By Carol Tannenhauser
”I’ll keep it short,” said most of the speakers at Monday night’s Zoom meeting about the private hotels in the neighborhood that have been converted to temporary homeless shelters, but no one did.
A record-breaking 1,100 participants attended the virtual meeting, including community residents; panelists from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and the nonprofits contracted to run the Belleclaire, Belnord and Lucerne hotels/shelters; board members, a police commander, a rabbi’s representative, an educator, and numerous elected officials. Questions from the community were pre-submitted. Board Chair Mark Diller juggled the entire thing, keeping the meeting moving and on-topic.
Steven Banks, commissioner of the NYC Human Resources Administration (HRA), which oversees DHS, was not present. Deputy Commissioner Erin Drinkwater stepped in to describe the rationale for the transfers — “the de-densification of the shelter system,” she called it — but it was the lack of notice to the community and adequate supervision of the shelters that was widely decried. This virtual meeting was intended to provide more information and clarification.
The directors of the nonprofits running the hotels — Eric Rosenbaum of Project Renewal (Lucerne), Daniel Farrell of HELP USA (Belleclaire), and Tony Hannigan of CUCS (Belnord) — each made presentations.
“We had about two weeks’ notice to open the shelter in The Lucerne,” said Rosenbaum. “Of course it hasn’t been perfect; this was a public health emergency. The Lucerne has calmed down enormously in the four weeks since we opened, in part because we’ve made changes based on your feedback. For instance, the precinct now has a patrol car stationed at the Lucerne most evenings. And we’ve transferred 18 clients back to congregate shelter for failure to respect our good neighbor policy.”
Dale Brown, president of the West 79th Street Block Association, backed up Rosenbaum’s assertions about a general improvement in the situation recently. “The first three weeks were truly a nightmare,” she said. “But things seem to be getting better. Project Renewal now sends out more security guards. Programs are being held. We are seeing less wandering men around the neighborhood.”
Perhaps the most urgent community concerns were raised in the last two questions of the two-and-a-half-hour evening, by Board Member Jay Adolf.
“Can you give us a projected timeline as to when the pandemic-motivated moves will be undone?” Adolf asked. “And, yes or no, does this administration have any intent to make any of these hotels permanent housing for the homeless?”
“On your first question, I cannot give you a date, sir,” Drinkwater responded. “What I can commit to is regular communication with this community. As for whether the city has any plans to make these hotels permanent housing, not at this time,” Drinkwater said. “That is my yes or no answer.”
If you’re interested in helping out the men in the shelters, Daniel Farrell of HELP USA said, “We need business attire, and more access to employment opportunities. Our goal is to help them move to permanent housing, and jobs are key. 35% of the men and women in the Belleclaire are employed,” he added.
Watch the full meeting below: