Tuesday, November 12, 2019
Acacia Network's poverty profiteering off the city's homeless population
Annie was already retired when she lost her apartment. With no source of income save for her Social Security work benefits, it wasn’t long before she ended up in the New York City shelter system. That’s where she would learn the name Acacia Network.
Acacia is the largest provider of homeless housing in New York’s metropolitan area, but it is not just a shelter operator. Over the decades, Acacia has built a small empire with connections running up the ladder of city government. It has amassed a web of interconnected nonprofits and for-profits that offer shelter, affordable housing, addiction and medical services, and security. According to the city’s Department of Homeless Services website, Acacia manages “750 individual family units and four buildings for approximately 550 homeless adults.”
Annie, whose name has been changed for this article, has been living in one of these for the last several years. But right away, she knew things were askew—and it wasn’t just that another resident had threatened to murder her. She would soon come to realize that the problem was multi-tiered: a pattern of mismanagement that left the shelter understaffed, undersupplied, and dangerous for its residents.
“No nurse practitioner is ever there to give out the medication. The staff has to give out the medication,” Annie tells Sludge, noting that this leaves residents frequently out of sync with their individual treatment regimens with some dire consequences. Every other day, she sighs, “the ambulance seems to be there for one reason or another.”
Compounding the issue, she says, is a lack of adequate security—something online reviews of the establishment have touched on. One reviewer says they never “felt safe” while living there.
“They’re supposed to have a guard on every floor,” Annie explains. “That rarely happens because people are always calling out. So one guard usually has to do two floors or sometimes three.”
On one occasion, Annie tells us someone at the shelter was hit over the head with a lead pipe smuggled in from a nearby construction site. Another time, she says, someone got hot water thrown on them in the dining room.
There are other issues caused by Acacia not sufficiently treating residents, Annie says. This past summer, she explains, there was a string of toilet backups due to people flushing entire rolls and other objects.
Frustrated, Annie notes that the shelter tends to respond to these incidents in ways that hurt residents. After the hot water attack, for example, management removed hot water for tea and coffee from the dining room altogether. To address the toilet problems, the shelter’s cleaning staff stopped stocking rooms with toilet paper as soon as the facility’s annual “Callahan” inspection—named for the 1981 court case that established the “right to shelter” in New York City—had completed.
“When you need toilet paper you have to go down to the front desk and they give you a wad…and you have to ration,” she laments.
What Annie describes is a complete culture of neglect, which doesn’t square with the large amount of money Acacia rakes in from the city. In the 2019 fiscal year alone (July 2018 through June 2019), it received $259 million in contracts from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), which accounted for 18.5% of the department’s contracts that year. Acacia gets additional funding from the Department of Social Services and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Since the 2011 fiscal year, it has received over $1.1 billion worth of city contracts.
Acacia has seen its funding increase since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office. As luxury condominium developments rose and more of the city’s available housing stock was left empty, de Blasio found himself facing a simultaneous rise in homelessness. In response, he set out to increase the number of homeless shelters in the city. In 2017, he announced a plan, called “Turning the Tide on
Homelessness in New York City,” to close unsafe and expensive cluster-site and hotel shelters and build 90 new shelters over five years.
Acacia and its multiple linked entities have been the biggest beneficiaries. In total, 10 Acacia entities have received roughly $1.17 billion in city funding since 2010.