Profile: A Minister Whose Congregation Is Composed of People Living on the Streets of the UWS

Ian Alterman, Minister to the homeless.

By Carol Tannenhauser

Ian Alterman moved to the Upper West Side in 1965 when he was seven years old, and has lived in the same apartment on West 83rd Street ever since. The child of highly educated “Jewish atheists,” he became a “spiritual seeker” at the age of 17, and a Christian at 19. At 44, after a series of secular jobs, he felt a “powerful calling” and went on to be ordained as a nondenominational Protestant minister. He chose as his congregation “the street homeless people” of the Upper West Side.

For 14 years, seven days a week, Ian ministered to their needs, supporting himself with a series of afternoon and evening “job jobs” in restaurants and hotels. During the day he offered the homeless counsel, comfort, and coffee, while helping them get IDs, benefits, and permanent housing. His knowledge and understanding of local individuals and the evolution of homelessness in the neighborhood is firsthand; he has been “deep in the weeds.” He believes that the current crisis is the result of the convergence of several factors, which he laid out in two recent telephone conversations. The following is a condensation of his words and ideas, based on a transcript of those talks.

First of all, the street homelessness situation on the Upper West Side had already been growing for the last two or three years, long before the arrival of COVID or the temporary hotels. It was very noticeable to anybody who watches the streets.

Then, in mid March, COVID hit and the first thing it brought was the shelter-in-place order. When everybody who has a home is in their home, who is left on the street to be noticed but the homeless? They were always there, but, in the hustle and bustle of our lives before the pandemic, they were more invisible. When that’s all there is to focus on, that’s what you focus on.

In early May, nearly 300 single homeless people were moved into the Hotel Belleclaire. Now, you have that population added to the street homeless. That exact same week, the MTA shut down the subway, forcing hundreds, maybe thousands of subway homeless to the surface, doubling the number of street homeless throughout the city, including on the Upper West Side. I have not heard of any plan to help them, which was another mistake made by the city.

At the end of May, 100 homeless men were moved into the Belnord Hotel. The Belnord was never really a problem, but then, in mid July, another 283 men were moved into The Lucerne, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. What happened was, people were conflating the street homeless and the hotel residents, scapegoating the men of The Lucerne. Think about it: why would a man with a hotel room 100 steps away urinate, defecate or masturbate where he could be seen? On the other hand, all the usual places like libraries, Starbucks, and bookstores were closed because of the pandemic, so the street homeless literally had nowhere to go. The bushes in the Broadway medians seemed as good a place as any.

The last piece was the dismantling of the former NYPD housing outreach unit, which was cut from their budget at the end of June. They were a team of police officers whose sole job was to go around and help the homeless to the degree that they could and they were really dedicated, fantastic people. We worked together and I’m sad they’re gone.

Today, at 62, Ian is acting as one of two “faith leaders” for the UWS Open Hearts Initiative, a grassroots group fighting to keep the men at The Lucerne. They are opposed by the Westside Community Organization (Westco), an organization that has advocated for moving the men to another shelter, where they say they would get better services. Westco has hired a lawyer to sue the city if need be. Legal Aid is threatening to counter sue. Open Hearts is working to bring more services to The Lucerne. One initiative is a tri-weekly “walk and talk” program led by Ian and another minister, a kind of walking group therapy in which the men of the Lucerne have the chance and space — often in Central Park — to express themselves freely.

That’s how I know a lot of these men are really wonderful people who mean no harm. All they’re trying to do is get a roof over their heads and a key to a door. Yeah, there are some bad apples, I’m not going to argue it. Some of the residents were, at least at the beginning, partly responsible for the “conditions” being seen by people. The mistake is in painting the entire homeless population with a broad brush.

Isaac McGinn, a spokesperson for DHS, says that “it is certain” that the men of the Lucerne will be moved.

The headline has been modified in deference to good grammar.

NEWS | 48 comments | permalink
    1. Phoebe says:

      I noticed that Ian’s comments were eliminated from
      a discussion on Nextdoor. I thought that was interesting bc he was not particularly abrasive. The fact that some will be offered more services confirms that more services are needed. I hope that more ppl will get the help they need. It has been bothering me, however, that that many ppl who have what they need, seem to relish the spectacle of homelessness, even tho they say they don’t like what they see. I find those personalities more distasteful than any random, annoying comment I might get in the street, and in my experience, that hasn’t gotten worse in the past few years. Most homeless people have other things to think about—or ways to not think about things—and I feel compassion for them, especially now.

      • Ian Alterman says:

        My four original posts to ND are still there. Go to the search box and type in “UWS Situation.” Then scroll down. They should be there. Thanks!

