Sheltering the Homeless in a Hotel, in WESS’s backyard

The+72nd+St.+Subway+Station+on+the+Upper+West+Side

Elizabeth Alton

The 72nd St. Subway Station on the Upper West Side

Elizabeth Alton

Homelessness on the UWS

 

There have always been homeless people on the Upper West Side (UWS). Every few blocks it’s not uncommon to see someone with a cardboard sign, a cup for coins, and occasionally a dog or some sort of encampment. This has always been a given for New Yorkers in general, and it’s not like the UWS is the epicenter of this problem either, but the movement of shelter members into UWS hotels has made it a hot button issue among residents.

 

Either way, both UWS residents and City officials agree that there is a citywide homlessness epidemic in NYC.

 

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, throughout 2019, 132,660 people slept in NYC shelters, including 44,300 kids, and neither of these numbers are including the thousands of people who stay on the streets. 

 

On the City Council’s website, speaker Cory Johnson describes homlessness as a national problem that has reached a crisis level in New York City.

 

Homelessness and COVID

COVID-19 has exacerbated all the difficulties that homelessness entails. With the close quarters that residents often experience in shelters, containing a contagious virus like COVID is next to impossible. 

 

In an attempt to #stopthespread, the city transformed commercial hotels into temporary shelters for the homeless. A plethora of these hotels were mostly empty due to travel bands and other COVID restrictions. Currently, 63 hotels across NYC are serving as shelters. Those 63 hotels include the UWS’s Lucerne, Belleclaire, Belnord, and Park West.

 

In July, a total of 750 men moved into the Lucerne, Bellclaire, and Park West hotels. The men came from Kenton Hall Men’s Shelter (which helps residents combat opioid abuse) and the  Third Street Men’s Shelter (which helps residents with sobriety), both of which are located in the East Village. Services at the Lucerne, on 201 W 79th St., have been provided Project Renewal, who offer a myriad services to the men including wellness checks, help finding jobs, substance abuse treatment, and more. 

 

The move of homeless men into the Lucerne began the division of UWS residents with the emergence of two community organisations. One, the West Side Community Organization, raised concerns about the safety of the UWS as a result of the Lucerne residents. In response Upper West Side Open Hearts formed, a group dedicated to trying to integrate the residents into the UWS community, and push them to do more than coexist. 

 

Back in October, the city was ready to move the residents out of the Lucerne to the Radisson Hotel, in Manhattan’s downtown Financial District. Before that could happen, though, the city was hit with lawsuits from downtown New Yorkers who didn’t want shelter residents moving in, as well as three men living in the lucerne who didn’t think it was legal for the city to move them out. That next hearing will take place today, on November 16th.

 

WestCo

In response to the initial move of homeless residents into the Lucerne in July,  Upper West Siders for Safer Streets, a facebook group that now has just over 15,000 members, was created. They grew concerned about the potentially negative impacts of the increased homeless presence on quality of life on the UWS. Just scrolling through the last week or so of the group’s  facebook group posts, one can see a myriad of concerns from residents including noise complaints, reports of alcoholism, theft (of both a bike and a car), fights on the streets, and more. Most of these concerns are not directly tied to the Lucerne residents. 

 

From that facebook group, the West Side Community Organization (WestCo) formed.  This organisation is dedicated to expressing their concerns for both the negative effects of the establishment of the shelter resulting in the deteriorating safety for Upper West Side residents, and pursuing a legal avenue to force the closure of the shelters. Their website describes their mission as a “restored quality” of life for Upper West Siders.

 

WestCo has leveled several accusations against the City regarding the placement of the homeless on the UWS.  “Over the past few months, the safety and security of our beloved neighborhood has been progressively overrun by open daytime illicit drug use, violent assaults at the subway station, verbal harassment when we walk down the street, and unprovoked attacks,” they explain.

 

Back in August, the organization hired Randy Mastro, who was the Chief of Staff for former Mayor Ruby Guliani, as a lawyer. While the organisation threatened to sue the city back in August, they have yet to do so.

