By Molly Sugarman
While not new, homelessness on the Upper West Side is increasing, in part due to the unintended consequences of public policy, according to Larry Wood, director of advocacy and organizing at Goddard Riverside, a nonprofit human services provider. He spoke at the April 12 Housing Committee of Community Board 7.
Goddard Riverside’s focus is to provide safe, stable, permanent housing, he said. But it isn’t easy. In the late ‘60s, there were 200,000 low-income units on the Upper West Side. After the urban renewal push that encouraged demolition and gave us places such as Lincoln Center, the number was reduced to only 65,000 in 1986.
Another factor contributing to street homelessness is the shelter system itself, which many homeless people consider unsafe. “If you are already paranoid and worried,” he said, “would you want to be with hundreds of other people in a shelter?”
Transitioning people out of temporary housing to permanent housing has been delayed by staff shortages in city agencies due to the pandemic, Woods noted.
The current police sweeps may not be helping either. “Chasing people around doesn’t end homelessness,” he said. And Goddard has lost a partner in helping the homeless: the NYPD.
A key part of Goddard’s program is building relationships with people experiencing homelessness so they are willing to accept services. Police in the 24th Precinct were a part of that, trained in outreach and working with Goddard Riverside. But after the defund-the-police movement, the police department “has taken a step back,” Woods said. “We had really good ties with the police, but now we are on our own with outreach.”
Permanent housing with supportive services is needed, Wood said, and Goddard Riverside is trying to provide that. A building has been purchased at 235 West 107th Street (Amsterdam and Broadway). It will provide 84 units of supportive housing for homeless and low-income New Yorkers. Supportive housing is permanent, affordable housing with on-site social services.
Because community support is critical for these projects, Goddard will be contacting block associations and engaging communities, Wood said, including setting up Community Advisory Boards.
Current conditions near SROs may be a deterrent to community acceptance however. Sean Smith, a resident of W. 94th Street between Riverside and West End Avenues, described noise issues from the two SROs and the apartment hotel on his block, even at 1 a.m.
“Anything, from people picking up and dropping off other people, creating noise with car stereos, loud conversations, yelling, graffiti, people drinking and smoking on the sidewalk and dropping garbage,” he told the committee. He has talked with management at the locations and called 911.
“I’d love to be in touch with someone who can be helpful,” Smith said when District Manager Maxwell Vandervliet offered to contact him after the meeting.
Solving chronic homelessness will take more than adding a few shelters, Woods noted. The Interfaith Convocation for Housing Justice, of which Goddard Riverside is a member, proposes a four-prong approach:
1. Create more affordable housing units by incentivizing developers.
2. Prevent homelessness by preserving existing low-income housing and providing legal assistance to those with housing problems.
3. Provide Emergency and Support Services and respect human rights by funding services at adequate levels.
4. Improve employment and income support by raising minimum wages, increasing rent subsidies, and providing training for workers.