Families are already moving into two new homeless shelters on the Upper West Side, but the shelters are facing intense local opposition.
The two shelters, which are located on 95th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue, will ultimately house about 200 adult homeless families, or approximately 400 people total. They were announced in July, and the first homeless residents moved in last month, joining the 71 paying tenants who still live in the buildings.
For their homeless residents, the shelters are a place to stay while they try to get back on their feet. Several residents said that they had landed in the shelters after losing their jobs or their apartments—some of them due to cuts in the social safety net—and that they hoped to leave soon.
But to local politicians and some Upper West Side residents, the new shelters are an undue burden on a neighborhood already home to many similar facilities, especially because they are located just down the block from an elementary school.
Community Board 7, which represents the Upper West Side, unanimously passed a resolution opposing the homeless shelters Tuesday night. According to CB7 chair Mark Diller, 21 percent of facilities that serve vulnerable people in Manhattan are located on the Upper West Side, which he said violates the “fair share” principle—a provision in the city charter that all neighborhoods must do their fair share to care for the homeless.
“This is not a ‘not in my backyard’ argument,” Diller said. “We’re doing our fair share, but we’re not doing somebody else’s fair share as well.”
Diller and other opponents have also criticized the city’s Department of Homeless Services for giving only a few weeks’ notice before opening the shelters, avoiding the typical notification schedule by using its emergency powers. But DHS spokesperson Heather Janik said in a statement that the department has “been actively communicating with elected officials from the beginning of this process and engaged in open dialogue with community leaders.”
“Our Agency has a legal mandate to provide temporary, emergency shelter to homeless individuals in need, and opened a shelter on West 95th Street so that our clients can live and be served with dignity and respect,” Janik said.
Too many shelters?
Just down the block from the new shelters is an elementary school, Public School 75. Gwen Rivers, the co-president of the P.S. 75’s parent-teacher association, said the shelters “feel like a real bomb landing on our heads.”
“This all came in in the summer, when everyone was away,” she said. “A lot of parents feel frightened and abused in a sense.”
P.S. 75 parent Dina Davis believes that the shelters will make the area less safe, saying that some of the shelters’ residents are “not in good shape mentally.”
“We have too many shelters around this area already,” Davis said.
“I think people have to have somewhere to go, but it’s definitely going to have a negative impact on the school,” Suzette Freedman, who has taught at P.S. 75 for 23 years, said before school started Wednesday morning. “We, for years, have been struggling with white flight from the school, so this is definitely not going to help.”
David Lopez, a member of the West 95th Street Residents’ Association, called the opening of the shelters “egregious.”
“Although fair share is a very important concept, the way it is implemented is flawed,” Lopez said. “Before these shelters existed, the Upper West Side … already had a disproportionate share of these facilities.”
Neighborhood resident Aaron Biller said the situation is “not right for the homeless people or the ... tenants who were supposed to be protected.” It’s unclear, though, what opponents of the homeless shelters can do to get rid of them, short of exerting political pressure or potentially going to court.
“If you really stand against this, go to court, file a lawsuit” against the city, Biller recommended, adding that the community “is being overwhelmed and turning into an open-air asylum.”
According to Department of Homeless Services records, more New Yorkers live in homeless shelters now than ever before, and several new shelters were opened over the summer due to an increasing number of homeless people. Many have attributed the increase in homelessness to the closure of Advantage, a city-run anti-homelessness program which was shut down last year after the state government cut its funding. The program had subsidized working families’ rent for up to two years.
“Advantage is an example of a program that keeps people at home instead of teetering off the edge into homelessness,” CB7 member and City Council candidate Mel Wymore said. “We need more programs like that, and we need … to build more housing of this type—affordable, efficient housing.”
City Council candidate Ken Biberaj, who was at the meeting Tuesday, said that the city needs a comprehensive plan to deal with homelessness.
