The Lucerne Saga Ends, as the Last Men Leave to Return to Traditional Shelters

Leaving The Lucerne.

By Carol Tannenhauser

On Monday morning, June 28th, 11 months after 283 men experiencing homelessness moved into The Lucerne hotel on West 79th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, igniting a firestorm in the neighborhood, the remaining 68 men boarded a long white bus to head back downtown to the congregate shelters they came from.

“I feel kind of bad about moving,” Lucerne resident Brian Lucas said. “Cause we goin’ back into the shelter. We’re going to be right next to people. I’ve been here a year already and I haven’t got my housing. I’m disabled. I can’t work. I don’t really know what’s holding it up. I see my case worker every time I’m supposed to see her. So far ain’t nothing come through.”

Another man commented that he felt like he was going to jail.

Demetrius acted out his feeling of elation when he first got to The Lucerne.

“It would be awesome if we could stay till September,” said Demetrius, another resident. “I feel like I’m a kid in a candy store all over again, just because I’m in here.”

The majority of the men at The Lucerne already left over the past few months, either because they got permanent housing or because they violated the site’s “good neighbor” behavior policy. But Monday’s move is a more final coda to the episode.

”It’s an ellipses,” argued attorney Michael Hiller, who represented some residents in several lawsuits. “What started as a local incident has become a movement. Every leading mayoral candidate has embraced housing first, as opposed to shelter.”

The Lucerne inspired controversy in July 2020 when the city suddenly decided to move men — some of whom were in treatment for drug abuse — to the Lucerne to protect them from getting Covid-19 in closely packed traditional shelters. Shortly after the men arrived, some neighbors said the quality of life in the neighborhood deteriorated. More than 15,000 people joined a Facebook group that shared stories and photos of men in the area around the shelter, including allegations that they were doing drugs and other unsavory things in public.

Mayor de Blasio visited the area in September and said that what he saw wasn’t acceptable, though he did not go into detail. Shortly afterwards, the city said the men would be moving to another hotel downtown. Lawsuits filed by neighborhood residents and the homeless men themselves took months to work through the court system, but eventually resulted in a judge blessing the city’s decision to move the men. By then, however, the city was close to moving the men back to congregate shelters given the decline in Covid cases. That’s why the men are returning to their former shelters and not another hotel.

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal informed her constituents that the other so-called “homeless hotels” in the neighborhood, would also be closing. “…residents of the Belnord will return to their shelter in early July,” she wrote. “We will keep you posted regarding the closure of the remaining emergency shelters in District 6.”

A hard step to take.

The UWS Open Hearts Initiative (OHI), which has been supporting and advocating for the men, strongly opposed the transfer. “The city could fast track its implementation and use the time before FEMA funding runs out (in September) to get NYers into permanent housing,” the group said in a written statement. Open Hearts had helped many of the men get jobs in the area, including cleaning streets. The group held events and donation drives for the men to make them feel welcome.

A spokesperson for the city responded that “more than 140,000 NYers have moved out of shelter” during the de Blasio administration. “To be clear: The key factor pre- and during the pandemic that has reduced number of people in shelter is helping people find housing and move out of shelter, using every tool we have, including rental assistance programs developed by the City and federal programs like Section 8.”

The city strongly defended its staff and programs. “These myths that the City programs don’t work…or this baseless aspersion cast on our staff and our essential not-for-profit social service provider partners that they haven’t helped the clients that we serve move out of shelter, when in fact they’ve done extraordinary work to go above and beyond during this incredibly challenging year, really doesn’t hold up – when tens of thousands of households have used them or are using them right now to pay for the tens of thousands of affordable homes they found and moved into from shelter…This allegation is an insult to the dedication and commitment of our essential frontline staff who reported for duty 24/7/365 throughout the pandemic to provide that helping hand to New Yorkers in need, no matter the circumstance.”

No one cheered.

