Last fall, a Cuomo administration agency signed off on a new shelter on Wards Island to be operated by HELP Social Services, part of a nonprofit founded decades ago by the governor and chaired by his sister, Maria Cuomo Cole.
The Office of Temporary & Disability Assistance had inspected the facility several times before and after it opened on three floors in a state psychiatric hospital. On Oct. 5, the agency certified that the site on the island between Manhattan and Queens was fit to provide safe lodging for single homeless men, records show.
Then cold weather arrived.
Inspections by the Coalition for the Homeless found interior temperatures in two dozen rooms on all three floors of the new shelter hit lows in the high 50s. Men slept with their jackets on. Extra blankets and space heaters arrived, but the chill remained. At one point, some men were moved into city-run shelters.
That wasn’t the only problem for HELP on Wards Island. An investigation by THE CITY discovered that as the state has approved an expansion of HELP’s homeless shelters in the city, multiple woes have plagued the nonprofit’s four Wards Island facilities.
THE CITY’s examination, based on public records, interviews with clients and accounts of inspections of the Wards Island HELP shelters by the Coalition for the Homeless, found:
• Raw sewage flooding a basement, black mold creeping along walls and ceilings, and a summer blackout that stranded a man in an electric wheelchair for hours in the dark. On Memorial Day, inspectors found another man in a wheelchair locked in a bathroom – apparently by shelter staff.
• As of May 24, the three shelters in facilities within city Department of Buildings jurisdiction had 71 building code violations — some dating to 2017. The fourth shelter, Meyers, where the heat outage struck, is in a state building and is not inspected by the city’s Buildings Department. The city
Department of Homeless Services says most of the violations have been addressed, though they’re still in the process of certifying that the repairs are complete and have allocated $10 million for upgrades.
• HELP currently has 33 active contracts with the city dating back as early as 2013 — 20 of which wound up costing more than their original estimated amounts by as much as 80%. While the city contracted for $371.8 million in services, HELP USA has so far been paid $419.5 million.
• Since 2008, Cuomo Cole, her shoe-designer husband, Kenneth Cole, seven other members of HELP’s board and several top employees have written dozens of checks totaling $451,285 to Andrew Cuomo’s campaigns for governor, a review of campaign finance records shows.
Stephen Mott, a HELP spokesperson said, “We are now and have always been a non-political organization. We have never endorsed any candidates for public office, nor have we ever raised money for political purposes.”
Mott added, “HELP USA has been working with the homeless for more than 30 years. We are deeply committed to this work and proud of our record of service to the people of New York City.”
Gov. Cuomo’s office declined to comment. During an interview with Cuomo Thursday on WAMC, host Alan Chartock spoke generally about donors expecting something in return. The governor scoffed at the notion of pay-to-play.
“If anybody ever walked up to me and said, ‘I contributed to your campaign and I therefore want you to do me a favor,’ I would knock that person on their rear-end in a nice, polite, legal way,” Cuomo said. “But look, I think it’s simpler than that. If you can be bought off for a contribution — I don’t care for $10 or $5,000 or $50,000 — you are unethical or you are criminal.”
That would also make you a prostitute, Andrew.
Which is just as unethical as nepotism motivated patronage.