“Shelter Opening Nearby Seen As No Big Deal” is not a typical headline one might see in recent news coverage in New York City. Reporters and bloggers tend to cover the more contentious shelter openings where public commentary ranges from misguided to overtly hateful. Too often, communities react to the news of a shelter opening nearby with resistance as they rely on harmful stereotypes of our homeless neighbors.
But for every community meeting marked by divisive rhetoric and fierce opposition, many other neighborhoods quietly welcome shelters with little fanfare or drama. In an effort to elevate these often-ignored stories of kindhearted collaboration, the Coalition for the Homeless is proud to honor Manhattan Community Board 4 with our fourth annual Compassionate Communities Award.
The bustling Manhattan neighborhoods of Chelsea and Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen have a long history of welcoming social services, including shelters and other resources for homeless New Yorkers. Manhattan Community Board 4 (MCB4) has learned from its ample experience working with other social service providers in the district. As a result, they had a clear game plan ready as soon as they heard in late 2018 that the nonprofit Care For the Homeless would be opening a shelter for single homeless women on 52nd Street, in a building formerly used as a temporary residence for young single mothers and children.
Soon after the announcement, Community Board 4 held several in-person and phone briefings with Care For the Homeless, along with the local Council Member’s staff, in order to address any potential concerns. They gave Care For the Homeless a list of local neighbors to contact, such as block associations. Thanks to this proactive outreach, the block associations had their questions answered and felt comfortable with Care For the Homeless coming to the neighborhood.
Furthermore, the result of the robust community engagement was evident when Care For The Homeless came before the MCB4 Housing, Health, and Human Services Committee at a public meeting in May. Maria Ortiz, LMSW, who serves as Co-Chair of that committee, explained, “The neighborhoods of Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea have a long history of being home to multiple models of social services. MCB4 embraces that history as we are a community where we understand others may be in need of help and resources and are open to assisting. Therefore, MCB4 aimed to work with the provider and the surrounding community to find a way for all stakeholders to flourish while being neighbors.”
This perspective ensured that the provider and the community approached establishment of the shelter as a genuine partnership. In addition to encouraging Care For the Homeless to proactively reach out to the surrounding community, the Community Board also agreed to participate in the 52nd Street Community Advisory Board to foster continued partnership once the shelter opened.
“By creating this framework of outreach and ongoing communication, it allows stakeholders to share ideas and concerns,” Ortiz said. “Care For the Homeless were willing to invest their time and effort in collaborating with stakeholders and to address concerns.”
George Nashak, the Executive Director of Care For the Homeless, noted that MCB4’s welcoming and cooperative stance eased a process that tends to be fraught with contentious debate. “In our current environment of fear of homeless people and intolerance of homeless services, it is a great pleasure to recognize Manhattan Community Board 4 and the neighbors of Care For the Homeless’ west midtown women’s center with the Compassionate Communities Award,” he said. “Our experience with the west midtown community was the opposite of NIMBY: They constructively worked with Care For the Homeless as partners to ensure that our program and the surrounding community can co-exist, understanding that they are participating in improving the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors. The board, staff, and clients of Care For the Homeless will always remember the warm welcome we received.”
That warm welcome comes from the community’s belief that homeless people deserve support rather than scorn. “MCB4’s goal is to demonstrate our willingness and openness to those in our community needing assistance,” Ortiz said.
Since the shelter officially opened this summer, Community Board members have attended the shelter’s Open Houses and participated in the Community Advisory Board meetings.
Shelter Director Aurelia Esquilin noted the ongoing dialogue and partnership with the community. “The staff and residents at the 52nd Street Women’s Center collectively endeavor to continue being a good neighbor to our friends at CB4 and the wider community,” she said. “Since the shelter opened on August 2, 2019, our program has been amiably accepted into the community and great feedback has been provided to our management team through the Community Advisory Board meetings about the program. The Care For the Homeless staff at the 52nd Street Women’s Center are highly committed to keep focus and ensure that any issues that might arise are handled in accordance to the mutual benefit of those that we provide services for and those that encounter our residents as well. The support of the community allows us to adjust our operations as needed and to continue to work with the community to maintain a collaborative partnership.”
