Shelter operator with $1.84B in city contracts sued for anti-gay discrimination

The Cooper Rapid Rehousing Center in Glendale, Queens, Jan. 2, 2024.
The Cooper Rapid Rehousing Center in Glendale, Queens, Jan. 2, 2024.
Alex Krales/THE CITY

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A former resident at a homeless shelter in Queens is suing the site’s operator for anti-gay discrimination, claiming staff there repeatedly used “denigrating” language about his sexual orientation and failed to address his complaints about homophobic incidents as required by city policy.

In the lawsuit, 28-year-old plaintiff Isaiah Morris alleges that workers at Cooper Rapid Rehousing Center, in Glendale, “intentionally and maliciously discriminated against [him] by subjecting him to hateful, homophobic slurs” and “by failing to take appropriate steps to protect him” against harassment and threats that targeted his sexual orientation — leading to several instances of physical attacks by residents who “berated” him with anti-gay slurs.

The shelter is run by WestHab, a Westchester-based nonprofit that currently operates at least 18 other active homeless shelters in the city under DHS contracts, totaling about $1.84 billion, according to city records.

The City of New York and its Department of Homeless Services, which in 2020 issued Westhab a $78 million, 5-year contract to operate the shelter for 200 single men, are also named as defendants in the lawsuit, which was filed in November.

Westhab did not respond to THE CITY’s questions or request for comment.

Discrimination targeting LGBTQ residents in city shelters has been an “ongoing issue for years,” said Kate Barnhart, executive director of New Alternatives, a nonprofit that helps place LGBTQ+ youth and young adults up to the age of 30 in city shelters.

A policy directive for shelters from the city Department of Social Services, which oversees DHS, also notes that “LGBTQI people may be subject to increased harassment, bullying, or violence,” and instructs that “all incidents involving LGBTQI shelter residents should be documented and addressed appropriately” because they are often “not recorded accurately.”

DSS spokesperson Neha Sharma declined to comment on the claims, citing the ongoing litigation. The department also did not respond to THE CITY’s inquiry about the number of complaints related to anti-LGBTQ harassment in shelters.

The NYC Commission on Human Rights, on the other hand, received nine allegations of discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodations and another 26 in housing settings in fiscal year 2023. Spokesperson Claire Gross said the commission cannot specify how many of those alleged incidents occurred in DHS shelters.

While official counts of complaints are “diluted” and undercounted because they are reported to different state and city agencies if they are reported at all, said Barnhart, roughly 70% of her clients in DHS shelters — including those at the city’s only shelter dedicated to LGBTQ residents, Marsha’s House — report that they have experienced anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

“We frequently hear from clients about dealing with anti-trans and anti-gay experiences, particularly from security staff and support staff in general,” Barnhart told THE CITY. “And then there’s also the issue of staff not intervening when people are being targeted by peers.”

One person who did intervene in Morris’ case was local Councilmember Bob Holden (D-Queens), who helped facilitate Morris’ transfer to another DHS shelter upon learning about his experience in 2022, when Morris spoke anonymously with CBS.

“WestHab’s horrible track record shows they can’t run a hot dog stand, let alone operate homeless shelters,” Holden told THE CITY, while again calling for the shelter to be shut down. “The abuse that vulnerable residents suffer due to the failures of WestHab is unacceptable.”

Holden has been one of the most vocal opponents of the shelter since before he was elected, and sought to stop the Glendale shelter from opening in 2015 when the city announced the site would be a transitional facility that helps residents cultivate financial independence and obtain permanent housing.

“It took an elected coming in to actually do what they should have done themselves,” Anne Stephenson, a senior staff attorney at Legal Services NYC representing Morris, said, referring to the shelter staff.

“It seems like there was more than neglect. It just seems like indifference towards what was happening to him.”

‘A Long-Running Nightmare’

Morris moved to New York City from Texas a little more than two years ago to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a professional actor while working service jobs, he told THE CITY. He resorted to the shelter system in October 2021, he said, after a fallout with a family member who was offering support and a subsequent living accommodation that did not work out.

“To be honest, I was like, ‘Thank God I have a roof over my head,’” Morris said of his first impression of Cooper Rapid Rehousing Center.

But a series of homophobic harassment soon ensued, in what the lawsuit called “a long-running nightmare.”

Fellow residents threatened to choke him to death for being gay, physically attacked him while calling him homophobic slurs, and pulled up his shower curtain in the bathroom to expose themselves and make sexual advances, Morris said.

“Even the shelter staff was also using homophobic slurs. Like, they would even go out of the way and be like, ‘You faggot ass bitch,’” he told THE CITY. “They knew what was going on, but I don’t think they cared enough.”

One guard whom he asked for help from told him that other men in the shelter would “know what to do with you,” the suit alleges.

The 2017 DSS policy directive instructs shelter staff to “take action immediately and document such action in relevant case notes” when they observe harrasment of LGBTQ residents. It also requires the operator or staff of a shelter provide notification to DSS or DHS of any LGBTQ harassment complaints from residents.

But, according to the complaint, shelter staff at Cooper “routinely ignored residents’ homophobic harassment” and Morris’ “requests for protection,” and “took no action in response” to his complaints about unwanted sexual advances and threats of sexual assault or violence from other residents.

Staff also did not act to stop or discourage those interactions even when they witnessed the incidents first-hand, the lawsuit alleges.

In these circumstances, Barnhart said, there’s generally “very little” recourse for residents experiencing anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

“People could theoretically go to the shelter directors,” she added. “But the shelter directors vary a great deal in both their availability and also in their own attitude towards LGBTQ issues.”

‘No Safe Space’

While Morris had made multiple attempts to schedule a meeting with Julio de Jesus, Cooper’s director at the time, about the treatment he was receiving, de Jesus refused to meet with Morris alone in his office and said he was uncomfortable doing so because Morris is gay, according to the complaint.

When they met in the cafeteria, the director told Morris his “lifestyle” was not accepted in de Jesus’ culture and that his own brother had been shot in the face and killed because he was gay, the complaint alleges.

De Jesus could not be reached for comment about Morris’ account. A phone operator at Cooper said “that person is not for this facility.”

“All told, Mr. Morris complained to at least eight staff members at Cooper about the homophobic harassment and threats of violence from staff and residents,” the lawsuit reads. “To his knowledge, no investigation was ever initiated, no one ever questioned Mr. Morris about the events complained of, and no remedial or preventive action was taken.”

That kind of inaction, Barnhart argued, is the reason most DHS residents she’s worked with have been hesitant to report or escalate discriminatory incidents.

“It’s just sort of feeling like this is not an issue that people in the DHS system care about, and it’s not an issue that they’re likely to handle in a productive manner,” Barnhart said.

Morris, for his part, told THE CITY he had been looking for a way out of Cooper tirelessly over his months living there, and that he had called 311 “over a hundred times” looking for advice on how to report his experience to no avail.

“I remember there was one point that I was crying” to a 311 operator, Morris said. “And she was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to connect you to the suicide hotline’ — and that was it. That was all. So going through the whole process, from then until now, I don’t have a community, there is no safe space. Nobody really wants to talk about what is actually happening. “

Even after Morris left Cooper and moved onto shelters elsewhere in the city in the fall of 2022, he said that incidents of discrimination followed.

“I’ve experienced homophobia at every shelter I was at.” said Morris, who lived in three other DHS-run shelters after Cooper before ultimately winning a housing lottery for an Upper West Side apartment in September.

“Nothing was done. Like nothing at all.”

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