No one came to cheer the men’s departure; in fact, there was sadness in the already oppressively humid air. Some came to bear witness and show support. “I’m here because it really matters if the Upper West Side is an inclusive place,” said Lucy Merriam, a student at Baruch College. ”Growing up here, I know that this neighborhood has a tendency toward segregation or exclusion and towards, you know, like prioritizing comfort or quality of life, quote, unquote — you know, the comfort of certain people who have a lot of money and the means to fight for their comfort over the actual material needs of people who, you know, deserve to live here, too. And the fact that we don’t have enough affordable housing, the fact that this is happening, it’s really disheartening. And I just wish that my neighborhood were different.”

Correction: There were originally 283 residents of The Lucerne, not 238, as we first reported.

NEWS | 51 comments | permalink
    1. Tom says:

      So is Lucerne plan to reopen as higher end hotel again? May be a challenge.

      • Farnham Maxwell says:

        Of course..The business of America is business

        • Truth Tella Fella says:

          Welcome back, Calvin Coolidge! Actually what “Cal” said was “…the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.”
          And “business” is NOT just “Big Business”; it is also a small store, started by a recent immigrant who stocks stuff from his home country to serve his fellow countrymen, hires some locals to help out, deals with NYC regulations, pays his taxes, etc.
          S(he), too, is a ‘capitalist’…and, as the song says, “what’s wrong with that?”

      • John says:

        They should consider rebranding.

    2. wombayNYC says:

      It’s about time – Get ’em out

      • TippingPoint says:

        Shame on Project Renewal and DHS for poor planning. They failed those suffering from homelessness by not engaging neighbors who were upset about criminal and safety issues that accompanied the Lucerne move. And Helen Rosenthal made a difficult situation worse by retweeting messages about NIMBYism instead of trying to understand her constituent concerns. The result? I’m not sure if the men are better off, but public sympathy for their plight has unfortunately has weakened.

    3. Lisa says:

      This is the first I heard that the Lucerne had a “good neighbor” behavior policy. What was the policy? How many men were kicked out for not following it? I am surprised the journalist who wrote this article omitted these details. They surely must know.

      • Dave K. says:

        For those of you who fought to keep these people here, now do you realize that not much was accomplished to help them? That the neighborhood suffered and continues to do so? That others in the Belleclaire, et. al. have not really been helped but are just pawns. Maybe the folks who supported them to stay should now get active about providing vital services to these poor people instead of attacking the families that live here. That would be meaningful. Just look at the data on crimes, unfortunate deaths that took place. Nothing will change for these poor people. Jumping up and down and writing colorful comments in crayon on the sidewalk never helped anyone.

        • Peter says:

          It takes anywhere from 3 to 5 years for single men to move from the shelters to permanent housing. That assumes they dont go to jail or voluntarily leave the system. The point was to slow covid spread in shelters. That goal was accomplished. Now they go back to the shelters. Maybe if people paid more attention to the horrible shelter conditions and the army of politically connected non profits who take in billions and do nothing some actual progress might be made. These people in the neighborhood did nothing in the long run to help anyone. We also have a prison to shelter pipeline that isn’t acknowledged by anyone. Moving people from jails to shelters just moves people and money around. It might makes so called progressive types feel better but accomplishes nothing.

          • Lisa says:

            Peter, I am not a progressive democrat, but I completely agree that without proper support after prison it is hard to break the prison/shelter/prison pipeline. The most important question is: why aren’t these men working? Can they read and write? Are they willing to be responsible and show up on time? Would they be capable of filling any of Amazon’s thousands of unfilled jobs? If not, why not? Those who are not qualified to work have to get educated. Those who are not socialized to work, different issue and different solution.

            • CGK says:

              Wow. They have been here eleven months and you have learned nothing?

              A number of them did have jobs, in fact. Others were looking for work and for housing,m

              Are you aware of how condescending you sound?

