Private security firms at homeless shelters facing 21 lawsuits over alleged violence

Greg Smith

New York Daily News

May 29, 2018

The video is silent but the body language is clear: the security staff at the Pamoja shelter in Bed-Stuy are engaged in a conversation with a 25-year-old homeless man that is headed in a very wrong direction.

A supervisor in white shirt and two security guards in light blue shirts tightly circle Alexander Singh, getting in his face. A burly shelter resident joins in, stepping in between to cool things down.

And then Singh, his slight frame backed against the wall, makes a mistake — and tosses a rolled-up paper ball at the guards.

The possibility of peaceful resolution is over.

A guard throws a lightning punch to Singh's head. The burly resident shoves Singh against the wall and Singh's head bounces off it like a tennis ball. The resident smacks Singh in the head and Singh collapses to the shiny linoleum floor.

The supervisor pushes the resident away but behind his back a security guard winds up and kicks Singh square in the face, then stomps on his prone body.

Singh now lies unmoving as the guard walks away. Yet another shelter resident now jumps in, and just for good measure throws a punch at Singh's body. The guards and the supervisor don't move an inch to stop him.

All of this occurred at 2:40 a.m. Nov. 29 inside a Brooklyn shelter that's 100% funded by city taxpayers. Yet none of these security guards or their supervisor actually work for the city.

Instead they work for a private firm, FJC Security of Long Island. The city did not pick FJC or any of the other private firms currently providing security at shelters across the city. Instead, the city leaves that job up to nonprofit groups it hires to run most of the city's shelters.

Since 2014 when Mayor de Blasio arrived at City Hall, the city Department of Homeless Services has awarded more than $3.1 billion in contracts to these nonprofit groups. As of January there were 89 of these contracts.

At that time, an analysis of the shelter system by state Controller Thomas DiNapoli estimated that the nonprofits running city-funded shelters were spending $78.2 million on security. That included security equipment and staff employed by the nonprofits, but most of it — $46.1 million — went directly to the for-profit security firms.

None of the private security costs are visible to the public. DHS peace officers are in charge of handling security at city-run shelters with oversight by the NYPD. At the shelters run by the nonprofits, DHS oversees security that's handled on-site by the private companies.

And at some shelters, that hasn't worked out so well.

That's because the firms in charge of security at most city-funded shelters, FJC and Sera Security, have in the last three years been accused repeatedly of enabling and in some cases aggravating violence inside city-funded shelters, a Daily News investigation has found.

Since 2015, 18 shelter residents or staff have filed 16 lawsuits against FJC over violent incidents inside shelters; Sera has been sued five times.

Most alarmingly, security staff are named as assailants in some of these suits:

- An FJC guard at the Stockholm Family Shelter in Bushwick, Brooklyn sexually assaulted a female staffer in the facility's fax room, one lawsuit alleges.

- A Sera guard dragged a wheelchair-bound client who'd locked his chair in place outside a shelter in Morrisania, the Bronx, damaging the man's prosthetic legs, a suit charges.

- FJC guards beat a resident of the Barbara S. Kleinman Shelter in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after mistaking him for a man they were chasing, another suit alleges.

- At the Delta Manor shelter in the Bronx where FJC runs security, a suit alleges a client was "struck about the face/head, neck, back, leg and arms by unknown security guards."

The News requested contract information from Controller DiNapoli and found that in January, FJC was collecting $26.6 million, Sera $13 million. FJC says it provides security at 100 city-funded shelters. Sera did not return calls.

In response to the News' questions, DHS spokesman Isaac McGinn said Friday the agency was investigating the incidents referenced in the 21 suits and "will take prompt disciplinary action." The nonprofits are supposed to notify DHS of each lawsuit, and McGinn acknowledged several were not reported as required.

"These allegations don't reflect our values and New Yorkers working hard to get back on their feet deserve better," McGinn said. "NYPD has also met with and will continue to meet with FJC to strengthen their protocols and improve security at the locations where they are deployed."

In an audit earlier this month, Controller DiNapoli charged that gaps in oversight make it impossible for the city to truly account for how all the security money is being spent.

Examining four shelters with the biggest security budgets, DiNapoli found $2.2 million of "insufficiently documented or questionable security expenses" in the last two years.

Sera, for example, got a contract based on its promise to hire six guards per day at its Bronx Park Avenue shelter for a cost of $252,632. Instead, auditors say Sera billed for 10 guards per day, adding an additional $189,073 to the contract for a new total of $441,705 — a 75% spike.

Auditors found FJC won a hefty $824,000 contract that was 16% higher than the lowest bidder. There was no documentation to justify the higher cost, DiNapoli found.

This lack of documentation afflicted Samaritan Village, one of the biggest nonprofits running city shelters, DiNapoli found.

Samaritan — which has won $308 million in contracts from DHS since 2016 — could not account for 4,171 hours out of the 6,560 it billed the city for security at one shelter on Myrtle Ave. in Brooklyn.

Samaritan, like all shelter providers, is required to seek competitive bids for services. In fiscal years 2015 and 2016, Samaritan had no records of bid proposals for $1,071,704 spent on security expenses. Samaritan declined to comment.

"Relying on outside vendors increases the need for strong oversight," DiNapoli told The News. "The agency (DHS) needs to do a better job of making sure it's getting what it paid for with taxpayers' dollars."