Today’s Read: de Blasio Faces Public Scorn, Internal Dissent Over Homeless Move

From the start of the pandemic, it was eminently clear that homeless New Yorkers sleeping in dorm-style shelters were at heightened risk for contracting and dying from COVID-19. The Coalition for the Homeless and other advocates urged the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to protect vulnerable homeless single adults by moving them from congregate facilities with shared sleeping, dining, and bathroom facilities into vacant hotel rooms, where they could safely socially distance. The City began these transfers throughout the spring and summer as a vital public health measure during a pandemic that has already claimed the lives of 104 homeless New Yorkers.

Meanwhile, a vocal group of neighbors on the Upper West Side objected to the use of nearby hotels to shelter people experiencing homelessness, even in the midst of a pandemic. They commiserated about so-called “quality of life” issues in a Facebook group and complained to the media, often using inflammatory and racist language while ignoring the humanity of their homeless neighbors. They also raised funds and hired a well-connected lawyer to threaten to sue the City unless the homeless people were ejected from the neighborhood’s hotels.

We urged Mayor de Blasio to stay strong and resist this misguided NIMBYism (read our August 25th Daily News op-ed here), and groups like the UWS Open Hearts Initiative formed to show that many neighbors actually supported the shelter residents. As we explained in a statement we issued last week:

“The critically necessary relocation of homeless individuals from crowded congregate shelters to hotels as a life-saving measure during the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a wave of disgraceful and inhumane NIMBYism from certain members of our community. The hateful rhetoric making headlines ignores the fact that these hotels provide the private refuge that medical experts say is a vital tool for preventing another COVID-19 resurgence in our city – especially among those with the highest mortality rates. This is quite simply a life-or-death situation for our neighbors experiencing homelessness, and the Mayor must not bow to misguided pressure from those who find these emergency measures inconvenient. The City must instead heed the science and refrain from relocating people back to congregate shelters until it is safe to do so. We must also use this pivotal moment to call for more investments in permanent affordable housing in order to reduce the need for shelters in the first place. New Yorkers experiencing homelessness deserve, just as much as anyone else, to survive this devastating pandemic. We need to move forward with more compassion and sensibility if we’re going to get through this,” said Giselle Routhier, Policy Director at Coalition for the Homeless

Unfortunately, this week the Mayor announced his intention to move homeless people out of the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side and another hotel in Queens, which the NIMBY group hailed as a victory. The single adults will be moved from these hotels into facilities currently sheltering families, meaning that hundreds of homeless New Yorkers will experience chaotic relocations and instability to appease a vocal neighborhood group. We expressed our deep disappointment with the announcement:

“The Mayor’s decision to capitulate to the NIMBYist voices on the Upper West Side by further displacing homeless New Yorkers is a sad victory for the well-heeled and well-connected whose fear mongering and intolerance disgrace our city. Playing politics with the lives of people experiencing homelessness during a global pandemic is simply inexcusable and confirms that the suffering of homeless New Yorkers means less to Mayor de Blasio than the power of those who find it inconvenient. It is inhumane and just plain wrong, and the Mayor should be ashamed.” – Dave Giffen, Executive Director, Coalition for the Homeless

Dave Giffen stands at a podium wearing a mask
Dave Giffen speaking at the UWS Open Hearts press conference September 9. Photo by Winn Periyasamy

We are not alone in our dismay at Mayor de Blasio’s shameful decision to give in to well-resourced NIMBYs. We joined the UWS Open Hearts Initiative for a press conference on Wednesday morning, where neighbors and local elected officials all decried the decision and called for compassion toward homeless New Yorkers. If you are also disturbed by the Mayor’s decision, click here to contact your elected officials now to urge them to resist the misguided and short-sighted calls to move people back into congregate shelters before it is safe to do so.

Janaki Chadha wrote about the controversy for Politico:

The Legal Aid Society has warned it will sue the city if the administration moves to transfer homeless New Yorkers back to congregate shelters before it’s safe to do so. Joshua Goldfein, an attorney at the organization, said Wednesday the group has not ruled out legal action over the latest decision for the Lucerne and the Queens hotel.

Roberto Mangual, who is staying at the Belleclaire, another Upper West Side hotel being used as a shelter, said the rhetoric he has heard from opponents of the facilities has been hurtful.

“It’s very wrong to just characterize all homeless into one group,” he said. “The image the mayor is giving is very negative … you can be hateful as long as you have a deep pocket with a lot of funds to hire a lawyer.”

He’s had a positive experience at the hotel, and said he’s gotten more personal contact with a housing specialist to help with his apartment search. Being moved to another location “would greatly affect me and the progress I’ve made while being at the Belleclaire,” he said.

Corinne Low, an Upper West Side resident who is part of UWS Open Hearts Initiative, said she was “devastated” by the mayor’s decision and said the opposition has vilified people staying at the hotels “for doing nothing more than sitting on the median and being Black.”

“I don’t think that the hateful voices speak for the Upper West Side,” she added. “But the city let them speak for the Upper West Side.”

Numerous residents of the Upper West Side and other advocates have spoken out in support of homeless New Yorkers. Here is a selection of recent op-eds:

What Happened When A Homeless Shelter Moved Into My Upper Class City Neighborhood | August, 19, 2020 |  By Leslie Kendall Dye

Hotels Are Still NYC’s Best Chance to Stop a Looming Homelessness Catastrophe

Curbed |August 21, 2020 | By Alissa Walker

Dehumanizing the Homeless Must Stop

New York Daily News | August 25, 2020 | By Giselle Routhier and Dave Giffen

Homeless New Yorkers belong in hotels now

New York Daily News | August 27, 2020 | By Deborah Berkman

Homelessness, Housing, and the Upper West Side

Gotham Gazette| August 27, 2020 | By Jonathan Lindenbaum

On the UWS, a Privileged Rage Greets the Homeless

City Limits | September 2, 2020 | By Meg Sullivan

Where is the Upper West Side’s conscience now? On homelessness, pain and politics

New York Daily News | September 3, 2020 | By Julie Sandorf