National News

Review Finds Crime at New York Hotels Used to Shelter Homeless

Posted January 4, 2018 7:16 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Prostitution, drug use and violence occurred at dozens of hotels that New York City used as shelters for homeless families last year, city investigators found.

One homeless woman told investigators that a stranger tried to recruit her into prostitution, and three months ago, a Bronx man was arrested on federal charges of sex trafficking and prostitution involving two hotels where the city had placed families. Out of 57 hotels the city used to house homeless families with children last year, criminal activity occurred at 34 of them, according to a report released Thursday by the Department of Investigation.

The report comes months after Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his plan to open new homeless shelters to end the use of hotels. As the homeless population has ballooned to about 77,000 people, the city has become more dependent than ever on hotels, spending upward of $575,000 a day on rooms to accommodate about 7,500 homeless people.

The city’s use of hotels has always drawn criticism, mainly because of the high costs and the inconvenience to families forced to live in small quarters with no cooking facilities and no social services that could help them get out of the shelter system. In late 2015, the city stopped placing families with children in hotels on Staten Island because of the hardship on students and their parents who had to board buses as early as 5:30 a.m. to get to school on time in other boroughs.

The use of hotels also gives the city less control over who comes in and out, making them susceptible to crimes committed by regular hotel guests. Hotels turned into cheap studio apartments for mostly formerly homeless people can also be problematic. A few single room occupancy units were notorious for drugs and prostitution, with accusations of residents acting as dealers and workers helping facilitate.

The investigation agency decided to look at illicit activities in hotels currently housing homeless families after receiving a complaint about a Days Inn in the Bronx.

The report did not identify the source of the complaint, but a former employee of the Department of Homeless Services said he went to the investigation agency after his bosses dismissed his concerns. Emails provided to The New York Times show he reported his concerns to supervisors as early as February 2016, at one point describing the hotel as a “brothel.”

“I was subsequently threatened with disciplinary action and it became clear that my job was in jeopardy,” the former employee said in an interview Thursday. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said he feared retaliation.

City officials said the homeless services department investigated the employee’s complaint but found no activity at that time.

The investigation agency went beyond the former employee’s complaint to look at all hotels housing homeless families with children, finding 59 arrests related to prostitution, 34 involving assault and 11 connected to drugs during an eight-month period last year. “Homeless families and children are some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers. All of us have a heightened obligation to protect their safety and well-being,” said Mark Peters, commissioner of the investigation agency, adding later, “The city was not doing sufficient due diligence.”

The agency also looked more closely at a Super 8 hotel in the Bronx because it was owned by the same entity as the Days Inn. The owner did not immediately respond to a call for comment.

At the Days Inn and Super 8, there was a pattern of customers paying cash for rooms and advertisements for escorts on the internet. The agency’s report identified customers only by initials, showing that one customer paid cash for 77 nights at the Days Inn between Jan. 1, 2017, and Sept. 30, 2017. Two others paid cash for 53 days and 52 days at the Super 8 in the same period. “Prostitution promoters typically use all cash transactions at hotels to anonymize their workers and hide their illicit activities,” the report read.

One homeless woman told investigators that she saw lingerie-clad women in the hallway and that a man she did not know had approached her, said he was aware that she was homeless and offered her a job prostituting, according to the report.

After the agency disclosed initial findings to the city in June, the homeless services department moved people out of the hotel. The city began using the hotel again in September 2017 but occupied all rooms. The city also now occupies all rooms at the Super 8.

Last year, the city also instituted a new policy to establish three-year contracts with nonprofits to find hotels and to provide social services to homeless people staying there. The contracts, which have set rates, were intended to stop the sort of haphazard bookings of hotel rooms that depended on availability and were subject to high rates on certain days.

Steven Banks, the city’s commissioner of social services, said in a statement that safety was a “top priority” and that the homeless services department was working with the New York Police Department to look at hotels.