Upper West Side residents are protesting a plan by the city to change a homeless shelter designated for women into one for men, marking the latest battle over Mayor Bill de Blasio's efforts to alleviate the homelessness crisis by expanding shelters, or in this case, reconfiguring existing ones.
As winter approaches, the city's Department of Homeless Services is anticipating an increase in demand among homeless single men, which make up more than 18,000 of the roughly 64,000 individuals in the city's shelter system. Several weeks ago, community board officials said they were notified that the agency was planning to move 120 women living from a shelter at 237 West 107th Street with the intention of turning the facility into one that serves only single adult men by next month.
The news spurred outrage among residents, who argued that the Upper West Side shelter was a proven success and that it would be unfair to uproot the women. On Monday, a broad group of elected officials lent their support, holding a press conference and rally in front of the shelter.
"Since the day this shelter opened, almost 10 years ago, this community has embraced these women as neighbors," said Council Member Mark Levine, before a crowd of roughly 50 people. "It would just be a profound injustice if these women who have suffered so much dislocation in their life were now again moved against their will because of the actions of our city government."
Although de Blasio's plan to build 90 new homeless shelters have provoked heated opposition in many neighborhoods, homeless men have typically faced the most resistance. According to Marc Greenberg, the executive director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, single men often lack built-in support networks, leaving them more vulnerable, and in the eyes of communities, more of a risk. "They have the right to be concerned," he said of the residents. But the city, he added, "has a great need to provide shelter for single men."
While the protesters on the Upper West Side have said they are simply protecting the interests of the homeless women, some have called it NIMBYism in disguise.
Alice Newton, a 69-year-old local resident, said that although she was not aware of how the women were being transitioned, she was not opposed to the shelter being used for men.
"As long as there is security and help for people, we shouldn’t oppose it," she said, adding, "This is not an easy city or time in the country to be able to recover without some kind of safety net. There are all kinds of reasons why people become homeless."
The city has said that the women currently at the shelter will be placed either in permanent housing or alternative shelters. They will continue receiving social services from the current shelter provider HELP-USA.
This is not the first controversy over the 107th Street shelter. Back in 2010, community officials fought to have the facility closed, but later had a change of heart. At the time, one block association president was quoted as saying of the women in the shelter, "They're behaving themselves. Let them stay."
On Monday, residents chanted the same phrase, "Let them stay," during the press conference. At one point, a man in the crowd cried out, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," to a smattering of applause.
The rally came two days after four homeless men were found bludgeoned to death in Chinatown, underscoring the city's need to address the climbing rates of homeless men, and to provide them with adequate mental health and other support services.
"I support a shelter that's well run," Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, told Gothamist, after the press conference. She cited a plan earlier this year for a 175-bed shelter for men in Washington Heights as one she endorsed. But in July, amid strong community opposition, the city changed course and announced that the shelter would instead be for women.
Alluding to that decision, Brewer said, "Don't mess with this one that has community support just because you made a mistake somewhere else."
The city's public advocate, Jumaane Williams, who also appeared at the press conference, said that he recognized that NIMBYism was always going to be a factor in the location of homeless shelters. All the same, he said, "You can't do what we did here. You can't just uproot the women who live here."
He added, "If they have to site a men's shelter somewhere, elected officials have to come out and support that as well."
In a statement, Arianna Fishman, a spokesperson for the city's Department of Homeless Services, said, “Nobody wants to see families with children or single adults turned out onto the streets without a roof over their heads—and we stand by our legal and moral obligation to provide shelter every night to those who need it."
Greenberg said that amid mounting pressure, the city had poorly handled its communication with the community. "It's sad," he said. "If they went out of their way to show that these shelters are well serviced, they’d have a easier time selling them to the public."
He and other homeless advocates led by Coalition for the Homeless have argued that a big part of the problem stems from the fact that the de Blasio administration has not provided enough permanent housing for the homeless, forcing individuals to stay longer in shelters. The groups have called on the mayor to build 24,000 new affordable apartments and preserve another 6,000 more by 2026.
For all of its problems, Newton said she believed New York City has done a better job with tackling homelessness than cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. In Los Angeles County, where an estimated 59,000 people are homeless, some officials have recently urged the state to declare a state of emergency.
She described the neighborhood, home to many Columbia students and faculty and considered a bastion of liberal values, as having "a knee jerk reaction" to the city's plan.
"I hate the idea of 'not in my backyard,'" she said, before asking, "But where then?"