Emotional Protests Haven’t Slowed Momentum of Shelter ‘Evictions’

Former shelter resident Wanda Mercado asks residents to help her friends still in the shelter.

By Megan Zerez

Wanda Mercado moved a few weeks ago, but today she’s back on her old stoop on the Upper West Side. She’s a familiar face on 107th Street – it seems every few minutes she’s pulled aside for a hug. But Mercado isn’t here just to socialize.

Mercado is a former resident of the 107th Street shelter, which soon will convert to serve single men. She’s here – along with about 50 UWS residents and elected officials – to attend a public meeting to protest the transition.

“I was informed by my friends [in the shelter] that they were given a 48-hour transfer notice,” Mercado said. “My heart was filled with fear.”

The meeting came on the heels of a 6,000-signature petition, a unanimously passed Community Board resolution opposing the transition and protests Sunday and Wednesday night.

The Department of Homeless Services declined to answer emailed questions about the number of women who have been relocated so far. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer estimated that about 14 women have already been relocated, but several residents at the meeting said the number is likely higher.

Protestors left signs on the fence outside the 107th Street Shelter.

“DHS met with the women on Wednesday. The residents were asked to sign a transfer paper and list their preferred borough,” Brewer said. “People are afraid, and I don’t blame them.”

Brewer said that communication between community members and the Department of Homeless Services was “abysmal.”

Department of Homeless Services did not answer emailed questions about whether the new men’s shelter would be operated as a transitional facility.

When asked if she would support a transitional men’s shelter, Brewer said that she’d support a men’s shelter if it were elsewhere.

Last month, Brewer’s office released a study by the city’s Independent Budget Office which found that certain shelters decrease the sale value of surrounding properties by a range of 6.4% to 7.1%.

The study did not include transitional shelters like the current women’s shelter on 107th street. A 2008 NYU Furman Center study of transitional shelters found that such facilities have minimal impact on property values.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said he opposed the lack of communication, but not a men’s shelter outright.

“We keep pitting populations against each other,” Williams said. “I want to make sure that we stopped doing that. Everybody needs assistance. Everybody needs help — men, women.”

A group of women from the nearby Red Oak Apartments senior center on 106th street chant “mujeres sin apoyo” or “women without support.”

In their remarks, Williams and Brewer both acknowledged Saturday’s attacks in Manhattan’s Chinatown, which left four homeless men dead. The city is scrambling to add beds for the homeless, often facing fierce community pushback throughout the city.

City Councilmember Mark Levine, whose district includes the shelter, said he saw no public policy rationale for the move, as it would not create any new beds in the shelter system.

“We are not only going to stop displacement of additional women, we’re going to demand that every woman who was removed has the right to come back here, to 107th Street,” Levine said.

In an emailed statement, Department of Social Services spokesperson Isaac McGinn said that no individuals would be displaced and that current residents would transition to permanent housing or alternative shelter locations.

McGinn said the transition was due to a seasonal increase in the need for shelter for single adult men during the winter months.

Giselle Routier, Policy Director for the Coalition for the Homeless said that historically, demand for single adult housing tends to peak during the winter, while demand for women and children peaks in the summer.

“The shelter system is all under the guise of the Department of Homeless Services, but they do operate the shelter system really by household types,” Routier said.

Routier said that these divisions in the shelter system mean that a transition like the one at 107th Street isn’t necessarily a displacement of one household type for another, but a relocation to better suit demand.

Nevertheless, Mercado said, community ties can make any relocation hard – even if it’s into permanent housing.

“I feel like sometimes I have ‘location withdrawal’ from this place,” Mercado said. “I miss my old friends and neighbors. It’s why I keep tearing up.”

Photos by Megan Zerez.

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