By Carol Tannenhauser
On Tuesday evening, Community Board 7 passed a formal resolution against siting a NYC homeless shelter in The Alexander, a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) building on West 94th Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. The new shelter would replace the notorious Freedom House shelter on West 95th Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, which is being closed.
“We will send the resolution to the Department of Homeless Services with copies to the local elected officials,” explained Roberta Semer, chair of the Board.
The action followed an outpouring of community opposition to the shelter plan, with no one speaking in its favor. Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who has expressed approval of the plan, was not present to explain her position, prompting one council member to say, “I’d like to know why Helen supports it.”
Many neighborhood residents who attended the meeting, which was held at Mount Sinai West, ceded their one-minute speaking allotment to Aaron Biller, president of the advocacy group Neighborhood in the 90s, who reiterated the reasons for the community’s opposition. Some speakers distanced themselves from Biller, indicating they were speaking for themselves. Regardless, the sentiments were consistent.
“The very rushed, secretive way this plan was hatched makes the case for Community Board hearings and review more compelling,” Biller said.
He also cited the dangers of the building itself, pointing out that the owner of The Alexander, Alexander Scharf, had also owned The Esplanade, a senior residence at 305 West End Avenue, when a piece of the facade fell off, killing a toddler in 2016. Scharf was indicted for violating the NYC building code.
One woman, speaking for herself, questioned why the city would do business with Scharf.
Biller also discussed the challenges a shelter would pose to the block, which already has an SRO building that was converted into permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless and/or mentally ill individuals, and an HPD shelter in an SRO next door to The Alexander, for people displaced from their homes by fires and other catastrophes.
At the core of Biller’s arguments is the question of “equity.”
“This crazy back-room deal was created to open a shelter on a block that already does its fair share,” he said.
Rosenthal sent a statement to West Side Rag, noting that the new shelter will mean no net increase in shelter residents. And she disputed the notion that the block cannot handle the shelter. “There are NO other shelters on this block of W. 94th and the Red Cross does NOT have any emergency beds in any of the buildings on this block,” she said. “This block does have a building which provides permanent, supportive housing called Rustin House. Supportive housing is NOT a homeless shelter. Supportive housing is permanent, affordable housing which offers a range of in-house services for residents.”
In the statement, Rosenthal also explained why she thinks the new location and operator can help solve some of the problems with the current shelter.
Freedom House on W. 95th Street was poorly run – it did not serve shelter residents well, and was detrimental to the overall block.
Issues of concern consistently brought up at the Freedom House Community Advisory Board (CAB) meetings:
1.) Security issues which impacted the entire block;
2.) A lack of transparency between shelter management and residents, as well as between the shelter and the community;
3.) Complete lack of services for homeless residents to address their needs;
4.) No indoor space for programming or resident socializing, which forced residents to socialize outside.
The shelter at 300 W. 94th will address these 4 main issues heard from the community with:
1.) A new operator that has a proven track record of providing more accountability and more successful outcomes for its residents;
2.) Indoor community space for socializing, and indoor space for social services, job assistance, and other programming;
3.) Social services and other types of programming provided on-site by the new operator;
4.) In-house security, provided by the new operator, to immediately address issues inside and outside of the building.
There has been no discussion about placing another homeless shelter at the W. 95th Street building. I support returning the current Freedom House building back to permanent affordable housing.