Upper West Side residents have been complaining for weeks about their new neighbors—New Yorkers living in hotels that have been repurposed as homeless shelters during the pandemic. Despite calls to resettle the shelter residents (and many incendiary stories in the New York Post), the city says they will keep the shelters where they are for now to avoid a public health crisis.
At a community board meeting held over Zoom on Monday evening, Erin Drinkwater, deputy commissioner of intergovernmental and legislative affairs at the city’s Department of Social Services, told Upper West Siders that moving thousands of residents of dorm-style shelters, where beds are set just three feet apart, into hotels over the past few months has “saved untold numbers of lives.”
The de Blasio administration moved shelter residents into the Lucerne Hotel on West 79th Street in July. It’s one of four hotels in the area that’s being temporarily used as a shelter during the pandemic, and one of about 60 citywide, not counting those that were being used as shelters before COVID-19 arrived. Some 10,000 New Yorkers were transferred from shelters to hotels after the pandemic hit, including the 730 who moved into the four hotels on the Upper West Side. The city had been housing about 3,500 homeless adults in hotels before that.
Upper West Siders pressed Drinkwater for a set date when hotel residents would move out. They cited the fact that the COVID-19 infection rate in New York City is now below 1% and that Mayor Bill de Blasio recently said the city would “immediately” start the process of moving people out of hotels and back into regular shelters.
Drinkwater was adamant that, regardless of what de Blasio said, no one was going anywhere until it was safe.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have a crystal ball,” Drinkwater said. “This is reliant on data. This is reliant on medical experts.”
Although Drinkwater said the city began discussing how to protect shelter residents in February it took a while to begin the “de-densifying” efforts. The city created some isolation shelters for those who tested or were presumed to be COVID-19-positive in March, but didn’t start moving people into hotels until the beginning of April. In May, the Coalition for the Homeless urged the city to be quicker in transferring homeless people residing in congregate, or dorm-style, shelters into hotels in order to better protect them from the spread of the virus.
“It would be a terribly unfortunate circumstance to rush and move everyone back into congregate locations because of the current city infection rate,” Drinkwater said, “only to have a second wave come and hit us in the fall and have to relocate 10,000 clients back to commercial hotels to protect them.”
According to a report that Coalition for the Homeless released this month, the COVID-19 death rate for New Yorkers in shelters was 376 deaths per 100,000 people—about 67 percent higher than the city’s mortality rate overall. The city reports that 104 homeless New Yorkers in total have died from COVID-19, including eight who were not sheltered. Drinkwater and those at the meeting who manage shelters said they feared the numbers would have been higher without the move to hotels.
While the shelter operators and city officials presenting at the meeting could not promise to move people out of the hotels immediately, they did try to answer questions about safety and quality of life.
“The Lucerne has calmed down enormously in the four weeks since we opened, in part, because we made changes based on your feedback,” said Eric Rosenbaum, president and CEO at Project Renewal, the nonprofit that operates the shelter at the hotel.
Rosenbaum said a patrol car from the local police precinct had been stationed outside the hotel on most evenings and that 18 clients who repeatedly failed to respect Project Renewal’s “good neighbor policy” had been moved back to their shelters of origin, which are still open at reduced capacity.
He added that the hotel had full medical, social services, and security staff, and was operating mental health, vocational and other programming. Rosenbaum stated the greatest challenge was finding sufficient space for programming that would be safe for shelter residents and the community.
Deputy Inspector Naoki Yaguchi of the 24th Precinct said more cops have been stationed on Broadway and that they would try to place officers outside of schools as well once they open. But Drinkwater noted that the NYPD no longer has an official role in homeless outreach, following changes in the most recent budget, which she said would help prioritize services over “heavy-handed enforcement.”
Some residents conceded that things have improved since the hotels first moved in. They and elected officials at the meeting emphasized that there should have been more communication with the community from the outset.
“The first three weeks were truly a nightmare,” said Dale Brown, president of the West 79th Street Block Association, but now, she said, “things seem to be getting better.”
Brown said that initially, there were “men roaming our streets, gathering at the median at 79th Street and Broadway [in groups of] 15 or more, none wearing masks, smoking, drinking, throwing garbage around and blocking the crossway.”
On Monday afternoon, a couple of hours before the community board meeting started, there were a few people from the Lucerne quietly sitting on the benches on one side of the median at the intersection Brown referenced, and a couple of people panhandling on the other side. Neither of the people panhandling were staying at the hotels in the area. One was sleeping on the street and the other wasn’t homeless at all; he told Gothamist that he had lost his restaurant job during the pandemic and said he would be getting it back soon.
Some community members in the Zoom chat made it clear they still weren’t satisfied with the city’s assurances.
“This is about as insightful as turkeys gobbling,” one commenter said of the presentations, with another saying the call was “tone-deaf” and “dismissive of community concerns.”
Many expressed concerns about registered sex offenders staying at the shelters, given their proximity to schools. Following Drinkwater’s explanation that not everyone who is required to register as a sex offender is restricted in where they can live, one commenter wrote, “ARE OUR CHILDREN SAFE FROM SEXUAL PREDATORS?”
Dr. Megan Martin, president of the newly formed nonprofit West Side Community Organization, said at Monday’s meeting that the city had “failed” residents by moving people into the hotels without sufficient support, saying there had been increased sightings of public masturbation, drug use, and needles in parks.
Her organization, which grew out of a vitriolic Facebook group, Upper West Siders for Safe Streets, has now raised more than $100,000 on GoFundMe and hired legal representation to fight the use of hotels as shelters.
In response, some residents have scribbled messages of love and acceptance in chalk in front of the Lucerne and the Bellclaire. The nonprofit operators of the hotel shelters said that in addition to concerned calls, they have received donations of snacks, Metrocards, games and books from the community. They added that residents were also in need of clothes and additional space for programming.
But after Monday’s meeting, the “Us v. Them” mentality persisted among those in the Facebook group. One commenter, who said he sat through the entirety of the meeting, posted, “It appears that homeless people, including those that are sex offenders and drug addicts, have more rights and privileges living on the UWS in luxury hotels at taxpayers’ expense than those of us who are actually paying to live here.”