              And, again, the homeless were placed on hotels to save their lives, since congregate shelters are dangerous in a pandemic,

            • Peter says:

              Let me answer some of your questions. These individuals are products of the NYC school system. Many read and write at a 3rd grade level at best . Amazon jobs? Are any of those jobs in NYC? How do they get to these jobs? On the subway? Shelters have curfews and all sorts of rules that can make working non daytime jobs virtually impossible. You sound like a maga Republican. Get a job bum. Its more complicated than that. The shelters dont provide real world job training or rehab that works. Go live in a shelter for 5 years and see what it does to you.

            • charles says:

              Keep raising the minimum wage under the living wage slogan and these unskilled men will never get a job. Progressive don’t understand that economic reality.

        • CGK says:

          First, they are still alive, which was the goal. You know – worldwide pandemic ? Heard of it. Sorry that keeping people ALIVE irritated you.

          Second, many have now been placed in permanent housing, a number worked on the neighborhood cleanup sponsored by Goddard.

          And all of them learned that many of us care about their well-being. Not you, obviously. But many of us.

      • CGK says:

        This was in numerous articles dating back to last August. Men who violated it were moved..

      • Paul says:

        Early on, and yes, the rollout was a major screwup.

        But for the last several months?

        All you had to do was look at the constant crowding at Nice Matin to realize that the “problem” was way overblown.
        How could so many people be dining in peace in a restaurant LOCATED IN THAT HOTEL if there was such a big problem?

    4. Ken says:

      I completely echo Lucy Merriam’s words. Give that student an A+ for heart and insight into too many of her neighbors.

    5. Tonya Owens says:

      It’s unfortunate. But for the best.

    6. Miriam Kali-rai says:

      THANK YOU The Lucerne for your humanity and taking care of your neighbors in need

      • Otis says:

        Why are you thanking The Lucerne? The owners did not turn their hotel into a homeless shelter out of altruism. They were paid handsomely by the city.

      • Frank Grimes says:

        It would have been “humanity” if they in fact allowed them to stay there at no charge. The owner was rewarded with an overly generous contract, which coincidently didn’t need any approval from the city budget committee. If investigated, it was probably criminal. The owner of this hotel likely cares very little about these men who stayed there, and certainly not for the quality of life of those who live around his hotel. I understand the scenario of having to make income during a tough period, but to paint the owner of the Lucerne as some sort of mensch, is laughable…

        • Brandon says:

          “If investigated, it was probably criminal.”

          It’s really unnecessary to accuse the city and/or Lucerne operator of a crime just because you disagreed with a policy that temporarily increased how many people of color you saw in the neighborhood.

          See? Anyone can make inflammatory assertions on the Internet.

          • Frank Grimes says:

            I rarely respond to comments, but please do not attack my character, and make accusations of racism twords me (although that seems to be the new norm these days to settle arguments).

            My comment about the over inflated prices the city was paying for these rooms, and the fact that many of these Hoteliers just happened to be donors to the Mayor is very well documented. The Comptroller himself said he was blind to the contracts that were signed. As a taxpayer, you should be equally as disturbed by how this went down.

            • Brandon says:

              Honored that you chose my comment to respond to, since you apparently do it so rarely. Thank you.

            • Bill says:

              I am not sure where you are coming up with this “over inflated prices” statement. $130 per day is far less than the average daily rate of any hotels in the neighborhood, especially less than the average daily rate at the Lucerne during non-pandemic times.

              Maybe do some research before making controversial claims about something you clearly know very little about.

    7. Free Housing for EVERYBODY!

      Everybody said, first, that MUSIC wants to be free (tough luck, musicians), then it was INFORMATION’s turn (too bad, newspaper reporters).

      Now it’s HOUSING’s turn!

      PS- How and where do I attache my next month’s rent bill?

    8. blacklikeu says:

      So….finally…. it ends.
      11 months after they first moved in.
      Now is the time to turn the Lucerne and other hotels to low budget housing for New York folks who work hard for a living but can not afford the high rents.
      Forget the $375 a night.
      Call it $35 instead.

