A Broken System for Housing the HomelessThe Daily
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- 11 Feb 2021
This episode contains descriptions of sexual violence. Victor Rivera has framed his life story as one of redemption and salvation. Escaping homelessness and drug addiction, he founded the Bronx Parent Housing Network, one of the largest nonprofits operating homeless shelters in New York City.But that’s not the whole story. A Times investigation has found a pattern of allegations of sexual abuse and financial misconduct against him during his career.We look at the accusations against Mr. Rivera and ask what lessons can be learned.Guest: Amy Julia Harris, an investigative reporter on The New York Times’s Metro desk. For an exclusive look at how the biggest stories on our show come together, subscribe to our newsletter. You can read the latest edition here.Background reading: Victor Rivera gained power and profit as New York’s homeless crisis worsened.After the Times investigation, Mr. Rivera was fired and now faces a criminal inquiry.For more information on today’s episode, visit nytimes.com/thedaily. Transcripts of each episode will be made available by the next workday.
From New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. As cities across the country struggle with a crisis of homelessness and as New York's crisis threatens to grow because of the economic fallout from the pandemic, the city has made a two billion dollar a year commitment to ensuring that everybody has a place to stay.
Today, my colleague, Amy Julia Harris on how a system meant to help the most vulnerable people in New York has been left open to exploitation and abuse.
It's Thursday, February 11th. So, Amy, Julia, how did you first get involved in this story in July 2019? I received an anonymous tip that was sent to The New York Times that basically said you should look into this guy named Victor Rivera, who operates a network of homeless shelters and look into the way that he treats women and spends money. So he's a little bit of a vague tip. And that piqued my interest. And I wanted to learn more.
Mm hmm. And who did you turn out to be? So he is the head of a nonprofit called the Bronx Parent Housing Network, which is one of the largest nonprofits that operates homeless shelters in New York City. The group has received two hundred and seventy four million dollars from the city since twenty seventeen. It's a lot of money. Yeah. So it's a ton a ton of money. And that enormous success is built in part on Fichter Rivera's own personal, inspiring back story.
Victor, thank you so much for joining us today. Wow. It is really a pleasure and an honor to be sitting here with.
Victor Rivera talked about his life story on this housing podcast called Realty Speak.
Where do you want to start? Why don't we go back to the beginning? You know, the beginning started in 1965 at just the tender age of five years old. I'm from one hundred thirty eight Brook Avenue.
As many people know that in the 60s and 70s, a hundred and thirty eight to ten Brook Avenue to the heart of the South Bronx was probably the most intimidating drug then in the country.
And he said that he grew up in a poor neighborhood in the South Bronx and nine years old.
The building where I used to live in 1713, Taylor became condemned and my mother had to move into a shelter and lived in a homeless shelter for a while in the 60s and 70s.
And what was that like? Was the environment there scary? Why was it scary? You know, there was prostitution, nothing of an environment where a child should be raised and his mom was a single mother and he said he grew up in an environment where drugs were very common.
As a kid, he was selling drugs.
I would never glamorize that lifestyle.
But at that time, that's all I knew and said he ultimately became addicted to crack cocaine himself and became homeless, was arrested on a drug charge, went to jail and served a stint in state prison. And when he got out, he said he vowed to change his life.
September 1st, 1990. I want thirty four. In the afternoon, I stood in the window of a crack house and I challenged the God of my understanding who I called Jesus Christ. And I told him that I could not stop getting high and that if he was the God that my mother said that he was, that he would take away my desire to ever get high again. Until today of today.
He kept that promise with me and became very involved with God and his church, which is how he started the Bronx parent housing network with a few other people from his church in 2000.
What I want to tell people is that there is hope and you have to have love and compassion for people and not judgment.
So he said that he's he's really dedicated his life to helping people who were in a similar situation that he had been in growing up.
There's only hope when you believe and you give someone love and an opportunity. Thank you so much, Bill. It's been an honor to sit here, which is a beautiful message.
Amazing story. Thank you so much for being here today. And we'll see you next time.
Until then. That is a very compelling story, a story of salvation and redemption.
Yeah, it was a very compelling story. And a lot of the people that I talked to said that that really drew them in and struck them. But in the course of my investigation, I found out that that wasn't the entire story.
There was this very robust network of of former employees who knew all about Victor Rivera and, you know, from the very beginning kind of told me he's not who you think he is.
They kept on hitting on the same theme, which was that Victor Rivera had a problem when it came to women.
A number of employees told me that Victor Rivera was kind of like the Harvey Weinstein of the homeless shelter system and said that he used his position of power to prey on homeless women who were staying in his shelters.
