By Gwynne Hogan and Haidee Chu | October 8, 2023
Around a dozen migrant families desperate to move out of a Staten Island shelter said they were scammed out of thousands of dollars by an employee of the shelter, who promised them leases and furniture in newly renovated apartments, THE CITY has learned.
The employee was fired after “serious allegations and evidence of dishonest and fraudulent activities” came to the hotel’s attention, according to a letter posted inside the Holiday Inn Express and dated Oct. 2 that identifies the employee as Cythia Guevara Rodriguez.
THE CITY interviewed more than a dozen shelter residents who said they fell victim to Rodriguez and also reviewed the fake leases they signed, screenshots of Zelle transfers and messages they exchanged on WhatsApp and Facebook with Guevara that show families willing to do anything to move out of a shelter and into apartments of their own doing business with someone who appeared ready to capitalize on their desperation.
The situation at the Holiday Inn Express highlights the troubles faced by migrants families in shelters as they try to find places of their own before the city potentially puts them on a clock to move out.
“She played with the emotions of our children. Our children were so excited, they thought they were going to get out of here,” said Jennifer, 41, a Venezuelan mother to a one-year-old who asked her last name be withheld. She and another couple said they’d paid Guevara $1,700 in a series of cash and Zelle payments, and were expecting to move together into a house with a parking spot on Elverton Avenue in Great Kills on Oct. 16.
“I can’t sleep thinking, ‘what happened actually happened,’” she said in Spanish. “It won’t leave my mind.”
Guevara, for her part, denies the allegations, telling THE CITY on Thursday that she’d taken money from two families and had intended to get them apartments through Craigslist but she hadn’t been able to find them yet.
“They were impatient,” she said, adding that “they’re gonna get their money back.”
Others, she said, must have made photocopies of leases and were fabricating additional allegations against her.
“A lot of people right now what they’re doing is trying to gang up on me,” she said. “They’re just trying to make it, you know, worse than it is.”
Jaclyn Stoll, a spokesperson for Project Hospitality, the nonprofit with a $5.3 million contract to run the Holiday Inn Express migrant shelter, said Guevara was not an employee of the nonprofit and declined to comment while an investigation was pending. She deferred further comment to the city’s Department of Homeless Services or DHS.
“It is unconscionable that any individual would attempt to exploit vulnerable families for material gain. Whenever we learn of an incident that puts the wellbeing of our clients at risk, we work with our not-for-profit provider partners to immediately investigate the situation and take swift and appropriate action to address the issue at hand, said Nicholas Jacobelli, a spokesperson for DHS.
“We serve incredibly vulnerable populations, and we expect all those who interact with our clients to treat them with dignity and respect.”
‘Don’t Tell Anyone Anything’
For around the past year, Guevara had worked as a cleaner at the Staten Island hotel. She didn’t work for Project Hospitality, the nonprofit that started operating the shelter a year ago, but for 300 WILD LLC, the company that owns the highway-side hotel. Still Guevara spoke Spanish and got to know many of the families intimately, they said.
It’s unclear how exactly the alleged apartment scam began, but residents of the shelter said after nearly a year living on the side of the highway, sharing a single room for a whole family with no kitchen or space for the kids to play, they were all too eager to get out.
“We wanted freedom to have a little space for the kids, so I could cook them good meals,” said Deysy Carpio, a 34-year-old Colombian mother of two, in Spanish. “My husband and I, we were saving up, little by little, to be able to rent something. Even if it was really small, just so we could at least have space to cook.”
In recent months, some residents said they had started to feel extra pressure from social workers at the hotel to get out. In biweekly counseling sessions, they’d be grilled as to when their move-out date would be. Many said they were eagerly saving money working various jobs under the table, still waiting for their official work permits to come through.
“We were under this pressure to leave the hotel. We don’t want to be a burden on the state,” said Marielba Flores, a 32-year-old Venezuelan who lives in the hotel with her husband and 3-year-old daughter. “I clean houses. I get paid $10 an hour. I have to work for 10 to 12 hours to save up anything.”
Carpio said she pursued Guevara after hearing that she was helping another shelter resident find an apartment, and eventually paid her $1,500 in cash on Sept. 20 for what she thought was a 3-bedroom 2-bathroom house on Forest Avenue. The family planned to move in on Oct. 10.
Facebook messages show Guevara offered to add additional furnishings, a queen-sized bed, bureaus, a dining room table set and couches, as well an 85-inch television.
“It’s all beautiful, how much is it,” Carpio wrote in a Sept. 19 Facebook message.
“They’re saying they can include everything including the 85-inch television for 450,” Guevara replied in Spanish, later agreeing to drop the price to $400.
“Good my dear, so I’ll call my husband so he gets the check so we can pay them,” Carpio replied. In total the family paid her $1,950, mostly in cash and $50 via Zelle, Carpio said.
While some learned about Guevara through word of mouth, others said she had sworn others to secrecy.
“She told me, ‘Don’t tell anyone anything,” recalled Rudely Brito, a 26-year-old mother two from the Dominican Republic, after she signed a fake lease for a two-bedroom house on Forest Avenue on Sept. 25, and sent $1790 via Zelle three days later, screenshots of the transfer show.
“‘This would make it complicated for me at work and I could lose my job,’” Brito said that Guevara told her.
