By Jacob Rose
Shortly after groups of homeless men began to arrive by bus on Monday morning to their new living quarters at The Lucerne Hotel on 79th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, Councilmember Helen Rosenthal showed up in a car, and was soon surrounded by locals.
One man confronted her about when she had known that 283 men would be placed at the hotel, and Rosenthal said she had learned about it last Wednesday.
“Do you think anyone believes you?” the man asked.
“I know I’m telling the truth,” Rosenthal responded.
The conversation continued in a heated tone.
“You should know who you’re talking to,” Rosenthal said. “You’re talking to the councilmember who represents this district.”
“If you guys are going to be nasty, I’m not going to have this conversation,” she said.
Some Upper West Siders say they have felt blindsided by the decision to place men dealing with drug addiction in the hotel.
Rosenthal told residents of the impending move in a constituent email on Thursday, but many in the community have complained that they had no say in the matter. The city says it is using the hotel as a shelter to allow for better social distancing measures.
The men were residents of two East Village shelters run by a nonprofit called Project Renewal that helps people recovering from drug abuse. Some of the men had already been moved to a hotel on West 51st Street — but conflict between shelter residents and their neighbors caused them to be moved again, one shelter resident who calls himself Da Homeless Hero told West Side Rag.
The first yellow school bus carrying men from the shelters arrived at the hotel just before 10 a.m. on Monday, and buses continued to trickle in roughly every half-hour over the course of the morning and afternoon. Each bus let off about a dozen men, most of whom walked into the hotel carrying a couple bags of belongings. Project Renewal’s Director of Security said that the bus arrival times were being staggered and buses not completely filled for social distancing purposes.
The Rag asked to speak with some of the homeless men entering the hotel, but a Project Renewal representative said that the organization needed to focus on transferring the men today. Da Homeless Hero, in an email to the Rag, said he was grateful to be in such a nice spot.
“I ended up in a single room that is extremely beautiful. I hope that everyone takes pride in this situation to allow them to make a better transition toward independent living,” he wrote. “I’ve spoken to some of my co-residents and they all seem to understand that. I hope that during this time we all can take advantage of this opportunity and at the same time respect the community.”
Local residents pressed Rosenthal on several other issues related to the transfer. On the issue of when The Lucerne’s contract with Project Renewal will expire, Rosenthal said giving a firm end date was not yet possible. “It’s open ended because COVID is open ended,” she said.
Another resident asked Rosenthal about Sunday’s report in the Rag — a commenter on that report had claimed “that there are sex offenders living in these buildings.” Rosenthal responded that she had spoken to an unidentified city commissioner earlier that morning, who had assured her that there would be no sex offenders living at this site.
Rosenthal said her main concern is making sure that Project Renewal can give proper care to the homeless men moving into The Lucerne. “What I would ask the community to do is let Project Renewal do their job,” she said. “The most important thing is [that the men get] access to the care that they need.”
Community Board 7 Chair Mark Diller showed up to The Lucerne earlier in the morning to monitor the transfer. While Diller said that he was “grateful” that Project Renewal had briefed local officials about the transfer, he said he was disappointed by the DHS’s decision-making process.
“If [the DHS] had reached out to us, we would have been able to share with them a number of issues that the community is concerned about, and rightfully so,” he said.
“Process really matters. Process is how we turn fear into collaboration. And that’s what we were denied here. And that’s what I’m most concerned about because one of the consequences of being denied a fair and appropriate process is that we end up with voices that don’t follow our history of welcoming and empathy.”
Other locals echoed Diller’s points, arguing that the fate of Project Renewal at The Lucerne will hinge on the details of the program. Ron, who lives on 79th Street, says he acts as the NYPD’s 20th precinct civilian coordinator. He said he was eager to hear more information about security details and the level of supervision the homeless men would have.
Project Renewal declined to share these details for the time being. It released a statement, saying, “Our 70 staff and security members will be here around the clock to ensure the well being of our clients and to work in partnership with the community.”
Several residents expressed concern for the prospects of Nice Matin, a restaurant on the northwest corner of 79th and Amsterdam inside the same building as The Lucerne. Nice Matin’s manager declined to discuss how he expects the move to affect his business, but did say he had a productive meeting with Project Renewal’s security team on Monday morning.
Keith Lewis, who owns 79th Street Pharmacy a half-block west of The Lucerne, said he would wait before giving an opinion on how this might affect his business. He could live with the decision, he said, “as long as it’s done properly.”
Residents of nearby apartment buildings watched the buses pull in, talking with each other about what this transfer might mean. Arthur, a resident of The Gloucester, across the street from The Lucerne, at 200 W 79th Street, said, “I think everybody needs a home. I’m just concerned what the negative aspect of the neighborhood may be. If you have one person of the 283 who’s a little off, it’s dangerous. A lot of the neighbors I talk to are upset.”