So I I spent months tracking down several women who I had heard had to contend with inappropriate comments or sexual harassment or even worse.
And eventually, through a lot of on the ground reporting and phone calls, I found a woman named Erica Sklar.
And what to Erica Cartwell, you, Erica told me that she was about 40 years old when she became homeless, after she had gotten out of an abusive relationship and needed a new place to stay. And that's when she entered a Bronx parent housing network shelter in twenty twelve. And that's when she met Victor Rivera. She said Victor told her about how he used to be homeless and had kind of turned around his life and had this inspiring life story. And she was very struck by that.
And she said that instantly put her at ease and she felt very comfortable around him. So they remained in touch for the next couple of months until one day Victor Rivera told her, hey, I've got a solution for you. You can move into my home. They live there with my wife. Do you want to move in? And Erika said that at this point, she kind of jumped at that opportunity because she was looking to eventually get out of the shelter system, their time limits for how long you can stay in temporary housing.
And it's really hard to find affordable permanent housing in New York City. So she thought she was really lucky. And this seems like a great solution. And she trusted Victor Rivera. So so she moved in in twenty thirteen and she said she had a beautiful apartment on the third floor.
But the problem sort of started with Victor Rivera, whose tone she said shifted significantly towards her.
She said that he became very flirtatious and started making inappropriate comments about the way that she looked. He would start changing her or trying to lift up her shirt, she said, make comments about how she was very curvy and he liked larger women. She said that she was very taken aback by this, but was trying to laugh it off and downplay it and just kind of hoped it wouldn't continue up until one night in in December. Twenty sixteen, where she told me that something pretty graphic happened.
She was in her apartment, she was by herself, and her microwave broke and started smoking, so she asked Rivera to come upstairs and help her fix it. And she said once he came in, he said he wanted to see a leak in her bedroom. So she was very apprehensive at this point, she said, but it sounded plausible. So she went into her bedroom with Victor Rivera. And at that point she said that he turned off the lights and shoved her against a wall and began kissing her.
And he asked her if she liked living in his home and then demanded that she give him oral sex. And she told me at this point she was crying, that she was wondering if she could fight him off or what she should do, and she sort of made the split second decision that if she didn't want to be homeless and wanted to keep her housing, she would just go along with this. So she said then she did it and she described it to me as a sexual assault.
She said that she had never felt so dirty or disgusted and said it was just a horrible bargain that she made. After that, she said that she was so traumatized and terrified of what had happened and of Victor Rivera that she slept with a knife under her pillow and propped a chair against her door. Well, she said she rarely left her room and just lived in perpetual fear that he was going to barge in and try to do this again.
Right. And of course, he lives right downstairs. Right? He lived right downstairs. And she said that he always knew when she was by herself. So it was just a constant threat hanging over her of having to to maybe be subjected to abuse again. And in the next couple of weeks, she said that's exactly what happened, that Victor Rivera would come up to her room and continue to pressure her for sex. He demanded that she sleep with him, but she said this time she told him that she was going to do it and that he was married and had a wife.
And how could you do that? And she refused. And then in retaliation, she said that he said that he was going to evict her and ultimately moved her out of her her nice apartment on the third floor into a ground floor apartment in a unit that was full of mold. And she thinks that was in retaliation for not sleeping with him.
Mm hmm. How many cases like this did you find in your reporting? I found that Erica was not the only person. There were 10 women who had complained that Victor Rivera had sexually assaulted or harassed them in the last decade. Five women were homeless at the time. One of the first incidents I heard of was in 2010 of a young mother had entered a Bronx parent housing network shelter and said that Victor Rivera had propositioned her for sex. She was incredibly perturbed by what had happened, but was scared of losing her housing.
So aside from telling her caseworkers, she didn't complain or really escalate that and just tried to keep your distance from Victor Rivera. There were other women who also complained of similar patterns of behavior that Victor Rivera would kind of sidle up to them in the homeless shelters, look them up and down and ask them if they they wanted to hang out and would promise them favors, like upgrading their rooms and the shelter, promising them that he could help them secure permanent housing.
So housing was always kind of a leverage for sex, is what they had told me.
And did any of these women say that they had reported these incidents? I could see why they might not, given the power that he held over them. Literally, he holds the roof over their heads.
There was one woman who did complain to the City Department of Social Services, which oversees homeless shelters in New York City, telling them about Mr. Rivera's sexual harassment. But the complaint didn't really go anywhere. The city instead just referred her harassment complaint back to the Bronx parent housing network, where it was reported to Mr. Rivera himself. And all of the staff members who were tasked with investigating this ultimately reported to Victor Rivera. So, Marta, the client who had complained, told me that nothing really happened and it was just dismissed.
