By Carol Tannenhauser
The residents of West 83rd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues say they are still rattled a little more than three months after 74-year-old Maria Hernandez was murdered there. Hernandez died during a robbery in her apartment at 126 West 83rd Street.
Now, the city is planning to open a “safe haven” – a form of homeless shelter serving homeless people who refuse traditional shelter and live instead on the streets — just a few doors down from Hernandez’s home, at 106-108 West 83rd Street. The safe haven has sparked heated neighborhood discussion, both for and against the facility, and on Wednesday morning, a protest called to oppose it drew around 25 residents of West 83rd and nearby blocks.
“Those two buildings have always been nothing but a disaster,” said Maria Gonzalez, a lifelong resident of the block, who charged that the address was associated with drugs and violence.
Cynthia Tibbs, president of West Side Urban Renewal (WSUR) Brownstones, a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) complex of several dozen buildings between West 89th and West 93rd Streets, and a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, said she recalled when the buildings now designated for the safe haven were single-room-occupancy (SRO) housing. That was in the 1970s, and “there were stabbings in here, shootings in here. We had to live with that,” said Tibbs. In the 1990s, the city turned the address into a men’s shelter. Tibbs noted that the shelter was closed some time after a murder occurred there in 2019. “Well, here we go again, backwards to the 70s!” she said.
Both speakers pointed to the elementary school, P.S. 9, across the street, calling it a major reason for siting the facility elsewhere. Tibbs claimed there were “fifth graders at the windows hollering, ‘No safe haven!’ while this is going on. They don’t want it here. They were just starting to gain their independence. Clearly, we’re going to have to start picking up our kids again.”
Wednesday’s protest was organized by Maria Danzilo, an attorney and community activist, who ran unsuccessfully for the State Senate against Brad Hoylman-Sigal in 2022. Danzilo lives on West 83rd Street and Central Park West. As an alternative to the safe haven — which she repeatedly called “an unsafe haven” — Danzilo said the city should open low-income housing named after Maria Hernandez.
Danzilo said opponents of the safe haven have safety concerns, but are being unfairly criticized as lacking compassion for the homeless. “No one in the city should be lecturing Upper West Siders about compassion,” she said. “We have compassion…and we have safety concerns. And we have a right to speak about our safety concerns. We want affordable housing. That’s what we’re standing here for today.” Danzilo said the city’s plans for the safe haven had been “done improperly and not transparently. Where was [City Council Member] Gale Brewer?” Danzilo demanded. “Where is Gale Brewer?
“Yeah! Where’s Gale? Where’s Gale?” the crowded chanted.
Asked if she believed opponents could stop the city from opening the safe haven next month, Danzilo said: “We’re trying. The mayor can stop it. We have reached out to him. They have not given us a meeting. We need Gale to intervene.”
Wednesday’s protest echoed some of the dissension that arose around The Lucerne in 2020, when the hotel was used by the city to shelter homeless men during the pandemic. Before the protest, someone had used pastel chalk to write words of welcome (to future residents) on the sidewalk in front of the safe haven addresses. Twenty homeless people are expected to move in at the end of April. The final number, according to the city, will be 108.
Some area residents who gathered to watch the protest spoke in favor of the facility. “This is a classic situation of wealthy people expressing and using that ‘not in my backyard’ doctrine to kind of pick and choose when they get to be liberal,” said Greg Cefalu, a resident of 104 West 83rd. “We need to help people and give them a chance to rehabilitate, to be better. If we just continuously close down and go against shelters being put up with no replacement, with no alternative, the problem is only going to get worse.”
Additional reporting by Daniel Katzive.