By Carol Tannenhauser
A state appeals court dismissed a lawsuit brought by three homeless men challenging the city’s right to move them and most of the other residents of The Lucerne Hotel to a shelter downtown.
A four-judge panel from the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York decided unanimously that the issue “is moot, because the [men] have all moved out of the Lucerne and secured separate housing.”
For a while, the housing status of the final petitioner, Ramone Buford, was unclear, with the opposing attorney, Randy Mastro, insisting he had moved out of The Lucerne. Mastro eventually hired private investigators, who photographed Buford in his new apartment. The two other men named in the original suit had previously secured other housing.
The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) said that the decision affirms “our decision-making and strategic planning, especially with regards to shelter capacity and protecting health and safety of the New Yorkers we serve during this emergency period.” By moving the men, the city says they’ll be closer to services like medical care.
But the move may not be imminent. The homeless hotel program is in the process of being phased out and “the Lucerne will be phased out as part of that return-to-shelter plan and these individuals will be included in that plan, rather than relocating twice in a short time period.” Already many residents of the Lucerne have moved or been offered more permanent housing. There are currently around 70 left.
The Lucerne, on 79th Street near Amsterdam Avenue, has served as a shelter since July as part of a city program to move people out of more closely packed shelters where they were vulnerable to Covid infection. Unlike some other hotels-turned-shelters, The Lucerne only housed men and some were enrolled in drug-treatment programs. After their arrival, a Facebook group with more than 10,000 members began advocating for their removal, arguing that quality of life in the neighborhood had gone downhill. A nonprofit called West Side Community Organization (WestCo) also pushed for the men to be moved to another location, which they said would also be better for the men. A group called UWS Open Hearts emerged to support the men and advocate for them to stay.
Mayor de Blasio toured the area in September, and said what he saw was “not, to me, acceptable.” Shortly afterwards, the city tried to move the men to a Raddison near Wall Street, but lawsuits blocked and delayed the move — until now.
“WestCo’s goal has always been to see the men get the services they need. Now that will happen and that’s a good thing for all concerned,” said Randy Mastro, a lawyer for WestCo, in a statement after the latest ruling.
UWS Open Hearts wrote on Twitter that they were disappointed in the ruling, but called on the city to delay the move so that the remaining men could be placed in permanent housing. The group has worked to set the men up with jobs and other opportunities. “Men at the Lucerne are taking remote classes, and doing work-from-home jobs,” Open Hearts wrote. “They are utilizing on-site services; Drug and alcohol use has substantially dropped vs the congregate setting. To force them back to shelters where they would lose all this progress would be cruel.”
Michael Hiller, who represented the men litigating to stay in the Lucerne said in a statement that “notwithstanding this unfortunate ruling, we won critical victories along the way that have already made a world of difference. The temporary restraining order and stay we obtained from the courts made it possible for approximately 100 men to find homes.”
He also said the attention that The Lucerne drew should benefit people experiencing homelessness.
“In addition, we have the whole city, including all of the major Democratic candidates for mayor, talking about homelessness, affordable housing, its relationship with racial and social injustice, institutional economic inequality, and bringing about citywide change. So, while we may have lost this battle, we are winning the war,” he said.