So she just focused on getting out of the shelter. And there were also two employees who had complained of sexual harassment and assault. There was one woman who said that Victor Rivera had forced her to perform oral sex in a homeless shelter. She reported this to the police and soon after she received a forty five thousand dollar settlement agreement that included a nondisclosure agreement that barred her from talking about this publicly. And then soon after, there was another employee who also said that Victor Rivera had groped her and harassed her, who also complained to a state agency.
She received one hundred and thirty thousand dollar settlement agreement as well. That would stop her from speaking publicly.
So basically, Victor Rivera is allowed to continue to operate this system of shelters without any real accountability or punishment. That's right.
In fact, he just gained even more power and prominence and city funding, and that sort of led me to wonder if there was not a larger problem with New York City's entire homeless shelter system.
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So, Julia, you said that as you were reporting on Victor Rivera, you started to wonder if the shelter system itself was part of the problem here. So what do we need to know about that system?
So the thing you have to understand is that New York City is very unique in the way that it approaches shelter. And that's because of a court case from the 1970s that established that homeless people have a legal right to shelter. So if you're homeless and need a bed in New York City, a city is required to housed you in temporary housing and shelters. There's a reason in New York City you don't see massive tent encampments that you would see in places like San Francisco or Los Angeles because people often go into the shelter system.
So as a result, New York City spends more than two billion dollars a year to house homeless people. And now there are a record seventy eight thousand homeless people in New York City. So the shelter system has really ballooned. Right, so that legal right means that the city needs a massive shelter network. That's right. And it relies predominantly on about 70 nonprofit groups to actually operate the shelters. And the Bronx Parent Housing Network is one of the largest of those nonprofit groups that the city contracts with.
And how did Victor Rivera's group come to be such a force in this system? Victor Rivera used his back story to really get close to a lot of Bronx politicians and his political clout grew, especially as Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to revamp the city's homeless shelter system and launched a major initiative in 2017 to open 90 new shelter sites. And that's when Victor Rivera really made his play and his nonprofit organization applied to run a number of those new sites and won multimillion dollar contracts for reference.
In twenty twelve, the Bronx parent housing network was bringing in about one million dollars in revenue, and more recently, they're bringing in upwards of eighty one million dollars. Wow. You know, a lot of the sources I talked to said that as the nonprofit spending grew, so did Victor Rivera's personal wealth. And what do you mean by that? So in the early years, he was just bringing in about sixty seven thousand dollars a year. Recently, his salary has ballooned to more than three hundred thousand dollars a year.
And he bought himself multiple homes, a home in the Poconos Mountains, a massive home in Stony Point, a little bit north of New York City.
And he was driving a Mercedes Benz leased by his organization for the homeless shelter system, leased its leader a Mercedes Benz.
Yeah, they actually said that was a cheaper car than other ones that they were considering. And the car's license plate was actually the initials of the Homeless Services Organization and RG. So Victor Rivera was quite flashy with his wealth. And so are people starting to notice any of this, just how much money this network is now collecting from the city and how large Victor Rivera is starting to live? Is anyone monitoring this, raising any flags?
Yeah, there was actually a high ranking executive at the Bronx Parent Housing Network who is very concerned, who actually complained to the city Department of Social Services in twenty seventeen and said, you really need to look into the way that Victor Rivera is spending money. This is a big problem. And Victor Rivera had some nepotism issues and conflicts of interest. He was employing multiple family members. He was also running for profit housing businesses alongside his nonprofit. And those were intertwined.
And the city called Victor Rivera in for a meeting and the city said, this is a big no no, you have to stop. And they placed the Bronx parent housing network on this special watch list that's basically flagging financial problems and improprieties at the organization and said you need to clean up your act. But even though Victor Rivera and the Bronx Parent Housing Network were on notice for all of these problems, the city continued to give them more and more money and the problems continued.
So beyond this watch list, which you just described as pretty ineffective. Is there any system for monitoring, regulating, policing these nonprofit groups that the city is giving so much taxpayer money to this watch list as one of the main tools that the city uses to police these shelter operators?
In my reporting, I got documents that show that 10 of the 70 nonprofit shelter providers are actually on this special watch list for financial problems. But all of them continue to receive city money.
That's a meaningful percentage of the providers being on a list that signals that something's the matter.
Yeah, I think it's a really significant problem. And the city, aside from internally flagging that they know about these things, hasn't done much to really deal with them. Several women came forward claiming they were sexually harassed and abused by Victor Rivera with disturbing allegations revealed in a New York Times investigation that found for years Rivera engaged in financial and sexual misconduct as the head.