      • Marti Cassidy says:

        A good man doing great work. So many bankrupt hotels and vacant restaurants to house and feed those in need, It’s madness to let our embedded bigotry cloud our thinking.

    2. lynn says:

      How or why could anyone “relish the spectacle of homeless?” Could you plz elaborate on that comment?

    3. Bob Lamm says:

      Great story and great work all these years–and today–by Ian Alterman. Thank you.

    4. rteplow says:

      Thanks for your good work, Ian. You’re a good man.

      Nice to see you here,
      from a 2010 Census buddy

    5. Lisa says:

      Thank you Ian for your efforts. There is something I genuinely don’t understand. If NYC is paying for the homeless to live in hotels for the duration of Covid, why is ANYONE sleeping on the street? Can someone like Ian who knows about this situation answer this question, because if homeless people would rather sleep on the street than IN A HOTEL then we have a way bigger problem than simply a lack of housing.

      • Ian Alterman says:

        Thank you for your question. The answer is twofold. First, the reason for the use of the hotels is to allow for greater social distancing of the homeless in congregate shelters, both in the shelters themselves (where beds are usually only a couple of feet apart) and in the hotels, where they mostly have their own rooms, or are only doubled up.

        Second, there are ~4,000-5,000 homeless on the street at any given time – a number which rose precipitously when the MTA forced the homeless in the subways up to the surface.

        Ultimately, there are simply not enough hotel rooms to house an additional 5.000+ people.

        Clearly, the underlying issue is bad homeless policy and its implementation.

      • Ian Alterman says:

        I want to add something here. Many homeless people do not WANT to go to the congregate shelters (eve without a pandemic) because they are not safe. There is violence (and BOTH people get thrown out no matter who “started” it) and theft. And when everything you own is in single knapsack or bag, and it gets stolen, you are literally back to square one with regard to IDs, etc. So even if there were room at the congregate shelters for another 4,000+ people, not all would go.

        • LL says:

          I have noticed more homeless on the streets the last few years, and thought it was my imagination. I wonder what has caused the uptick?

          Anyway. What you are doing is great work.

          • Ian Alterman says:

            Thank you for your kind words. As one who has been doing this a long time, I, too, am uncertain what caused the uptick over the past three years or so. It is probably a combination of factors.

        • Hal says:

          how about the ones that dont work, maybe some of them can work for all these free things that they get(cleaning up the neighborhood instead of the residents)…Maybe it will give some of them some self respect instead of sitting on B’way drinking and drugging all day

          • Ian Alterman says:

            Actually, some of the men ARE working with the One Block initiative, helping to keep the streets clean. And one of the saddest things about their being forced to move yet again is that Goddard-Riverside was about to implement a $500,000 program to provide program at their facility all day, with meals, as well as 50 jobs. Now all of that will be lost.

            As for “sitting on B’way drinking and drugging all day,” per the main point of the interview, I would simply ask how you know of a certainty that those men are residents of the hotel and not “street homeless.” It is easy to conflate the two.

            • Hal says:

              How do I know? Because they weren’t hangin out on B’way before the move to the 3 hotels (Belnord, Belleclaire & Lucerne)..I know you want to stick up for your flock and put a spin on this, but I live right in the middle of this and see it every day.

            • Ian Alterman says:

              It is not about “spin.” It is about facts. I, too, live on the UWS (near the Lucerne), and have for over 55 years. And you still seem to be missing the point that there are now twice as many street homeless as there were prior to Covid. And their presence occurred simultaneously with the placement of the residents into the hotels. So those “hanging out” on the malls could be either.

              This is NOT to suggest that SOME of those hanging out are not from the hotels. But even so, I would ask this: why pick on the homeless at the hotels, when there are dozens of “regular” residents who also hang out on the malls and elsewhere? Is it only okay for them, but not for the homeless?

      • Da Homeless Hero says:

        This is a great question. I think DHS policy is extremely flawed in this regard. Those of us at the Lucerne do not want to be moved to te Radisson. Yet, DHS is insisting on making this move to appease one lawyer. Yet, the Wall Street area is flooded with hundreds, maybe thousdands of homeless people in the streets. Why not engage them and get them into the single room hotel? Why leave them in the streets while moving us from a place where we are safe and secure? It’s a lack of concern for the vulnerable and voiceless.

        • Ian Alterman says:

          Hero:

          Thank you for your comment. I cannot help but agree that the move seems both unnecessary and ultimately harmful to all of you, given the havoc, instability and trauma many of you would experience.

