Gimme shelter – WITH legal notice

The homeless shelter on St. Peter’s Avenue near Westchester Square where the legal case against the city all began.

It may not move the shelter, but it may move mountains in improving the city’s homeless policy say those who fought the city – and won.

After years of legal wrangling between local concerned citizens fighting the city moving homeless into a Westchester Square apartment building without official notice, a judge finally ruled the city was wrong.

Bronx Supreme Court Judge Geoffrey Wright found the city was required to notify then-city Comptroller Bill Thompson – and now John Liu – of any contracts it entered into with housing or service providers.

The case involved an apartment building on nearby St. Peter’s Avenue in 2009, with the city Department of Homeless Services maintaining it was an emergency measure.

But the judge ruled the move violated a provision in the City Charter that gives the city Comptroller powers of oversight on contracts and money spent by the government.

East Bronx leaders who filed the suit hoped the ruling will mark a change in city homeless policy.

The lawsuit was brought by the Comptroller’s office, joined by plaintiffs Westchester Square Zerega Improvement Organization, Sandi Lusk, John Bonizio and Hannah Acampora against the Department of Homeless Services.

Plaintiff Sandi Lusk of WSZIO believes the decision is a “quantum shift” in changing the city’s homeless policy, more in need of providing rent subsidies to prevent homelessness.

“This is going to cut out that whole back-door, profit motive,” said Lusk. “It may actually lead to cost effective and humane homeless policy. Now everything is going to be out in the open.”

Critics of the program have also charged that greedy landlords try to force out regular, longterm tenants to make lucrative profits from the city.

Bonizio, a local business leader in the Square, said that he got involved in the case but felt that it should have been the city’s own internal mechanisms should have caught what he sees as an error in policy implementation.

“I always knew from the very beginning was that this was completely against the City Charter and the ideal of being fair to the taxpayer in this city,” said Bonizio, adding that he hoped the decision would have a good effect on having the city develop a reasonable homeless policy as opposed to a “knee-jerk” reaction.

Comptroller Liu called the ruling a vindication for his office.

“The practice of cutting backroom deals with shelter operators cannot and should not be tolerated,” he said in a statement. “The administration should have put more effort into planning for housing for the homeless.”

One of the key arguments by the plaintiffs, besides a contract entered into without any oversight, was that documents showed the city paid about three times the rent market rate for lodging and social services for a homeless family.

The judge’s decision drew a sharp rebuke, however, from Andrea Feller, the attorney who represented the city and DHS.

“We strongly disagree with this characterization of an agency dedicated to serving homeless men, women and children in their most critical times,” said Feller. “Providing temporary housing is not only a necessary, but legally mandated, practice in New York City – hardly a covert operation. The City is the safety net for those without a housing alternative, and are weighing an appeal of this decision.”

“I think it is a fantastic decision because it shows that justice can be obtained,” said former state Assemblyman Steve Kaufman, who with his law partner worked on the case for several years until recently.

Kaufman said that when he began the case, he didn’t believe they would win.

“We were vindicated in our argument,” he said, “and the city now has to conform to the rules and regulations set forth.”

Patrick Rocchio can be reach via e-mail at or by phone at (718) 742-3393

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