 

Alison Morpungo, who was a member of the facebook group, explained why some Upper West Siders may have been caught off guard. 

 

“It’s required by law, even in times of emergency, that the city notifies the community, and does some sort of assessment on the community end, and the community’s ability to really provide property for the residents of the shelter,” Morpungo said. “I think both didn’t happen. All of those things that typically would have happened from a procedural standpoint didn’t. A huge group of people were confused and felt blindsided, and couldn’t make sense of it, and we’re sort of left to figure it out, which created some distrust in the system. ” 

Upper West Side Open Hearts

 

In response to WestCo, another organisation with a different approach emerged, Upper West Side Open Hearts, instead urging the community to integrate shelter residents into the community.

 

On the front page of their website, the organization proclaims in big bold letters “YES to compassion in our backyard.”

 

“Upper West Side Open Hearts is committed to supporting our neighbors in temporary hotel shelters at The Lucerne Hotel, The Belleclaire, The Belnord, and The Park West. In our advocacy, we aim to assist shelter residents and their service providers in getting the resources they need and the care they deserve,” their mission statement reads.

 

Upper West Side Open Heart’s advocacy includes setting up “Free Stores” where community members can donate clothing, toiletries, and more for those in need.

 

You may have also seen the products of their “Stars of Hope” project around the Lucerne, when volunteers united to decorate stars around the hotel, which held words of support and engagement for the shelter residents.

 

District 67 Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal agrees with their sentiment.

 

“It’s sad that in our neighborhood, the temporary presence of these homeless individuals moved here during a public health crisis, divided our community and caused some to respond with fear and anger,” Linda Rosenthal says. 

 

“This is a citywide issue that calls for a unified response,” she added.

 

Living Near the Lucerne

 

Inevitably due to WESS’s location in the same neighborhood, and relative close proximity to the hotel, students who live nearby have experienced a change in life near Lucerne firsthand.

 

Junior Alison Letchford lives a few blocks from the Lucerne, but she hasn’t had any negative experiences with the shelter residents living there.

 

“I’ve felt slightly less safe on the street where the hotel is, but I’ve found that there’s been more police in the area handling any issues,” Letchford said. “The homeless presence in my area doesn’t bother me because I recognize the importance of homeless shelters, and I find the anger about their presence to be somewhat elitist. That being said, I’ve heard stories of conflict from my parents and family friends.”

 

Junior Ruby Sklar, hasn’t had any negative experiences with Lucerne residents either. However, she did recount an experience from a few months ago where she saw the effect of homelessness on the UWS firsthand.

 

In front of Sweetgreen there were these homeless people, they had dogs and they had a whole thing set up… and they would always fight and scream on the street, and you could hear them, so that was a little bit unsettling,” Sklar said.

 

But as for the Lucerne Shelters, she added, “I wouldn’t say that they affect my daily life or safety.” 

 

Social Justice club leaders Ava Napach and Avery Teano think that during these tough times, it’s essential that the UWS do our part in helping the homeless residents. 

 

“When I heard about people that were trying to get the homeless people out of hotels, I was kind of angry”, Napach said. “We’re all supposed to be mostly inside anyway, and homeless people especially need shelter. I don’t really know how connected [crime and the Lucerne residents on the UWS] are, but they’re people and they need to live somewhere, and it was weird to me that people who have homes to live in were really mad about this.” 

 

Teano explained, “If they’re not posing an immediate or direct danger to people… and there’s not cause to kick them out, then we shouldn’t, because we have the space to put them up, and like Ava said, now more than ever they need shelter, and we can provide it, so why wouldn’t we?”

 

Conclusion

It’s important to remember that  homlessness is not an issue limited to the Upper West Side, New York City, or even New York State. We have to look at these situations with a guise of rationality, but also empathy in order to pave the best outcome for our community as a whole.

 

In terms of solutions, the City’s answer may come in the form of long term affordable housing.  

 

That said, there are still things you can do to get involved. Of course, due to COVID-19 everything looks different than normal, but this list that was assembled a few years ago still rings pretty true today, so reach out to an organization you want to get involved!