A group that is trying to make people experiencing homelessness feel welcome gathered outside The Lucerne Hotel on 79th Street on Saturday starting around 6 p.m.
The hotel and three others like it on the Upper West Side have become a flashpoint. Opponents say that people in the shelters should be moved to other locations, because they’re causing problems, including using drugs on the streets. But the people who gathered on Saturday, called the UWS Open Hearts Initiative, said neighbors should show more compassion for people facing difficult times and can deal with problems at the shelters through engagement rather than demonization.
When WSR arrived Saturday around 8, about 50 people were out on the sidewalks in front of the hotel, including shelter residents, locals, housing activists and politicians. We spoke with several of them before the official “sleepout” was to begin. Yoga mats and sleeping bags were tucked in a corner nearby.
Here’s what some of them had to say.
Marcus M.: “I’m new to this. I came into the shelter system thinking that I could actually better myself. I’m working, I’m employed, I can save money, you know, I could get a voucher, get my things together. I would think that being New Yorkers, we’d have more love for one another, especially with September 11th coming up and the coronavirus. Things that us as New Yorkers have been through, we gotta do things together, being unified. Get rid of the bad apples, but not guys like me who are actually trying to use this place to better ourselves.”
Sara Lind: “I want everyone to know that the Upper West Side is a compassionate, welcoming place. I do think that the more we work together, the more we can solve problems. So to the extent there were issues at the beginning, when the hotels were first starting to be used, I think that it was community engagement that got us over some of those bumps. So we just need to stay engaged and I try to engage from a positive perspective, to stand up for housing justice and the importance of sheltering all New Yorkers.”
Roberto: “Being on the Upper West Side has been a blessing to me. Coming from a facility where you have two people handling 230-plus cases, in that environment you feel like you’re just a case number. Coming into these hotels, some of these housing specialists only have to deal with 35, 40 cases at a time. It’s an advantage and an opportunity to try to get myself out of the position that I’m in right now. Every homeless person is different. Not everyone has a mental illness, not everyone is battling drug addiction or alcoholism. The only thing that we all have in common is that we’re homeless.”
Corinne Low: “We wanted to bring the focus back to the need to protect people in shelters. That is the point of the sleep-out. [Opponents] seem to think that if these people weren’t here, they’d cease to exist. But they wouldn’t. They’d be exposed to the elements, to risk, to the dangerous situation of Covid outbreaks in congregate shelters. We wanted to be sleeping out to show the reality that this is what happens when you don’t have shelters.”
Photos and interviews by Joy Bergmann.