On March 25, New York Post reported that a boardmember of the Bronx-based homeless advocacy organization, Picture the Homeless, gave a group of people instructions on how to break into and squat in vacant New York City buildings. Days later, the Post reported that City Council’s General Counsel had sent a letter to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, asking them to put a hold on the group’s public funding until an investigation could be completed.
MetroFocus has obtained a copy of that letter (see document, below), and Picture the Homeless says its unpaid boardmember did not advocate for illegal activity, and didn’t give his lesson where the Post’s story says he did.
The first Post story reported that formerly homeless boardmember, Andres Perez, taught a group of about 20 people, who were gathered in front of the half-empty Arlington Village complex in East New York, how to break into city buildings, turn on utilities and get the courts to let them live there. “You make sure you have your proper tools. You remove the chains and padlock, and then you go in,” Perez was quoted as “advising” the group of people in the Post‘s story.
But Picture the Homeless has a different story.
“Andres made it clear he was speaking from personal experience,” said Kendall Jackman, a staff housing and campaign coordinator for Picture the Homeless, who told MetroFocus she was at the event, which took place on March 15. “He [Perez] was homeless, but now has housing with his son, and he made it clear that he was just talking about what he’d been through. He didn’t condone it and the gentleman [reporter] knew he didn’t,” added Jackman.
Picture the Homeless’ executive director, Lynn Lewis, who was not at the event, claimed there were other things taken out of context in the story, and that the reporter did not identify himself or ask questions until a week after the event.
“We had four teach-ins going on during that action. It was during a sleep-in in front of Councilmember Eric Dilan‘s office,” said Lewis. “We did this action in conjunction with Occupy Wall Street and Andres was doing a teach-in about what he knows from back in the day, as he says, about how kids would enter and live in vacant spaces in the Bronx.”
The Post‘s story and accompanying photograph imply that Perez was speaking directly in front of, and about entering, the partially vacant Arlington Village housing complex. The reporter quoted neighbors who claimed prostitutes and drug addicts had long been a nuisance in the building’s empty rooms. But Lewis says Perez was actually in another location, closer to Dilan’s office, and did not mention Arlington Village in his lesson.
“It was miscontrued where he was. The Post made it sounds like he was right in front of a complex full of vacant apartments, which he wasn’t,” said Lewis.
Earlier this year, Picture the Homeless released a report detailing where the city’s 2,489 vacant lots and 3,551 buildings are located. Their report said the vacant space could house nearly 200,000 homeless people, at a time when the city has spent $3 billion in the last four years on the overcrowded shelter system. Lewis said the action where Perez spoke was meant to pressure Dilan to move forward with a bill, co-sponsored by 29 members of City Council, that would require the city to continue tracking vacant property.
The accuracy of the Post‘s story is now a more serious issue, because on March 30, City Council’s General Counsel sent a letter to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, requesting the agency freeze the grassroots organization’s funding until an investigation is completed, which spokespersons for both City Council and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development confirmed to MetroFocus.
Picture the Homeless has a cost reimbursal contract with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. What that means is that the agency allocates City Council Housing Preservation Initiative funds to Picture the Homeless for means specified in the contract — related to preserving and promoting affordable housing in neighborhoods with high rates of homelessness. After Picture the Homeless has spent the money, they turn over vouchers to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. If the vouchers are approved, Picture the Homeless can access the funds. Picture the Homeless has received $240,000 of these funds since 2008, and while they haven’t submitted their vouchers for this year, it’s yet to be determined whether they will be able to access the funds for which they’ve been approved.
“So far they have had this contract since fiscal year 2008. This contract is for the year 2012, and it’s for $50,000,” Eric Bederman, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development told MetroFocus.
According to Gideon Oliver, president of the New York City branch of the National Lawyer’s Guild, who represents Picture the Homeless, the City Council funds make up 10 percent of the group’s total funds.
So when they’re not “giving a crash course on squatting,” in the Post‘s words, Picture the Homeless’ funding allows them to do things like create their vacancy report, advocate for city agencies to notify the families of deceased homeless people and give dignity to the dead, offer free computer and writing classes, help homeless people create job resumes and give instruction on hygiene and diet. They also run campaigns related to policy issues that affect homeless people, like the NYPD’s stop and frisk techniques, and the defunding of the Advantage rental assistance program last year, which helped keep 15,000 homeless people out of shelters.
On March 29, Picture the Homeless members held a press conference in front of the Post‘s offices to condemn the story.
“Our perspective as community organizers is that folks affected by problems need to be part of creating solutions to those problems,” said Lewis. “But we’ve been really clear from the beginning that we have be careful about how we say things so that are words aren’t twisted,” she added.
The question is, did Picture the Homeless use public funds for something outside the scope of their contract with the city?
According to Oliver and Lewis, before the General Counsel’s letter went out to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Lewis received calls from both the General Counsel and the department demanding Picture the Homeless turn over its records related to the contract. Oliver said the records were turned in on Tuesday, and now the Department of Housing Preservation and Development will look over the records to determine whether they’re in order. After that, the General Counsel will do the same.
“Certainly City Council has an obligation to make sure taxpayer money is not used for illegal purposes,” said Oliver. “But this was based on a New York Post story, which contained inaccurate and misleading statements.”
While Lewis said she was happy to turn over the records, she’s troubled that she did not receive the letter about the funding hold, and had to obtain a copy of it through the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
“Our main concern is really who leaked this letter to the Post. It’s not addressed to us and its cc’d to New York City law department. That could mean there are political motivations involved,” said Lewis.
A copy of the letter sent to The Department of Housing Preservation and Development by the Office of the General Counsel is attached below. MetroFocus obtained it through the National Lawyer’s Guild.