      • Boris says:

        No one is entitled to live where the rents are high. There are plenty of affordable options within commuting distance.

    9. Homeless Sweet Homeless says:

      Homeless ‘advocacy’ is a self-righteous grift.

    10. Yvonne says:

      Hello I live in the family shelter seems like we not moving to our housing at all I’ve been in shelter since 2016 in single and in family since 2017 this doesn’t make any sense. Need help

      • js says:

        The City has not treated families well.
        Hope that you get whatever assistance you need.

    11. Mary says:

      The irony of this is the men would have been already living in the Radisson which was renovated and permanent with their own rooms. Now they are being moved back to congregate shelter. Open hearts and Hiller ended up hurting them in the end.

      • Casey says:

        Yes, have thought that myself. It was never about the men to Open Hearts and Hiller. Everyone knows it.

    12. Sarah says:

      …and now, all the people who claimed to be upset that these men supposedly couldn’t access services at the Lucerne will never think of their well-being again.

      • Franklin says:

        Why should they? These men DID NOT have access to services at these hotels. Now they will, and the city will continue to look after them, as is its responsibility. It is no longer the responsibility of the Upper West Side.

    13. J.P. Meana says:

      As I write this the tears are welling in my eyes…nothing left to say

      • Wayne Z. says:

        I too share teardrops of joy that this debacle has finally come to an end!

      • Getagrip says:

        Why on earth would you be crying? This is the best news to come out of the Upper West Side since the pandemic started.

    14. Watto says:

      In one of Scott Stringer’s mayoral commercials, he shows his sons vacant lots owned by the city (I believe 10 or 11). Why not build housing (SROs) for the homeless so they can live with some dignity in their own home?

      • B.B. says:

        Single Room Occupancy (SRO) type housing along with boarding houses, have been illegal to build new in NY for decades.

        Basically NY simply zoned them out of existence. Something many other places from Maine to California did as well.

        Besides the homeless have been convinced by their supporters and others they are too good for SRO or boarding house type accommodations. Only private apartments with ensuite kitchens and baths will do.

        Only SRO accommodations that remain are those which existed before changes/ban and they are

      • Paul says:

        For decades now, the City has spent billions turning vacant lots into affordable housing and salvaging old hotels and SROs for use as supportive housing.
        The lots that Stringer highlighted are, by and large, the leftovers that are too small for practical use.

    15. Alfonse says:

      what about the Belleclaire?

    16. Jeff says:

      And what is going on with the Belle Claire?

    17. B.B. says:

      City leased spaces in these hotels due to covid as response to then emergency. It was never meant to be permanent housing.

      FEMA at first was reimbursing local governments 75% of costs IIRC. Then Biden won and democrats changed things so FEMA is picking up entire tab. However that funding will end 30 September 2021.

      For those wondering where all this money came from, the Stafford Act passed in 1988 gives FEMA authority to act in disasters.

      Hotel rates in NYC aren’t exactly dirt cheap, and BdeB felt (or feels) city couldn’t possibly afford to continue this scheme without federal funding.

      On other side of things hotels that participate in housing homeless get dinged on their Yelp and other online reviews.

    18. Lori says:

      There’s so much to say and so little to say, and certainly no immediate remedies. I will say the hotel a block away from me, who are still housing the homeless, have police and abulances there four to five times a day and there are only four businesses still open, out of the original eight, directly across the street.

    19. Katherine says:

      Very biased. Sadness in the oppressively humid air? Really?

    20. B.B. says:

      Again to be clear city is moving all homeless housed in hotels due to covid emergency to other locations within shelter system.

      Cuomo has declared covid disaster emergency over in NYS. FEMA funds are ending, and city just cannot afford to run this scheme on its own. At least that is what BdeB and some others say.

      NYC’s social services/homeless budget was breaking all known records before covid-19. Ante has just been raised now that city has substantially increased amount of rent housing vouchers will cover.