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Homeless face their own storage wars

City pays the bills, but people must seek the bids

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Posted: Thursday, August 30, 2012 10:30 am | Updated: 11:07 am, Thu Sep 6, 2012.

Two years after the city’s Human Resources Administration vowed to save money by finding a single company to provide storage services for homeless New Yorkers, it continues to force clients to find their own facilities. With the city’s homeless population now at record levels, vying to store their possessions is a booming business.

Enter HRA. Not the city Human Resources Administration, but the Homeless Relocation Authority, a private company that since April has helped newly homeless people relocate their furniture and other belongings to storage facilities. The city pays the bill, which the company says totals between $200 and $500 a month per client.

Any confusion between the two HRAs — the government agency and the upstart storage company — is no accident. Ron Ingrasin, the director of the Homeless Relocation Authority, is a retired supervisor at the city’s welfare agency. Ingrasin said he chose the acronym HRA for the firm “maybe because it would attract people to it.”

The Homeless Relocation Authority office on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx is on the same block as an office of the city HRA, where New Yorkers can apply for food stamps or, as it happens, emergency grants to pay for moving expenses.

The city requires newly homeless people to solicit at least three bids from storage companies, which can be an onerous process for someone in crisis. Ingrasin says his company finds emergency storage within two days, as opposed to the up to five weeks he claims it can take via the Human Resources Administration.

The Homeless Relocation Authority shares its Bronx building with two moving and storage firms, but Ingrasin said that it does not work exclusively with them. He estimated he had taken on 20 clients so far, some found at homeless shelters he visits to spread the word about his services. “I’m in the business of helping people,” he said.

Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society and the city’s leading legal crusader for the homeless, isn’t so sure. He took particular issue with the shared initials of the two HRAs.

“The opportunity for problems to develop when New Yorkers who need emergency help do not know whether the help they are getting is coming from a city agency or a private agency has to be a concern,” he said in a statement.

Ingrasin pointed out the message in small print on the bottom of his company’s website: “Homeless Relocation Authority is not affiliated with the New York City Human Resources Administration or any government agency.”

This disclaimer was nowhere to be found in the brochure and fliers that Ingrasin provided to the New York World as examples of the promotional materials he gives to caseworkers and residents at shelters around the city. The flyers prominently feature an “HRA” logo in bold lettering, and urge shelter residents to safeguard their belongings.

“The excess belongings and any furniture you left in your former residence must be secured into storage now,” the sheet reads. “You must immediately contact Homeless Relocation Authority to make arrangements. This service is part of your benefits and will be provided at no charge.”

A spokesperson for the city’s Human Resources Administration said the agency has “no relationship” with the Homeless Relocation Authority. “If a client needs emergency assistance with storage, they must apply at an HRA job center to see if they are eligible,” the spokesperson said in an email.

The business of helping homeless people store their stuff at city expense isn’t new. A company calling itself Office of Eviction Services has been doing it since 1993. By the time Danielle Capichano found OES online in mid-August, the homeless 24-year-old had spent nearly two months looking for a place to put the possessions from her old Staten Island residence.

“I called 20 different movers all throughout New York City and Staten Island,” she said. She was able to get just two bids from SI companies. The Human Resources Administration said she must have at least three. It’s been a headache, she said: “Hopefully, it will work out.”

Gennovee Yeje, a unit supervisor for OES, said her firm collects the needed bids for people who can’t do it themselves. “We have clients that don’t have minutes on their phones, so we’ll do the legwork for them,” she said. “Or there’s some they don’t have access to a computer, so it depends on the situation.”

Yeje said her office has built relationships with various storage and moving companies over the years. Some of those may be especially close: At various times, OES  has registered business filings and phone numbers at storage facilities in Queens and Brooklyn, as well as an office space in the Bronx.

This also isn’t the first time a private company has pursued business under the guise of city authority. Four years ago, a company called HPD, LLC sold homes and subprime mortagages in east Brooklyn, using a name that could mislead buyers into thinking it was the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

In 2010, following up on its promise to reduce its bill for the services — which topped $8.5 million in 2009 — the city HRA sought bids in an effort to hire just one firm to move and store possessions belonging to the homeless, but it did not ultimately issue a contract.

The agency did not respond to questions about its progress toward issuing a single contract or how much it spent on private storage services last year.   

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