By Mariel Priven and Jacob Rose
The relocation of hundreds of homeless men to hotels on the Upper West Side has alarmed local residents, and led to a split between those who think it’s led to a drastic deterioration in the quality of life here and those who find the backlash against the shelter too extreme.
Almost two weeks have passed since 283 men experiencing homelessness were placed in the Lucerne on 79th Street, and there are some noticeable changes to the area, like groups of men hanging out under scaffolding and in the Broadway medians. Several Upper West Siders have cited incidences of public drug use, disturbances, conflicts in stores, and lack of mask-wearing from Lucerne residents. In addition, community residents have raised concerns about two other shelters operating inside hotels — the Belnord (209 W. 87th St) and the Belleclaire (77th & Broadway) — that have been in use for several weeks.
But The Lucerne seemed to be the tipping point.
A Facebook group called Upper West Siders for Safer Streets that was organized after the shelter was first announced late last month now has about 3,000 members and they regularly post pictures of men lying on the ground or otherwise out of sorts. The group requests that people who support the shelters “please do not join”.
Upper West Siders for Safer Streets has been publicizing a petition to relocate the men, and it’s gotten more than 4,000 signatures.
The PTA of PS 87 — which sits on 78th Street off of Amsterdam and is known for raising more money than almost any school in the city — sent a letter to parents urging them to join the group.
“There have been fights at 79th and Amsterdam, on Broadway between 79th and 80th,” the letter says. “Some of community families have been verbally harassed, men have been spitting in Metal Park (in Covid times) and sadly, some have reported seeing men looking for drugs or using drugs. Additionally, there has been loitering in metal park which can lead to ‘contraband’ and needles left in the park placing our children at risk.”
Others in the neighborhood say the Facebook group is a NIMBY response to the plight of troubled people.
“Even in one of the neighborhoods in the country with the most MSNBC viewers, there are thousands of residents willing to sign a petition kicking people experiencing homelessness out of shelters during one of the most severe economic downturns in history,” wrote Sam Koppelman, who grew up in the neighborhood, on Twitter. “If you want to end segregation, if you want to end white supremacy, if you want to bring about justice, you have to live your values in your backyard.”
A separate petition looks to embrace the shelters, or at least find a way to work with them. It argued that the men’s placement at The Lucerne would help reduce COVID-19 spread among the homeless and the general public, and help promote recovery among men dealing with “addiction, mental health issues, joblessness, health concerns, and other things that contribute to chronic homelessness.”
It cited evidence that crime has not risen since the men’s arrival at The Lucerne. “We must parse out the perceived risk vs. real risk,” the petition reads.
One parent at PS 87 who shared the PTA’s letter with the Rag wrote that it included “classist and racist innuendo,” adding “I’m ashamed that I ever gave that PTA a dime.”
“My next check will be to Project Renewal, the organization running The Lucerne shelter,” the parent wrote. “That’s an organization that truly needs it.”
Robert, a member of the Upper West Siders for Safer Streets group, said he thinks the people in the group are “coming from an empathetic place but at the same time, we need to sit down with these people and come up with a solution, because we were not given that opportunity.” Robert, like many locals, continues to feel disheartened by the community’s lack of awareness of and involvement in the Department of Homeless Service’s decision to house these men in these UWS hotels.
Local resident Chris Caldwell told the Rag that he saw a man shooting heroin on 82nd and Broadway on Monday night; nearby individuals told him the man had exited the Lucerne. Caldwell said that several families with young children walked up and down Broadway during the incident. “I volunteer at the Homeless Shelter at Assumption church and have great love in my heart for the homeless,” he said. “This is disturbing though, as there were multiple children within a block.”
“What I’ve noticed is they’re hanging around, they’re not wearing masks. There’s been a lot of arguments, a lot of loitering,” said Jill, an owner of Blondie’s across the street. She said her staff has to ask them to keep moving along. “I think they need more security guards.” She said she had to call cops about a loud argument going on across the street. “It’s coming down to us to police it and it shouldn’t be. I’m constantly moving these guys away.”
Mariano Ouatu, the manager of Coppola’s down the block also expressed concern. “We’re losing a lot of our customers,” he said. After 9 p.m. and during lunch, customers are dissuaded from coming in because of loud fighting on the street, he said. And more customers are now ordering in instead of sitting outside.
Other business owners have not experienced the same issues. Keith Lewis, owner of 79th Street Pharmacy, says men come into the store in twos and threes, “very nice but not buying anything.”
A homeless resident of The Lucerne who goes by the name Da Homeless Hero said that he and some other residents have been trying to address negative behaviors by other men at the shelter.
“I want to let you know that I and a few other residents actually go outside and walk around and confront those who may be openly doing something that they should not be doing and encouraging them to respect the community,” he wrote in an email to West Side Rag. “In most cases, our wishes are respected but there are times when the response can be hostile for we are but residents and have not the authority to tell someone what to do. Yet, we do take that initiative, especially when we see them in areas that we know the security will not cover. We call this ‘policing ourselves’. I want the community to know that there are some of us who are definitely trying to do the right thing for ourselves and this community that we are in. We’re not trying to let some bad apples make the rest of us look bad and I know I, myself, do want to feel safe in my environment.”
Capt. Neil Zuber, commander of the 20th precinct, says he has not seen a spike in crime since the shelters came in. In fact, major crime in the precinct is down 10% this year.
“911 calls around the shelters have increased, but they are largely for things that didn’t merit a 911 call,” he told West Side Rag. “I think people are understandably very sensitive about the new shelters and calling 911 for every perceived reason. Other than occasionally waiting for ambulances for overdoses, we haven’t had much of a role.”
Asked about neighbors’ complaints, Project Renewal sent a statement.
“We are proud to work with the city to help fight the COVID pandemic,” Project Renewal said in the statement. “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.”
The Department of Homeless Services reiterated its mission and legal obligation to provide shelter and services to all New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and said, “the notion that they are not welcome in some neighborhoods for any reason is an affront to basic decency. We don’t discriminate based on people’s previous experiences or backgrounds, and we will not create gated communities within our City – we extend a helping hand, no matter what.”
For some residents of the shelter, the experience has been a positive one — a chance to live in a more-private room rather than a crowded shelter. “For me, it’s great. I come here from work, get to lay down, get A/C, peace of mind,” said Geoffrey Smith, a new resident at The Lucerne who was moved from a shelter in The Bowery.
Smith works in housekeeping at the Javits Center and has a roommate who works in New Jersey. He says they both get back to the hotel around 10 o’clock most days, take a shower, and leave around 5 in the morning. “We already have a stigma being in a shelter. Nobody wants to be in a shelter, everybody wants to be at home. But it’s up to them to use that as a stepping stone.” Are most people using it as a stepping stone? “I don’t know. I know a few good dudes in there using it as a stepping stone.” He wants to use this opportunity to work towards getting his own home, keep saving, and ultimately “be happy.”