New York City shelter apologizes after trashing hospitalized homeless man's belongings

BROOKLYN, New York City (WABC) -- The New York City Department of Homeless Services is apologizing after a 7 On Your Side Investigation revealed employees at a Brooklyn homeless shelter had trashed the belongings of a resident who was temporarily hospitalized.

An ambulance rushed Samuel Willis to the hospital from the Red Lion Shelter on Butler Street, where he was staying, just before midnight on November 11.

"I almost didn't make it," Willis said. "My left side was hurting so bad I couldn't breathe."

Willis spent nearly two weeks at New York Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital recovering from a serious case of MRSA, a potentially deadly bacterial infection.

When he returned to the Red Lion Shelter, employees told Willis he was being transferred to a new shelter in Queens.

"I asked about my belongings, and they said you can come to pick them up later," Willis said.

Willis said when he called about his stuff the next day and later came in person to retrieve his belongings, shelter employees told him his stuff had been thrown out.

"I said, 'That's everything I own,'" he said. "Everything I own, tossed out like you are a nobody. And they just shrugged their shoulders."

The items Willis lost included shoes and warm clothes, a special dress shirt, dentures, contacts, medication, a birth certificate, his Social Security card, mementos from his time as a martial arts fighter, and two black belt certificates.

Willis said he was most disappointed to lose the certificates.

"I'm never going to get it back," he said, fighting back tears. "It's my proof of what I have done in my life, and I am never going to get it back. I'm sorry I'm upset about it, but it hurts. I worked hard to earn them."

7 On Your Side Investigates visited the shelter and found some of his items still in the dumpster, among them a graduation certification from the US Marine Corps and a few shirts. However, most of his belongings were gone.

A New York City Department of Homeless Services spokesperson admitted the mistake.

It's standard practice for a shelter to store a resident's belongings for at least seven days when they disappear. But in cases like this, where a resident seeks medical care, personal items should not be discarded.

"Our shelter staff are trained to work with clients to store items as needed, especially if emergencies arise," a DHS spokesperson wrote in a statement. "We've reiterated to the provider that this was unacceptable, and that Mr. Willis's belongings should not have been discarded. We sincerely apologize for this misunderstanding and are working quickly to compensate him and regain items lost."

The Red Lion Shelter is run by CORE Services Group, a non-profit based in Brooklyn that offers housing and other services to the homeless. Spokesperson Lupe Todd-Medina apologized and explained that a miscommunication had caused staff to throw out Willis' stuff.

According to her, staff believed doctors had discharged Willis from the hospital after just two days, which was not correct. He had remained hospitalized for nearly two weeks and immediately returned to the shelter once doctors discharged him.

"We have apologized to Mr. Willis for our part in this terrible situation. Mr. Willis has been in conversations with top executives at CORE on a reimbursement plan," she wrote. "Further, CORE is actively assisting Mr. Willis in the process of obtaining any identification or necessary papers needed to aid in his transition to stability."

Todd-Medina also mentioned that staff members would receive additional training about proper procedures and courtesies for individuals seeking shelter care at CORE facilities.

"Thank you so much," Willis said. "I want to express my gratitude to Channel 7. I really believe if it was just me alone they wouldn't have done anything. They need to care more for the homeless."

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