Some Community Board members have even volunteered their own time in further support of the women at the 52nd Street shelter. Delores Rubin, the former Community Board 4 Chair who currently serves on the Land Use and Housing, Health, and Human Services Committee, learned about the shelter at the general Community Board meeting. She asked the shelter provider whether they had plans for financial literacy programs and offered to help establish one, since she works in the financial sector and has experience volunteering with other organizations. In conjunction with the shelter staff, she created a financial literacy program to help the women who are staying at the shelter learn more about savings, budgeting, banking, and credit. She organized the first session on October 31st and is excited to continue the initiative and tailor it to the residents’ specific needs and interests.
“It’s my way of giving back where I can, and this is one way to alleviate the concerns about a growing homeless population,” Rubin explained. “It’s just about whatever capacity someone can give, to create the kind of neighborhood we would want in the event that we were homeless.”
Other neighborhoods can learn from the positive experience at 52nd Street by working with, rather than against, a new shelter. Ortiz said the key is to have “consistent and transparent engagement that is both welcoming and sincere,” and making sure that all stakeholders have a seat at the table. “It will take time and patience, but the outcome is a more integrated and balanced relationship that supports both the clients of the shelter and the community as a whole.”
Rubin agreed that neighbors have an important role to play supporting homeless New Yorkers during a difficult time. “The goal is to provide stability to help people move on to the next chapter in their life,” she said. “If you create a welcoming neighborhood, we can actually make that transition a lot easier for everyone.”
“Manhattan Community Board 4 has a long track record of bringing stakeholders together to help New Yorkers in need, including those experiencing homelessness,” said New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “They have created collaborative pathways to help individuals get off the streets and provide safety, support, and hope for a better future. Community Board 4’s approach is a model for how we should tackle homelessness, which is a humanitarian and affordable housing crisis that is affecting cities from coast to coast. I congratulate Community Board 4 on this much-deserved honor, and I thank them for being a valuable partner in service throughout the years.”
“New Yorkers are better off when their neighborhoods show compassion first,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. “Congratulations to Community Board 4 for winning the Compassionate Communities Award – those being helped by the 52nd Street Women’s Shelter needed a place to go and you stepped up to the plate.”
State Senator Brad Hoylman said, “Homelessness is not a crime – and New Yorkers experiencing homelessness deserve our respect and compassion. At a time when bigoted voices in the White House are scaremongering and demonizing anyone experiencing homelessness, it’s inspiring to see my constituents in Community Board 4 standing up for what’s right. I congratulate CB4 Chair Burt Lazarin, Housing, Health & Human Services Committee Co-Chairs Joe Restuccia and Maria Ortiz, and every member of Community Board 4 for receiving Coalition for the Homeless’ Compassionate Communities Award.”
The combination of skyrocketing rents and stagnant incomes continues to push record numbers of New Yorkers into homelessness, leaving them with nowhere to turn but a shelter system that is bursting at the seams. New York City has a legal and fundamental moral obligation to provide shelter to anyone who has no other place to stay, which is why we don’t have the massive tent encampments found in other major cities. Opening these necessary shelters, however, can elicit a range of responses from people who live nearby. The Coalition for the Homeless continues to call on the City to commit more resources to permanent housing, which will reduce the need for shelters, but it is imperative that the City have sufficient shelter capacity for the men, women, and children who need it right away.
When Mayor de Blasio unveiled “Turning the Tide on Homelessness” in February 2017, he announced a plan for the City to open 90 new shelters to replace expensive and inadequate models like cluster-site facilities and commercial hotels. The Mayor explained that homeless people come from every neighborhood in the city, and they can get back on their feet more quickly if they are sheltered close to their existing community ties like schools, jobs, social supports, doctors, and churches.
Many people immediately latched onto the number 90 and speculated about which neighborhoods would see the opening of new shelters. Word of the first shelters drew vociferous protests and legal actions aimed at preventing the new facilities from opening. Reading the headlines or watching the local news, it’s easy to think that all New Yorkers have an instinctive aversion to shelters for homeless people. But although they may not be as loud or well-publicized as the protesters, there are many New Yorkers who instead react to the news of a shelter opening in their community not with knee-jerk resistance and hyperbolic alarmism, but with understanding and rationality. They are motivated by a genuine desire to help those who are experiencing the trauma of homelessness, and open their arms to those in need. These compassionate communities recognize that no one wants to be homeless, and that the kindness of fellow New Yorkers can make all the difference to families and individuals desperately trying to piece their lives back together.
In the spirit of the season, and with a desire to bring well-deserved attention to inspiring examples of human kindness, the Coalition for the Homeless established the Compassionate Communities Award in 2016.
Here are some first steps you can take to transform your neighborhood into a welcoming, compassionate place for all New Yorkers: