Chinatown leaders, community members and elected officials gathered this week in the colorful banquet hall of Golden Unicorn Restaurant on East Broadway next to Kimlau Square, to kick off Lunar New Year festivities with Lion Dancing, traditional singing and steaming plates of shumai and Peking duck.
But along with ringing in the Year of the Tiger, the event’s organizers aimed to raise $300,000 for a newly-formed nonprofit that plans to sue the city and block the conversion of a hotel at 91 East Broadway into a 120-bed Safe Haven Shelter.
The fundraiser and suit are the latest volley in a brewing conflict over the shelter, which is pitting neighborhood groups against each other. Last week the local community board voted overwhelmingly in support of the forthcoming safe haven at its monthly meeting.
But the Concerned Citizens of East Broadway – a coalition of residents, business owners and community organizations — are fighting the plan, arguing the area is already saturated with shelters and another will put local businesses and their customers in danger.
“This is a protracted war,” Samantha Chan with the Concerned Citizens of East Broadway, told the crowd Monday. “Chinatown cannot turn into a shelter town … When our security is threatened we have no choice but to come out and resist.”
But at last week’s Community Board 3 meeting, 34 members voiced support for the project, though they were not required to vote, five members voted against and two abstained.
The board’s district manager, Susan Stetzer, said the project was something community leaders have been calling for since the bludgeonings of four homeless men on Chinatown streets in 2019.
“We don’t forget the four men who were killed in Chinatown,” Stetzer said. One of the men killed was 83-year-old Chuen Kwok, who’d spent time in the city’s shelter system but returned to the streets, Stetzer said.
“If [Mr. Kwok] had the choice of a safe haven and to be able to communicate with people in his language, he certainly would have had a better chance,” Stetzer said.
When our security is threatened we have no choice but to come out and resist.
Safe havens are a type of shelter that aim to help people transition back into stable housing after living on the streets, by offering mental health, substance abuse and employment counseling services on site. Residents get their own private rooms, rather than large dormitory-style settings, which are often unsafe and overcrowded.
The nonprofit service provider Care for the Homeless has assured the local community board the facility will have multilingual staff and will start by offering beds to people currently sleeping on the streets of Chinatown when it opens in 2023. Stetzer said many of the homeless men in the neighborhood have ties to Chinatown and won’t accept shelter beds but would consider leaving the streets if offered a safe haven bed in a neighborhood they were familiar with.
“We want them to take steps to have them accepting services,” Stetzer said. “We need transitional housing. For some people to be successful in permanent housing, it’s a very important step.”
To those who argue that Chinatown is oversaturated with shelters, Stetzer said that out of Community Board 3’s 11 shelters and 2 safe havens, most are located in the East Village, not Chinatown.
“Many people don’t even know they’re there,” she said.
By the end of the Lunar New Year celebration Monday, Concerned Citizens of East Broadway had raised $100,000 towards its $300,000 goal, to fund a lawsuit against the city, organizers said; the latest neighborhood to threaten legal action against the city to block proposed shelters. In attendance were John Catsimatidis, Curtis Sliwa and Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, as well as dozens of Chinatown business leaders and residents.
Levine, who left the event before speakers started openly fundraising to block the shelter, said in a follow up interview with WNYC/Gothamist that he didn't know the shelter issue was part of the event’s purpose, though he was aware many Chinatown leaders are opposed to the facility.
“There’s no doubt that we need this option for many people who are unsheltered on the street,” said Levine, who campaigned on a platform that included explicit support of the Safe Haven model. “But I’m listening to the community who’s pushing back on this exact location.”
Levine said he was concerned about certain neighborhoods being oversaturated with shelters and said he’d be briefed on the facility by the Homeless Services Department in the coming weeks.
The same group held a similar event, billed as an anti-Asian hate rally following the killing of Michelle Go, outside of the site of the proposed safe haven, calling for the project to be halted. While anti-Asian hate crimes have surged across the city in the last year, Chinatown had tracked just four bias attacks in 2021, according to Commanding Officer of the 5th Precinct, Deputy Inspector Paul J Zangrilli, and saw an overall decrease in major crimes two years in a row. Still, Asian groups around the city say bias attacks often go unreported and official numbers can be misleading.
Among the donors to Concerned Citizens of East Broadway Monday, was Dr. Thomas Chan who told the crowd he’d written a check for $1,000. A group of physicians he represented forked over another $10,000.
“It shouldn’t be in the heart of Chinatown. It should be in more remote areas,” Chan said. “Children, women, elderly are there, all the shops are there. They will put them all in danger.”
But Mae Lee, the head of Community Board 3’s Health, Seniors, & Human Services Committee pushed back in an interview with Gothamist, saying the community board had not seen any increase in crimes tied to the shelters or safe havens they oversee.
“While there’s a lot of sentiment out there and the role of the community board is to listen to their concerns, we also have to look at the data,” she said. “I find it ironic that at Lunar New Year people are raising money [to fight] a place that will help the most vulnerable people in our community.”