NEW YORK --As New York City grapples with its homelessness crisis, many of those sleeping on the street have said they'd prefer to be outside than contend with the city's at-times overburdened, dirty and even dangerous shelter system.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has repeatedly acknowledged that the shelter system needed to be improved, revealed a new plan Wednesday to identify and fix problems with the city's sprawling, 500-shelter system.
"For decades, our shelters have not been safe enough or clean enough, and that's just not acceptable," de Blasio said in a statement. "I don't want anyone refusing to come into a homeless shelter because of bad conditions."
The city will increase the number of shelter inspections and establish a rapid repair program. Aides said the new plan would improve upon the work done by the city's Shelter Repair Squad, which has cleared more than 12,000 health and safety violations in the structures since May.
A hotline will also be established to report complaints. The announcement comes a day after de Blasio hired a new deputy mayor who will oversee the Department of Homeless Services and said the city will start phasing out the use of "cluster sites" - apartments rented by the city for homeless families, often at above-market rates - as many of those have also fallen into disrepair.
Approximately 58,000 people are in the shelters, a near record high. An additional 3,000 to 4,000 people are estimated to be living on city streets, and City Hall has stepped up its outreach to them in recent weeks, sending teams of workers to make repeated contact with the homeless in an effort to get them to go to a shelter.
Mayoral aides said the repair program was part of a 90-day review of the Department of Homeless Services ordered by the mayor when the agency's head resigned last month. But it also comes on the same day that Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report warning City Hall about poor conditions in the shelter system.
In a letter to City Hall later released by his office, Stringer said an audit found more than 18,000 health or safety violations - including vermin infestation, busted smoke detectors and peeling lead paint - at the more than 500 shelters. Reports of violent incidents against shelter staff and residents have also increased.
The contents of Stringer's letter were first reported by The New York Daily News.
As winter temperatures finally reached the Northeast, the city's homelessness crisis has engulfed City Hall and dominated local headlines. It has also become the latest front in the ongoing feud between de Blasio and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who issued an executive order this week requiring that all homeless people be pulled off the street, even involuntarily, if the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 Celsius).
City officials said they would not abide by that requirement and the governor's office later clarified that only homeless people who were in imminent danger or displayed signs of mental illness should be forcibly removed from the street.