By Gus Saltonstall
Tensions are rising as an Upper West Side nonprofit has “condemned” local City Councilmember Gale Brewer’s opposition to a women’s homeless shelter being built in the neighborhood.
The strong messaging from the Open Hearts Initiative, founded on the Upper West Side in 2020 to support people experiencing homelessness, came shortly after Brewer participated in a rally on Tuesday with other community members against the incoming shelter at 537 West 59th Street, between Amsterdam and West End Avenues.
Brewer’s position of no support on the 59th Street shelter is not a new one, and she told West Side Rag that the comments from the Open Hearts Initiative won’t change her stance on the matter. Brewer contends that because the facility will be new construction — not a conversion of an existing building — the site should be used for permanent housing, as opposed to a transitional homeless shelter.
“If you want permanent housing, and you’ve got a brand-new building, it makes sense to me that you should be building exactly that,” Brewer said. “I’ve tried everything — I haven’t left anything on the table — to make that happen at this site.”
Brewer said she had “about 20 meetings” with city officials in hopes of persuading them to create 60 permanent apartments at the address for the formerly homeless, instead of a shelter. She was also quick to point out, during a phone call with the Rag, that she has supported many other homeless shelters on the Upper West Side throughout the years, including facilities on West 70th, 83rd, 88th, 94th, and 95th streets.
“I spoke to them [Open Hearts Initiative] and I said very clearly that I have supported shelters in the neighborhood, but when there is a brand-new building and anything can happen there — it does seem to me that it should be permanent housing,” she said.
“They appreciated my call,” Brewer added. “I haven’t changed my position since August 2021.”
The Open Hearts Initiative arose during the pandemic when single homeless men were moved into The Lucerne hotel on West 79th Street to avert the spread of COVID-19 in congregate homeless shelters. The group provided a counterbalance to some UWS residents who adamantly wanted the men moved. Open Hearts did not point to anything specific Brewer said, just her appearance at Tuesday’s rally.
“Council Member Brewer’s decision to join these dehumanizing calls is deeply disappointing,” Bennett Reinhardt, an Open Hearts employee, said in a news release. “The fact remains that the Upper West Side is a great place to welcome homeless residents of this shelter, where they can receive on-site services.”
When asked to specify the “dehumanizing rhetoric” used at the rally, a spokesperson from the nonprofit directed the West Side Rag to signs at the event that read “Keep Our Kids Safe” or “No Shelters Near Playgrounds,” which the group says wrongly “implies that people living in shelters are dangerous to children, simply because they’re experiencing homelessness.”
Brewer penned a letter in July 2023 to the Department of Social Services reiterating her argument that the new development at 537 West 59th Street should be used for permanent housing.
“I have supported shelters in other parts of Manhattan and my district, often when there is criticism from the neighborhood,” she wrote. “In this case, the people of the city of New York are paying for a NEW shelter when there is an appeal all over the five boroughs for permanently affordable units; why is this site not constructing what every New Yorker is asking for?”
More information on the incoming 59th Street shelter
While there is plenty of present-day conversation surrounding the shelter, the facility isn’t actually slated to open until 2025.
It will contain 200 beds for single women in dorm-style rooms, a medical clinic, social services and recreation space, an outdoor terrace, and a large dedicated staff.
The provider for the facility will be the nonprofit Project Renewal, which also ran The Lucerne.
“We’re working with Hudson Companies to construct this modern, purpose-built women’s shelter, with robust social services, health care, and security to help our clients on their paths to permanent housing,” a spokesperson from Project Renewal said when asked about the differing stances on the incoming shelter. “Project Renewal greatly values relationships with our neighbors and community members at all sites we operate, and we have reached out to and met with many local stakeholders about the shelter.”
A demolition permit was filed in August 2022 to remove the two-story former home of Manhattan Neighborhood Network.
The new shelter will be exclusively for single adult women. “This first-of-its-kind shelter will be built as a high-quality site offering women experiencing homelessness the critical opportunity to receive the quality care they need and deserve as they get back on their feet,” a spokesperson from the Department of Homeless Services told the West Side Rag.
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