Updated on Sunday, Sept. 13:
Faced with a continuing outcry from some Upper West Siders, the de Blasio administration said Tuesday it would abandon use of the Lucerne Hotel as an emergency shelter for 283 men who the city had said had nowhere else safe to live during the pandemic.
The men were to be moved to the Harmonia Shelter/Hotel Chandler on East 31st Street, which would have involved relocating disabled residents of the Harmonia. On Friday Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Liz Krueger, Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, Council Member Keith Powers and others protested that move, and after The Legal Aid Society threatened a lawsuit, the city paused the plan.
After the city’s initial decision to move the Lucerne residents, Randy Mastro, a lawyer for a group of West Siders who had threatened to sue the city if it did not move the men said, “We are gratified that the community is being heard and concrete action is being taken to rectify this tragic situation.”
Mastro, a former deputy mayor in the administration of Rudolph Giuliani, also disclosed that the city has committed to cease using a second hotel in the neighborhood, The Belleclaire. He did not offer timing for this.
On Wednesday morning, elected officials appeared at a press conference at The Lucerne to oppose the decision, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Council Member Rosenthal, State Senator Brad Hoylman and State Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal.
“I am especially ashamed of our mayor today,” said Williams, a possible contender to be de Blasio’s successor. “It’s disgusting what he’s doing ... He has failed miserably when it comes to housing ... when it comes to homelessness.”
The critiques of the mayor came from all politicians at the press conference, which drew a neighborhood crowd and was organized by UWS Open Hearts, a group organized to show support for the shelters.
“The mayor should be wearing a neck brace for all the whiplash he’s been doing,” said Hoylman.
The departure from the Lucerne will be swift, according to both Mastro and city officials. Mastro said they would depart by the end of September and a city spokeswoman said it would be even sooner, the weekend after next.
For some of the men in the Lucerne this will be the fourth move since the start of the pandemic. “These men, many of whom have suffered trauma and been disadvantaged all their lives, deserve better,” the operator of the shelter, Project Renewal, said in a statement. “So do our 50 staff members who have worked around the clock to ensure clients had a smooth and successful transition.”
The news was an abrupt resolution to an issue that had stirred anguished debate on the Upper West Side. Elected officials and residents had expressed great anger that the city had given no notice when it moved homeless into three neighborhood hotels. The third is the Belnord on 87th Street.
While some residents said the homeless should be made welcome, others said they were creating unacceptable conditions on the street and contributing to a spike in crime. A Zoom town hall meeting drew 1100 people to discuss the issue.
The debate became increasingly rancid. Officials from the city’s Department of Homeless Services said that no New York neighborhood could be a “gated community.” After the town hall, one city official tweeted a reminder that scripture enjoined each of us to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Except this is not from scripture, but from a book satirizing the hubris of journalists.
After the group represented by Mastro, the West Side Community Organization, threatened to sue, The Legal Aid Society warned the Mayor that they would fight back in court if he caved to “racist Nimbyism.”
The city had argued that its actions, including the lack of notice to the community, were necessary to save lives in the emergency conditions created by the pandemic. In fact, the overall infection rate among the homeless has been contained, according to city data.
But the specific case for the Lucerne was undermined by disclosure that many of the men had not come directly from congregate shelters but from another hotel, on West 51st Street, which the neighborhood had objected to. Straus News reported this last Saturday.
A spokesman for the Department of Homeless Services said the Lucerne and a hotel in Queens he did not identify were being taken out of use as shelters.
“We’re beginning to relocate individuals from several commercial hotel locations to alternative non-congregate shelter locations, where we can continue to implement social distancing and provide isolation.,” said the spokesman, Isaac McGinn. “With more than 60 commercial hotel locations utilized to combat COVID and protect our clients from this virus over the past nearly six months, these actions will begin to reduce that footprint where we can — and we are continuing to closely monitor health indicators with DOH, to determine when and how all of our clients who are residing in these temporary emergency hotel relocation sites citywide can safely return to shelter.”
Legal Aid Response
The Legal Aid Society said it was considering all options. “It is truly disgraceful that the de Blasio Administration capitulated so quickly to Upper West Side NIMBYism, putting our clients at increased risk in the middle of an unprecedented public health crisis, which has already claimed the lives of 104 homeless New Yorkers,” said Judith Goldiner of the Society.
“We are also concerned with the dangerous precedent this decision sets to the great detriment of our clients going forward, prejudicing the City’s ability to fully advocate for the homeless in these situations.”
Goldiner said as the men were being relocated, “the City will have to uproot other homeless New Yorkers from their current shelter, disrupting their lives during a pandemic, in order to make room for these clients, who did not have to be moved in the first place.”
She added: “Although these single adults will be relocated to a non-congregate family shelter with private rooms, there is no legal or moral justification forcing the City to upend the lives of some of New York’s most vulnerable in such a callous manner.”
The decision was denounced by UWS Open Hearts. “I am devastated to see the city government treat these shelter residents as chess pieces,” said the group’s co-founder, Corinne Low, “who can be moved around who can be moved around the board based in the whims of the rich and powerful. This was never an issue if the community versus the shelters because we are the community.”
“The mayor should be wearing a neck brace for all the whiplash he’s been doing.” State Senator Brad Hoylman