Controversial New York nonprofit faces renewed scrutiny

New York City decided last week to seek an audit of Children's Community Services.

Shelter resident Victoria Petronio

Shelter resident Victoria Petronio Zach Williams

Victoria Petronio didn’t plan to book a stay at midtown Manhattan’s Row NYC hotel. But circumstances pushed her there from a once-happy home in Far Rockaway.

The New York native was doing pretty well a few years ago. Steady work as a waitress allowed her to stay on top of the $2,200 she paid per month to rent an apartment. There was a backyard, three bedrooms, and a sense of relative stability that defined her daily life.

Then came a heart attack and she could not work. Then came another and she could not pay her rent. Then came the eviction notice that forced her away from everything she had been working towards during all of those years waiting tables.

“It sucks when you work all your life and you’re stuck with this place,” she said in a May 23 interview outside the hotel.

Row NYC is one of many hotels housing homeless people on behalf of the city through more than $400 million in contracts with the nonprofit Childrens Community Services. CCS has drawn increased scrutiny in recent weeks after scoring one of the largest social services contracts in the city last year. The New York City Department of Homeless Services decided last week to seek an audit of the organization – following an NYN Media investigation of the nonprofit and its Executive Director Thomas Bransky – a development first reported by the New York Daily News.

[[{"fid":"7114","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"The headquarters of Childrens Community Services","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"The headquarters of Childrens Community Services","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":"The headquarters of Childrens Community Services","style":"height: 240px; width: 320px; float: left;","class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"2"}}]]City councilmembers meanwhile have also expressed an intention to determine whether the five-year-old organization can actually deliver the social services required by its contracts. Tax records show that the nonprofit was struggling financially before landing the mega-contracts, including a $1.8 million loan in 2015 received from an unnamed source.

“We have directed an immediate independent audit of this provider and are scaling back their portfolio to ensure they’re delivering the services our homeless neighbors deserve during the hotel phase-out period,” department spokesman Isaac McGinn said in a May 22 email.

Hotels play a key role in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy to revamp the city’s approach to housing the roughly 60,000 people who depend on the shelter system each day. The use of private apartments to house them – known as “cluster site” shelters – has attracted controversy. By shifting homeless families to hotels the city has a chance to phase out the use of cluster sites, meet its legal obligation to provide emergency shelter and buy time to realize plans for additional homeless shelters throughout the city, according to a spokesman for the Department of Homeless Services.

Auditors are expected to begin work in about a month, according to the department. The nonprofit has also withdrawn from contracts for two additional sites and DHS expects to have new contractors in place in the coming weeks.

Councilman Stephen Levin raised this issue at a budget hearing earlier this month and added in a subsequent interview that he planned to observe the performance of the nonprofit for himself through a visit to one of CCS’ facilities.

“There is a level of services that families going through the system that are placed with a longstanding provider might have access to,” he said. “It’s a new organization. There’s no track record to look back on.”

The Legal Aid Society is also considering legal action against Childrens Community Services on behalf of homeless people staying in hotel shelters managed by CCS, staff attorney Josh Goldfein told NYN Media in a May 23 telephone interview. He declined to offer further details about the possible litigation.

“Where the city has to use hotel rooms and other kinds of placements then they should be working with legitimate not-for-profits that are mission driven and are helping the clients trying to get people back into the community,” he said.

A recent report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer added the Department of Homeless Services to an “Agency Watchlist” for concerns about “rapidly increased spending and insufficient measurable results,” NYN Media reported on May 16.

The city has taken a new approach in the past year by consolidating the operations of hotel shelters under contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars with just two nonprofits, rather than paying for hotel rooms on a daily basis as in years past. One of those organizations is the nearly 50-year-old Acacia Network – and the other is Childrens Community Services.

In the meantime, families in hotels across New York City depend on Childrens Community Services to help them move out of the shelter system.

Bransky could not be reached for comment. A woman who answered the phone at a number listed on the nonprofit’s new website told NYN Media it was not a correct number for CCS.

But every week Victoria Petronio receives a phone call from a case worker from Childrens Community Services, whom she confirmed oversees homeless services in the hotel. That person inquires about whether her son is in school, but there has been no progress made towards securing permanent housing, Petronio said.

From the sidewalk, Row NYC appears much swankier than the typical homeless shelter. Tourists come and go from the lobby and children linger on seats placed outside the bar. But there are different sights to be seen on the fourth floor where Petronio and her 13-year-old son have lived in a hotel room since November.

“It’s like they’re not even there to me, because it’s like they have a housing specialist, but they can’t get us housing.” - Victoria Petronio, a client of Childrens Community Services.

The smell of Marijuana greets them whenever they venture to the seventh floor. Cops are often around to calm disturbances on the fifth and “who knows” about the sixth, she said. The hotel has 28 floors overall, according to its website.

While her floor hasn’t had as many disturbances as others housing homeless families, Petronio said that she still has to check in with hotel staff whenever she comes and goes, because they never give her a key.

“It’s like being in jail,” she said.

A hotel representative declined to comment.

On paper, it might appear that she is putting her life back together. Like many others in the shelter system, she has a caseworker to help her with her affairs, but she said a irony holds her back.

The city can pay thousands of dollars per month to put her up in the hotel overseen by the nonprofit Childrens Community Services, but can only offer $1,268 in monthly rent assistance.

The city’s maximum rate of $270 per night includes the cost of services. Under its current contract with CCS, according to the DHS, the highest amount paid out to date was $230.

Despite all the money spent on her behalf every month, Petronio feels like the services provided by CCS have fallen short of getting her any closer to having permanent housing than she was when she and her son moved into Row NYC around six months ago, she said.

“It’s like they’re not even there to me,” she said. “Because it’s like they have a housing specialist, but they can’t get us housing.”

David Gentile contributed reporting to this article.

A previous version of this article misattributed a statement made by Josh Goldfein, a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society to Councilman Stephen Levin.