So after you uncover all of this, the financial questions and the alleged sexual assaults, what ends up happening to Victor Rivera?
Hours after our story was published, Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that the city has directed BP in to hire an independent investigator to Bill de Blasio tweeted that Victor Rivera was not untouchable and that as a result of our story, he was ordering a probe of all homeless shelter operators in New York City.
And the next day at the Bronx, district attorney is investigating criminally the allegation.
The Bronx district attorney said that she was also opening a criminal investigation into Victor Rivera after the allegations of sexual and financial abuse.
Now, Victor Rivera denied any sort of impropriety. And in a statement he sent to me, he called the allegations against him meritless.
But still, a few days after the story came out on its website, a statement from BP's board about, quote, shocking claims regarding Rivera, the board of directors of the Bronx parent housing network also fired Victor Rivera.
So he no longer has a job and just a couple of days ago. It's very disturbing. It's very disturbing. Bill de Blasio had a press conference to do. Victor Rivera.
He has been fired by that organization and called out Victor Rivera by name and said his actions were abhorrent, but that I think the field has professionalized intensely.
There's a lot more oversight. There's a lot more care in the city contracting process. De Blasio still effectively defended the homeless shelter system and said that Victor Rivera's case and the Bronx parent housing network was really just one bad apple in an otherwise professional system made up of people who really wanted to help homeless people and didn't think that there was a widespread problem.
Is he right? I think it's a complicated question, you know, New York's homeless system was obviously started with the best of intentions of coming out of this court order that really wanted to help people and not see people dying and sleeping on the streets without a place to go. And to be fair, there are parts of the shelter system that are working and helping people get back on their feet, which is exactly what's supposed to happen in New York City as one of the biggest and most complicated shelter systems of anywhere in the country.
So it is an enormous task to run it well, and it's not going to be perfect. But I think what Victor Rivera and the Bronx parent housing network show us is that if the homeless system doesn't have proper guardrails, the solution is not just to throw money at these nonprofit groups and hope that they do the right thing. So I think New York City is in this interesting spot where it sort of has to wrestle with this moral and legal mandate to provide shelter, but also ensure that taxpayer money is well spent.
And you don't have people like Victor Rivera there who can just abuse the system. Right, which kind of raises the question. Is the city incapable of taking on? A problem this enormous, even the nation's. Arguably most powerful and wealthy city. I think the recent past seems to show that if there are specific, isolated problems that news organizations write about, they crack down on those specific providers, but do not seem tremendously interested in looking into the shelter system and mass.
So it's like whack a mole.
But I do think at the end of the day, what my sources are telling me in the case of Victor Rivera is that one of the only reasons that we saw such a swift response was because of the sexual abuse allegations. Had it just been financial abuse, a lot of people had told me they think that nothing would have happened, that, wow, that's so widespread and common that they really would have been surprised had there been any significant response. And they think it was the city was just kind of forced to act because of how egregious the sexual abuse allegations were.
I wonder if you have checked in with Erica since your story ran and what has happened to her. Yes, so the day after the story ran, I took a copy of the newspaper to her apartment and talked to her in person about how she was feeling. And I think she's feeling a lot. She both thanked me for getting her story out there, but also seemed somewhat overwhelmed that the secret that she had kept for so long is now out in the world.
And she texted me the other day saying that she had heard the story on the news, that she was in a cab and that really just landed with her, that this is real. In many ways, this is a story about powerlessness, and Erica was a person who never had a lot of power, but now is both proud of herself, but also kind of terrified with what that means. You know, she's living in the Bronx. She's living in a community where Victor Rivera had so much power and so much clout and connections for so many years.
And she's worried about her safety, but also, you know, told me that she was happy that hopefully he won't be allowed to hurt anyone again.
Julia, thank you very much. We appreciate your reporting and thank you for coming on the show. Thanks so much for having me. We'll be right back. Before the email notifications begin to pour in, let's give ourselves a good morning, a good morning is a moment to pause and ease into the day. It's a moment to run and chase the sunrise or to gently settle into your routine. A good morning is a moment to be present, to find clarity and to be grounded for the day ahead.
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Today's episode was produced by Austin Mitchell Tan and Diana Wynne with help from Jessica Chong and Nina. It was edited by Mike Vanua, Larissa Anderson and Lisa Tobin and engineered by Chris Wood. That's it for The Daily, I'm Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow. London Stock Exchange Group is now elshaug here to be your essential global markets, infrastructure and data partner, where open isn't just a platform, but a philosophy giving you access to the markets, data and analytics, liquidity and risk management you need, and a flexible partnership approach to help open up more opportunities for you, your customers and society.
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