          And even if DHS did not choose to house the local homeless, there are many congregate shelters, including Wards Island, that could really use the space for the purpose they are intended: to provide more social distancing during the pandemic.

          • Concerned UWS says:

            Isnt Wards Island where the registered sex offenders get sent?

            • Ian Alterman says:

              When a homeless person is seeking shelter, they must first go to Bellevue to be assessed, and then they are placed. Wards Island IS one of the first places that they are placed, so, yes, homeless sex offenders would go there first, along with everyone else. But residents there are often transferred to more appropriate shelters depending on need and availability. There are sex offenders in many shelters. There are also over 65 registered sex offenders, of all levels, living permanently on the UWS. You may go down your elevator with them, pass them in your local supermarket, or sit next to them in a movie theater.

      • Thank you for highlighting the work of an amazing individual who gives tirelessly of himself for our community. Ian is a true public servant: he served for years on Community Board 7 and as the President of the 20th Police Precinct Community Council, monthly forums between neighborhood residents and police officers from the precinct, where I first met him. In the course of advocating for people experiencing homelessness, Ian and I have become good friends. Often when we meet for coffee, without saying a word, he invites a stranger-in-need to the nearby pizzeria, to buy him lunch, before quietly returning to our table.

    6. Bob Lamm says:

      Thanks, Ian, for answering some of the questions posed here and for all your valuable and caring comments. It’s also great that we have a comment here from Da Homeless Hero, a current resident of the Lucerne who has spoken out eloquently in recent weeks.

    7. rteplow says:

      Now that we have Ian and Da Homeless Hero as resources: can anyone point to any successful homeless programs, best practices, etc. I’m an architect so I’d love to hear if you know of any built projects that work well. Do you have any thoughts about whether/how we might convert now-excessive office space into housing?

      I’m convinced that our next mayor needs to be the housing mayor.

      • Ian Alterman says:

        Actually, Hero and I were discussing this very thing the other day, both in general and re architecturally. There is not currently anyone I know of who is going this actively, but if you would like to start a group in this direction, I’m sure there are others who would join you! 😉

        • rteplow says:

          I am far from an expert but I did work in an office about 12 years ago that specializes in affordable housing, though not homeless shelters: Magnusson Architecture & Planning. I haven’t followed up to see how their buildings are faring.

          I also took a course in housing while in architecture school. It was taught by a wonderful man, Richard Plunz. I don’t know if he is still around.

          I get the impression that somehow Europe has done a better job than we have with affordable housing. I’m trying not to be a knee-jerk liberal Europhile but can’t help feeling better walking through neighborhoods with housing projects in Berlin and Vienna and not feeling depressed. On the other hand, some of the Banlieues of Paris are very dispiriting.

          I went to a specialty group meeting at the Center for Architecture in the village and will look to see if they have one for housing. I hope it is not just for architects but if so, I can ask about a more open group.

          My two cents.

      • Concerned UWS says:

        With all the money and resources put towards addressing homelessness and all the associated root causes under the over arching umbrella, how is it that the solution needs to be delegated to us? What about a the experts that control the huge budgets and take hefty salaries? It seems like a scam at the expense of these men and tax payers.

        • Ian Alterman says:

          I hear you. Sadly, the “experts” don’t always have the answers either. And while it shouldn’t fall on “us,” WE do need to be part of the solution. If homelessness (and the related issue of housing) is ever going to be reduced, it will take ALL stakeholder – government/elected officials, experts in a variety of disciplines (housing, substance abuse disorder, mental illness, even architecture), advocacy and service organizations like Coalition for the Homeless and Project Renewal, community boards, the NYPD, neighborhood and block associations, individuals AND, missing until this moment, homeless persons themselves – the people who really KNOW what is going on internally. Until that occurs, we can throw money at it until we are broke, and nothing will change. 🙁

    8. JS says:

      This is a very interesting and informative article. Well done Carol.

    9. Alan Flacks says:

      Ian Alterman, Man of the Year.

    10. Florence says:

      Ian, I wish you could show the same or some compassion for the elderly. My mother is 82 and I live with her. After being aggressively panhandled by one of the men from the Belleclaire ( no mask!), she is afraid to leave the apt. I will add she has lived here for over 60 years and has rights to a safe neighborhood!

      • Kat French says:

        Florence, what makes you think that Ian’s (or anyone’s) compassion is limited to one group? He is obviously not advocating for panhandling or aggressive behavior,. Calling him out when he has dedicated his entire life to trying to help those less fortunate is unfair and unkind on your part. Rather than criticizing someone who is trying to be part of the solution, perhaps you could be asking what you and your mom can do to support his efforts.

