” another resident said.
“Everyone’s afraid of the social worker,” she added. “Whatever you say, the social worker says we’re liars and gossips.” The social worker did not respond to a request for comment from THE CITY about the allegations.
‘We Thought He Would Be Fired’
At the beginning of the year, a group of women living in the hotel began chatting and soon formed a WhatsApp group to keep in contact. They traded jokes, swapped stories and shared intel about life at the hotel. But the conversation shifted when someone brought up the worker in the kitchen. Several of the women volunteered that they had had unsettling encounters with him.
The more the women shared with each other, the more the pattern became clear. One woman in the chat proposed reporting him to the staff.
Emboldened by hearing each other’s stories, several women spoke up about the harassment during a house meeting in the winter.
The women who said they’d been harassed were called into a series of private meetings with Leary and two other employees. When the 30-year-old asylum-seeker told them what had happened, one staffer told her the shorts she wore around the shelter were too short, she said.
“I told him, ‘I’m not wearing short shorts, they go down to my knees.” After the initial pushback, Leary seemed to understand where she was coming from and she said she felt hopeful.
“The director of the shelter said it wasn’t going to happen again,” she said.
“We thought [the kitchen worker] would be fired,” she said. “A person like that can’t be in a shelter where there are young girls. If he’s doing this to grown women with husbands, what could happen to a younger girl?”
City regulations and the nonprofit’s contract with the Department of Homeless Services required the 163rd Street Improvement Council to investigate any complaints of sexual harassment and report them to relevant city agencies, including the Department of Investigation.
But weeks went by and the employee was still reporting for duty as normal. She started to buy food elsewhere to avoid the kitchen.
But once women raised allegations, word started to spread among both employees and the staff. Two other residents told THE CITY that they learned about the kitchen staffer’s behavior at one of the house meetings. It became gossip among the employees as well. One Venezuelan asylum-seeker said the employee in question was called into one of the meetings to face his accusers.
“They called him in front of us and he said, ‘No, he’d never done that,’” she said. “He asked me, he looked at me and said, ‘Did I ever cross a line with you?’ I said look, ‘Not with me, it’s never happened, but yeah I’ve heard a lot of talk about how you offer women here money so they’ll sleep with you.’”
The lack of recourse felt by residents added to a feeling of powerlessness, the woman said.
“We’re not in our country. It’s difficult. We don’t know the laws,” she said in Spanish. “All these things have happened and we’ve stayed quiet so that we don’t have problems because we don’t know where we’ll end up.”
About a month after residents met with the staffer, Leary approached one of the employees who had inquired about the matter, insisting the allegations were unfounded, she told THE CITY.
“If the client is uncomfortable, she can pack her shit and get out,” she recalled him telling her.
‘It’s Much Calmer’
Despite the ongoing disorder at the Sunset Park shelter, in early June DHS designated the 163rd Street Improvement Council for the emergency contract of $5.81 million now on hold to run a migrant shelter just a few blocks away from the GLo Hotel in Park Slope.
Following an inquiry by THE CITY, Sharma, speaking for the Department of Social Services, said the contract would not be executed while an investigation moves ahead and a potential plan for corrective action is crafted.
According to employees and staff, the accused harasser left this spring and has not been seen at the hotel in about two months.
The 33-year-old Venezuelan woman who was harassed and still lives at the GLo Hotel said things have improved since the worker left, though she spends as little time in the facility as possible, mostly returning late in the evening with her husband after work to sleep.
For staff, though, the situation continued to deteriorate. Leary walked around the hotel saying “he’s gonna fire this person, or how he’s gonna do this or smack the shit out of someone,” recalled one employee, who said she didn’t want to go back to the shelter because she felt unsafe. “It was a lot of outbursts.”
The written complaint earlier this month to Perry, the nonprofit’s executive director, prompted her to visit the shelter the next day. Her urgent email to DHS representatives alerting them to the sexual harassment allegations followed quickly from there.
The 30-year-old resident who said she’d been harassed soon found a safer resting spot for herself and her family. A few weeks ago, she requested a transfer at shelter intake, and returned back to the GLo that evening to find her belongings in garbage bags outside the facility, just as she’d seen happen with other families’ belongings.
It was an adjustment, enrolling her son in a new school just before the end of the academic year, but at their new shelter in Queens, staff and residents are on much more amicable terms.
“Here, it’s much calmer,” she said. “They don’t treat people badly.”
This article was updated on June 28, 2023 with new information about the size and number of contracts awarded to the 163rd Street Improvement Council.