Family besieged by rats reveals shelter system failures

Although the mayor has pledged to discontinue the use of cluster-sites, the number of cluster-site units has grown by ten percent over the last two years. For now, there is nowhere else for homeless families to go.

Alfred Tavarez and his wife Silvana with a photo of their eldest daughter, Alexis.

Number of cluster-sites grows, despite mayor’s assurances to end them

On the night of Oct. 22, Alexis Tavarez, 9, woke up to a rat sinking its teeth into her elbow. She let out a shrill scream that woke her parents and four younger siblings. Alexis was treated at Lincoln Medical Center that evening and returned home, but the rats remain.

In 2011, the Tavarez family was told their stay in a homeless shelter at 260 Brook Ave. would be brief. Four years later, the family is still living in a three-bedroom apartment long fallen into disrepair and besieged with rodents clawing through the plaster. Dozens of calls and complaints have gone unanswered by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), which runs the site through their shelter provider, LCG Community Services.

Alexis’ father, Alfred Tavarez, 29, says he is fighting a losing battle. Despite his repeated efforts to cover the golf ball-sized holes in the walls and at the base of the sheetrock, to install wire mesh behind the stove, and to poison or trap the rats, the problem is worse than ever.

“It’s stressful for us living here,” he said. “My daughter is so scared she don’t want to go to the bathroom. She’s peeing on top of herself because she doesn’t want to get out of bed.”

Each night, Alfred braces for the rodents’ siege. He slides a spare mattress across the kitchen hall and barricades the bedroom door with a dresser drawer. The lights stay lit. Since Alexis was bitten, she has been unable to sleep in the dark. She fears a rat could reemerge from the open hole just a few feet from her bedside.

The creatures lurking in the walls have also affected Walton, 5, the youngest of the family’s three sons. A doctor has suggested that the red spots that have broken out up and down his torso are a reaction to rodent dander.

“DHS is responsible for us,” said Alexis’ pregnant mother, Silvania Cordova, 27. “They put us here. We have no choice but being here. This is not a home for kids.”

The stove and refrigerator no longer work—rats chewed through the wiring. The appliances have been defective for over two years without replacement.

“It’s dangerous right now because the stove is still on,” Alfred said. “When I light it up, it’s got a little flame. I’m trying my best. I gotta try to cook. You can’t buy everything from the street.”

Many of the maladies affecting the Tavarez family are well known to other tenants in the building. Daniel Dreher, 32, has a well-documented record of complaints over the course of his ten years as a resident. His requests that the landlord fix leaky pipes, collapsed ceilings, broken windows, faulty wiring, as well as replace missing intercoms, have gone largely unheeded.

“This building really needs to move everybody out, come in here and gut it out,” he said. “If y’all are gonna fix it up, fix it for real, but trying to do this patchwork on top of the messed up stuff already in here isn’t gonna do any good.”

According to the Department of Buildings’ records, 260 Brook Avenue has not been issued a permit for a work order since November 2011.

The Herald’s repeated calls for comment from the landlord, Sita RAM LLC, were not returned.

The city’s burgeoning homeless population has been a focus for the de Blasio administration since the mayor’s inauguration. As of this Thanksgiving, the shelter population has grown to 57,954, including 12,131 families with children, according to DHS.

Like many homeless families living in the city’s sordid cluster-site system — a network of privately owned residential buildings that provide shelter to homeless families alongside rent-paying tenants — the Tavarez family is stuck with inadequate housing and unable to find assistance.

Many of the cluster-sites DHS operates do not require landlords or shelter providers to enter contractual agreements to repair their facilities. LCG Community Services has done little to maintain the apartment. The landlord has no obligations for maintenance of DHS-operated units.

DHS and LCG Community Services did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

Although the mayor has pledged to discontinue the use of cluster-sites, the number of cluster-site units has grown by 10 percent over the last two years. For now, there is nowhere else for homeless families to go.

“There’s no accountability,” said housing organizer Ryan Hickey of homeless rights organization Picture the Homeless. “The landlords aren’t under contract. And yet there’s still nothing coming out of the de Blasio administration for permanent housing.”

At the mayor’s request, in March 2015, the Department of Investigation issued a report on the use of the City’s homeless shelters which found that “DHS’ failure to enter into written contractual agreements with the majority of shelter providers has compromised DHS’ leverage to ensure that the providers adequately maintain their buildings, repair dangerous conditions, and provide acceptable living conditions.”

The report also found that cluster-sites, in particular, were “the worst maintained, the most poorly monitored, and provide the least adequate social services for families.”

Hickey believes the cluster-site system is exacerbating the affordable housing crisis.

“These buildings used to be, by and large, rent-stabilized apartments,” he said. “A lot of these families could afford that full rent-stabilized rent. If they can’t, they should be subsidized by the massive amounts the city is paying these landlords.”

For now, the Tavarez family remains trapped in a mess of government policy, unregulated housing and overburdened city resources.

“Forget about the stove, forget about the refrigerator, I’m just trying to move out of here,” Alfred Tavarez said. “I want the transfer. We’re still waiting for it.”