“The West Side cannot be used as the go-to place for shelters, as it has for years,” he said.
The city is also paying the two buildings’ landlords more than $3,000 per month for each room, which CB7 member Andrew Albert said makes it “lucrative for landlords to throw people out and fill these buildings with homeless.”
“To take $3,000 a month—your tax dollars—to go to housing individuals who aren’t there permanently and don’t have a stake in the neighborhood, to me, is wrong,” Upper West Side City Council member Gale Brewer said. “I will fight it tooth and nail.”
Additionally, Robert Hess—the chairman and chief executive officer of Housing Solutions USA, the company operating the shelters—is a former Department of Homeless Services commissioner, something that some opponents have called a conflict of interest.
“There’s nothing about this that doesn’t stink,” Diller said. “The Conflicts of Interest Board said it’s not a problem, but it’s certainly a problem for us.”
'Back on the streets'
Some attendees at Tuesday night’s CB7 meeting complained that the shelters’ residents were leaving used condoms around the neighborhood, urinating in public, and loitering around the new shelters. But that portrait of the residents clashed with the stories told in a half-dozen conversations with them earlier this week.
Julian and Reyes Thrasher, who moved into one of the buildings last week, came from a shelter in the Bronx.
The Thrashers, who have been together for nine years, were doing fine until a few years ago, as the Advantage program had helped them afford an apartment. But when Advantage was cut, they couldn’t pay their gas or electricity bills, and they ended up in a shelter.
“Once it went, once the government cut it off, it put a lot of people back on the streets,” Julian said. “You’d see people back there in the shelters.”
The spartan rooms at the Thrashers’ shelter have uncomfortable bunk beds, small refrigerators, shared bathrooms and kitchens, and not much else. Julian, who is 58, has broken his back in three places, “so I can’t be going up and down bunk beds,” he said.
The hardest thing for the Thrashers is that they don’t have enough money for food. With $39 per month in food stamps, Upper West Side food prices are out of their budget, and they aren’t allowed to cook or even have a microwave in their room.
“I’ve got to go back to the neighborhood [the Bronx] to shop for food,” Reyes said, adding that she also goes to her mother’s home in the Bronx when she needs to cook something. Julian said that he doesn’t have any family left.
Jordan Carson and his father were transferred to one of the new shelters from a shelter on the East Side last week. Carson, 24, recently graduated from LaGuardia Community College with degrees in theater and communications, and he and his dad are both struggling to find jobs. At LaGuardia, Carson was a student technology mentor who troubleshot computers, and his first-choice job would be working as a computer technician at an Apple Store.
Although he said his current shelter is an improvement over the shelter he previously lived in, Carson was not impressed with the living quarters.
“I wouldn’t say they’re rooms—they’re closets,” he said.
Carson said it’s frustrating that residents must sign into and out of the shelter, and be back before the 10 p.m. curfew. His dad once missed the curfew and ended up spending the night on the subway.
“I feel like I’m living in a prison, and I don’t even have a criminal record,” Carson said. “I’m 24. I can’t have a relationship with this situation. I don’t have any freedom.”
With the amount of money the city is paying for the rooms, Carson added, “you could find some good apartments in Brooklyn somewhere.”
Some of the new shelters’ residents, though, are trying to look on the bright side.
“It’s clean, there’s proper security, and the tenants are nice,” said Kirk Williams, who was transferred from an East Harlem shelter with his wife, Felicia Williams. “It’s quiet, and a nice building.”
“For a person who has to go into a shelter, I would recommend it,” said Felicia, who is using a wheelchair while a broken leg heals.
Kirk, who is applying for a night job at Duane Reade, said that he and Felicia hope to be in the shelter for a maximum of two months. And unless neighborhood activists find a way to force the shelters’ closure—which is unlikely—they’ll be able to stay, at least for now.
“We want to get back into our own apartment,” Kirk said.
Ike Kitman and Qiuyun Tan contributed reporting.