By Carol Tannenhauser
Shams DaBaron, who used to be homeless, stood in the sunlight before a statue of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. at West 125th Street on Friday. DaBaron was flanked by others still experiencing homelessness, supporters, and politicians, including two mayoral candidates. He was there to register his outrage at having been “violated” by two private investigators, formerly NYPD officers, who he says entered his new apartment, posing as plumbers, and surreptitiously photographed him shirtless. They were sent to confirm that he had moved out of The Lucerne hotel/homeless shelter, he contended, either directly or indirectly by Mayor Bill de Blasio.
In fact, it was lawyer Randy Mastro, who hired the private eyes. Mastro has been representing a local group trying to oust the homeless residents from The Lucerne. The P.I.s went to DaBaron’s home to verify that he lives there now, and not at the Lucerne. In a pending lawsuit, Mastro’s central contention is that all of the plaintiffs fighting the city to stay at The Lucerne have now been placed in permanent housing, and thus they no longer have standing in court, i.e., the right to sue. If so, the city’s plan to move the homeless men can proceed, he argues. (DaBaron’s legal name is Ramone Buford.)
”What really went on here is that Mr. Buford and his lawyer didn’t want to admit to the Court that he had moved out of the Lucerne because they knew that would require dismissal of his case as moot,” Mastro said, in a statement to the Rag. “In opposing our motion to dismiss based on press reports of Mr. Buford’s move, his lawyer ludicrously claimed he’d been unable to reach his high-profile client for weeks (despite tweeting with him) and challenged the sufficiency of our evidence as ‘hearsay.’ So, we were forced to bear the burden of having to obtain direct evidence that Mr. Buford is now living elsewhere because he and his lawyer wouldn’t admit that fact. That they have orchestrated this elaborate cover story and PR campaign cannot obscure the fact that Mr. Buford no longer has standing to maintain this lawsuit to keep men at the Lucerne when he no longer lives there himself, so his case must now be dismissed.”
But DaBaron’s supporters see it very differently. “It’s outrageous…egregious…a violation of human rights. I stand with Shams!” some shouted at the press conference.
The saga of The Lucerne started in July 2020, when 283 men experiencing homelessness, many with mental illness and addiction problems, were transferred by the NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to The Lucerne, a four-star boutique hotel on the northwest corner of West 79th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Earlier that summer, two other UWS boutique hotels — the Belleclaire, on 77th Street and Broadway, and The Belnord, on 87th between Amsterdam and Broadway — were also booked by the city to serve as temporary shelters, because traditional congregate shelters made social distancing impossible and were potential COVID-19 hotspots.
The Lucerne, the third “homeless hotel” within a 10-block radius, was the tipping point. Complaints in the neighborhood multiplied as did lurid descriptions of intolerable behaviors in the streets, though they could not always be tied definitively to the men of The Lucerne. Two homegrown organizations emerged: West Side Community Organization (WestCo), which quickly raised over $100,000 to hire Randy Mastro, who had been a deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani and represented de Blasio in the past, to get the men out of The Lucerne, saying they lacked services there and were destroying the neighborhood; and UWS Open Hearts Initiative (Open Hearts) which advocated for the men to stay, arranging for social services for them, and even paid jobs.
Inevitably, they ended up in court.
In the meantime, DaBaron had become a leader. His voice was first heard in WSR’s comment section, anonymously. Eventually, he revealed himself as Da Homeless Hero, a.k.a. Shams DaBaron, and evolved into a voice and advocate for the men of The Lucerne and all New Yorkers experiencing homelessness. He even helped organize a first-of-its-kind mayoral forum on homelessness where people experiencing homelessness got to grill the candidates.
DaBaron also became a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the city’s right to move the men. After months of deliberations, decisions, and reversals, the case is due to be decided in May. Mastro filed a motion in late March to dismiss the case now, based upon reports that DaBaron had moved out of the Lucerne. To prove it, he hired the P.I.s.
DaBaron’s lawyer, Michael Hiller, was unavailable for comment. He has maintained that he was unable to reach his client and so didn’t know he had moved out.
Open Hearts seized upon the alleged violation of DaBaron’s rights and, possibly, the law. “It’s trespassing, it’s trespassing,” Corinne Low yelled, at the rally. “It’s trespassing. Wooo!” Low is the Co-founder of Open Hearts. Though well-attended by the media, the event had more of the feel of a rally, with Low in charge. First the politicians spoke: Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley, Borough President candidate Lindsey Boylan, and local City Council candidate Sara Lind among them. They raised their fists and said, “I stand with Shams,” hugged him, whispered to him, and left.
Then, Harlem community leaders spoke their minds. “It’s amazing how the politicians come out for the photo ops, but don’t stay around to hear us speak,” one woman said. “I’m kind of fucking annoyed that we have the community voices after they’re gone,” said a man. “We’re tired of being pimped by people who claim to want our vote, need our vote, but don’t hang around to listen,” the woman added. They spoke about “restitution” for Shams, the need for affordable housing, ending homelessness and abolishing white supremacy, and defunding the police, which one man called “the legacy of slave patrols.”
The court should rule soon on whether the city will be allowed to move the men of the Lucerne to another hotel/shelter in the Financial District, which is what the city has planned for them. A community group down there is already suing to stop it. Precedents will be set no matter who wins the case. In prior interviews with the Rag, Randy Mastro said, “I think it would be a devastating precedent if homeless individuals can go to court to force the city to temporarily house them in the venue of their choice.”
”I argue against the dangerous precedent that would be set if we were to lose,” Michael Hiller said previously, “namely, that a group of wealthy neighbors can hire a politically connected lawyer and forcibly evict homeless residents from their community.”
We will keep you posted.