Earlier this month, four homeless men were killed in Chinatown, and one was critically injured. The situation reveals the dangers of living on the street and is emblematic of New York City’s housing crisis as well. However, it also poses the question of why these individuals were not in homeless shelters. A friend of Chuen Kwok, one of the men killed in the attacks, said Kwok avoided homeless shelters because he found that the streets were safer than the facilities. Kwok’s situation should be a catalyst for a serious conversation on the safety of homeless shelters in New York City, and the complicity of both the Department of Homeless Services and the New York Police Department in this problem.
The NYPD’s oversight of homeless shelters began in 2017, in response to a series of shelter murders in the winter of 2016. Since then, DHS officers have been retrained by police to handle problems like domestic abuse and weapons in shelters. The DHS and NYPD have claimed that with these major changes, homeless shelters are safer and better-maintained. However, numerous cases show that there is still a high level of violence and abuse in these facilities. One example is in the murder of Enilies Calix, who was stabbed by the father of her children in the Help Morris Community Shelter. Another is the rape of a 14-year-old girl in a Brooklyn shelter. Both of these cases show the extreme dangers women face in these facilities. They are also indicative of shortcomings in the NYPD’s training, as well as the DHS’ inability to effectively keep facilities free of violent crime.
The notion that these facilities are safer after NYPD oversight is also unfounded, as both the DHS and the NYPD have been found to downplay the amount of violence in homeless shelters. A whistleblowing report from Daniel Kennedy, a former DHS employee, indicated that he was forced by his bosses to cover up incidents of violence to make facilities seem safer than they are. Kennedy also wrote that many critical incidents in the shelter went unreported in order to protect the department from lawsuits. Additionally, in 2016, Mayor de Blasio’s administration made crucial changes to what defines critical incidents. The change limited these incidents to those that involve a visible injury or a weapon. Both the whistleblower report and the change in definition show there are serious issues regarding security at facilities, as well as a hidden pursuit to cover up corruption in the DHS.
The appalling conditions of New York’s homeless shelters are directly connected to both the ineffectiveness of the DHS and the inefficiencies of the NYPD’s training. The murders in Chinatown also show that there is a link between these conditions and homeless people being left on the streets.
The city’s homeless population must not be ignored, and their living conditions must be secured. Ensuring safe environments for people in homeless shelters must become a priority for both the DHS and the NYPD. This is crucial to the larger goal of eliminating homelessness and is important in making sure that tragedies like the Chinatown murders don’t happen again.
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