Court sides with Square over shelter

The latest twist in an ongoing legal fight over a homeless shelter on St. Peter’s Avenue could mean closure for the shelter.

In January 2010, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Geoffrey Wright stated that the city Department of Homeless Services had not violated any procedures by placing homeless housing at 1564 St. Peter’s Avenue without prior community notification.

Wright has now reversed that decision, ruling that a case filed by the merchants and residents of Westchester Square can proceed.

Wright reversed his decision after learning that an investigation by former Comptroller William Thompson showed the DHS did plan to establish a long-term contract with the service provider, Basic Housing.

Originally, the DHS was permitted to open the housing under the assumption that it was an emergency, temporary situation.

Because they claimed an emergency situation, DHS had been excused from providing prior notification to Community Board 10 or doing a “fair share analysis.”

“Since the issuance of my January 2010 decision, facts have now changed significantly,” Wright stated in his opinion. “The Department of Homeless Services has entered into the very same type of agreement that it argued was not existing when the case began.”

Wright strongly suspects it was DHS’s intention from the beginning to establish a long-term lease for housing homeless families, possibly rendering DHS’s claim of an emergency a “sham” and “disgrace.”

His decision will allow for further evidence-gathering and a second hearing.

The city has been paying about $110 per family a day since August 2009 to house 38 homeless families in the apartment building.

According to attorney Stephen Kaufman, who represents the plaintiff, including merchant leader John Bonizio and members of the Westchester Square Zerega Improvement Organization, the city and community members will now have to sort out what to do next.

He called the reversal a “jolt” and praised the judge’s decision.

“It is clear that this judge paid attention and followed the letter of the law,” Kaufman said. “Now that the city has entered into a long-term lease, which they always intended to do, they have to ULURP it.”

Kaufman was referring to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure that would have CB 10 and the Department of city Planning review the decision to place the facility on St. Peter’s Avenue.

In addition, the city Planning Commission and the City Council would have a say in whether this is an appropriate location for homeless housing. Kaufman had high praise for John Bonizio and all the plaintiffs, who he said stuck to their guns by pushing this lawsuit forward.

“I always felt that the judge’s original decision was based on an unclear understanding of DHS’s maneuvering,” Bonizio said. “I think he recognized that what DHS did was inconsistent with their charter mandate. The comptroller’s office saw that and joined our side.”

“We respectfully believe that the court misunderstood our position,” said city Law Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Thomas, who is working to keep the shelter up and running.

“We advised the court that we intended to proceed towards a formal contract. The issue before the court was whether we could utilize the services immediately before completing the full procurement process. As a matter of fact, the Comptroller has registered the contract. We will be making an appropriate application to the Court to clarify the matter.”

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