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.
“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.”
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 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.