        • HelenD says:

          Does Pastor Ian have a Twitter account? As fond as I am of the WSR I find it easier to follow an ongoing conversation in the Twitter format. I would definitely like to hear more about his work. Thank you.

          • Ian Alterman says:

            Unfortunately, no, I do not have a Twitter account. Sorry.

            • HelenD says:

              Thank you for the reply and for all of the good work that you do. If it’s feasible, please try to include the men left behind on 72nd btwn WEA and B’way. They were part of a homeless encampment and all of their belongings were removed by Sanitation. The older man, commonly known as tie-dye-guy is quite aggressive, the younger man is normally passed out on the sidewalk from his drug use, and the third one is often left alone to fend for himself. He’s very passive and rarely speaks, and his health has deteriorated greatly in the past few months. I’ve called 311 several times to ask for help but no one responds. They are usually in front of Gebhard’s or the Baptist Church, or under the scaffolding by the shoe repair/bus stop near WEA. The Guardian Angels spoke to them briefly but I’ve never seen them return to the neighborhood again.

            • Ian Alterman says:

              Thank you for this. I have actually been monitoring West 72nd for a few weeks now, and seen or spoke with all of those you mention. Sadly, the “tie-dye guy” used to be just a “happy homeless hippie,” but has apparently grown aggressive. In addition to those you mention, there is an older man who sits next to the diner at WEA, and a young woman who lays out on the sidewalk across from the line for TJs. I will continue to monitor and try to help those on that block. Thank you again.

            • HelenD says:

              It’s reassuring to know that you are aware of them and checking up on them. Thank you again for all of your efforts.

      • Ian Alterman says:

        Florence:

        I am saddened that this happened. I would ask, however: how do you know that the man you saw was from the hotel, and not “street homeless?” As per the article, it is sometime difficult to tell. IF you are certain it was a resident, you need to report these incidents to the guards, or demand to see the supervisor. The hotel is very good about transferring “bad apples” to other places.

        Hope it never happens again, but if it does, please take those steps.

        Peace.

    11. Suzie E says:

      Note: This is an aside. It is not meant in any way to trivialize the main topic. However, editors exist to defend the language, and I’m an editor.

      Re: “A Minister Whose Congregation is Comprised of People…”

      No.

      His congregation is **composed** of people who…

      OR

      His congregation **comprises** people who…

      “Comprise” is like “embrace.” Remember that and you’ll never go wrong.

      Also, even though “is” is a little tiny word, it is a verb and should be capitalized in titles.

      Thank you for your attention. 🙂

      • rteplow says:

        Yes! Comprise is a tricky word and it’s hard to use it correctly without feeling odd. I learned the proper usage from none other than Frank Rich: it was many years ago and I was doing a lot of informational interviews.

      • Ian Alterman says:

        It’s okay. I have been known to be a dedicated member of the grammar and usage police. However, in this case, either word is acceptable, though comprise is actually slightly more accurate:

        “Comprise is a verb that means ‘to include or contain’ or ‘to consist of,’ as in ‘the pie comprises 8 slices.’ Compose means ‘to be or constitute a part of element of’ or ‘to make up or form the basis of,’ as in eight slices compose the pie.”

      • Carol Tannenhauser says:

        Thank you for your guidance. Headline has been modified 🙂

    12. Ken says:

      Reading Ian’s many informed and reasoned responses to readers’ questions, it occurred to me that the WSR could serve the community well by creating an “Ask Ian” column that would answer neighborhood residents’ inquiries about the homeless during this especially difficult time. He sheds calming yet knowledgeable light on the issue.

      • IsaacR says:

        Enjoyed hearing about the great work Ian is doing and would love to hear more about how we can be supportive! A ongoing column would be excellent (to the extent he can spare the time)

        • Ian Alterman says:

          Thank you! Re getting involved, it depends on how deeply and in what way. If you would like to support the homeless currently in the hotels on the UWS, you should get in touch with Open Hearts Initiative, which has been doing yeoman’s work in this regard, and has several areas of volunteer help. If you are talking about the broader issue of homelessness, I hope you have ALOT of time. LOL. Seriously, though, let me know and I can connect you with organizations doing that work. Thanks for your interest!

      • Ian Alterman says:

        Thank you for that idea. Perhaps WSR will do that. In the meantime, you can reach me via PM through NextDoor, if you are a member. (It is free, and a very good online community space.)

    13. Sam Katz says:

      I posted comments a few days ago, but it turns out it was too long. So allow me to just say congratulations to my dear friend Ian Alterman for being acknowledged by this “newspaper” for his years of service to the homeless and others on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.