Brito and her husband handed over a total of $2,400, including cash. It was money they’d saved up from her husband’s haircutting gigs and her odd jobs, she said.
“It took us like two months to save it up,” Brito said in Spanish.
THE CITY reviewed copies of nearly a dozen leases listing various addresses in Staten Island. Some seemed official enough, typed out and signed, others had parts crossed out and new addresses written over them. Still others were rife with spelling errors that would be obvious to an English speaker.
“Apartment will be ready on Octuber 2 2023,” one document signed by several residents read. “Rent is every month 1 st day of the month.”
‘They Scammed You’
Several residents said that they’d started to have concerns by late September.
In some cases Guevara kept pushing back the move-in date while saying the apartment was still under construction. She’d string others along with new videos of the houses she said they’d soon inhabit, even taking some residents on rides in her car to see their would-be homes.
Jhonathan Cedeño, 32, from Venezuela, said Guevara took his family for one such ride in early September. He was starting to feel nervous about the situation and needed some reassurance.
“Take me to see, I want to see the house on the outside. She said there were tenants inside,” he said in Spanish.
He rode in Guevara’s car with his daughter, his girlfriend and her daughter who were all expecting to move in together on Oct. 10. His girlfriend’s teen daughter was ecstatic to see it, Cedeño recalled.
“‘I’ll have my birthday there and invite all my friends from school,’” she gushed as they drove by the house.
In late September, Guevara gave several families sets of keys while cautioning families that their apartments still weren’t quite ready.
Late last week, Carpio tried to visit her new home.
“Obviously the keys didn’t work,” she said. But even then, Carpio thought there must have been some misunderstanding. “She said it was under construction. I told myself, ‘no we just have to wait.’ Nobody was there.”
Others had more jarring experiences. Orlando Vasquez, 39, a father of three kids, went to try and get into his new place on the evening of Sept. 29. As he was fiddling with the keys at the front door, the homeowner arrived.
“He pushed me against the wall and he said, ‘What are you doing in my house?’”
In broken English, Vasquez tried to deescalate the situation:
“Excuse, my friend, no problem, no problem,” he said he told the man, taking out a copy of the lease and showing it to him.
“He put his head in his hands. ‘They scammed you,’” the man told him through a translation app.
Vasquez and other residents started to connect the dots. They called and texted and sent Facebook messages to Guevara but residents said she had blocked them and started screening their calls. A group of residents found her address and went to confront her, a second car with more angry would-be renters followed. The situation was tense and the police came. Someone took out a knife. Eventually, the residents say, Guevara was taken away in an ambulance. The FDNY confirmed they’d taken someone from the house to Richmond University Medical Center. Guevara said she had a nervous breakdown.
Eleven residents who said they’d been scammed filed a formal complaint at the 121st Precinct together on Wednesday, police confirmed. An NYPD spokesperson said the investigation was ongoing and no one had been arrested.
Guevara said she had already talked with police Monday and understood everything to be above board.
“The police were over my house on Monday night,” she said. “They let me go because they said it was a civil matter.”
(Stealing an amount more than $1,000 is, in fact, a criminal matter, categorized as Grand larceny in the fourth degree, a Class E felony.) Asked about remarks Guevera said police made to her, an NYPD spokesperson said the situation was still an active criminal investigation.
On Wednesday, letters in Spanish were handed out to shelter residents at the Holiday Inn Express. Beyond that residents said they were offered no other recourse from staff there, even though the employee had been working alongside them for a year.
“We have been informed that a number of residents have been taken advantage of by scammers to obtain an apartment,” the letter reads. “Please take note that scammers exist everywhere trying to do what they can to manipulate people. We hope all families communicate with their assigned case workers when they consider an opportunity for an apartment. We’re here to help and assure that no one, especially scammers, take advantage of you.”
Outside the hotel Friday, several Project Hospitality staffers who declined to provide their names said that “Project Hospitality has nothing to do with this,” as one of them put it.
“You have to ask them why they didn’t come to us. They kept it a secret among each other,” said another, adding that “we would have addressed it the right way.”
Then, one of the Project Hospitality workers called the police on reporters speaking with residents.
Celeste Tesoriero, an immigration attorney, who had been working with some of the families on their asylum paperwork learned about the situation through her friends at the hotel, and had agreed to represent one resident to try to get her money back.
“This is really something that could have happened to anyone. These aren’t stupid people. They knew this woman for a long time. She worked at the hotel. And they went to the place. There were keys. There was a real lease,” she said.
She also said the residents are facing constant pressure to leave the shelter with few tools to help them get there.
“It’s like, ‘OK, how would YOU find an apartment with no credit score and one minimum wage job,” she said.
Vasquez, reflecting on the situation, said he didn’t think Guevara should spend time in jail. He just wants his money back, though he said, that wouldn’t undo the pain it had caused for his children.
“It’s not the thousand dollars,” he said in Spanish. “The dream has been taken away, a dream from our children. They had a dream that they were going to have a home. That’s what hurts me most.”
Cedeño said that, in hindsight, he understood how he and other shelter residents had been easy targets.
“I was looking for a way to get out of the hotel, because I don’t want to be a burden on the government. I wanted to have my space, have my things, and I don’t want to be dependent on anyone,” he said.
“She was playing with those emotions. If I wasn’t looking to get out of the hotel, I wouldn’t have offered her the money.”
This story was published by THE CITY on October 8, 2023.