Upper West Side politicians and residents are accusing the Department of Homeless Services of ignoring repeated requests to provide a transparent negotiation process for the two West 95th Street shelters established six months ago.
At a rowdy Community Board 7 meeting Wednesday night, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer expressed frustration that DHS had not been working enough with elected officials or residents.
“You have not been doing a good job meeting with the elected officials,” Stringer said to applause. “This community and the elected officials are getting played.”
DHS established the shelters in August 2012 as emergency shelters, which allowed it to bypass traditional community review procedures.
According to Stringer, DHS did not adequately notify elected officials and residents of a public hearing held on Dec. 13 to discuss the shelters.
Stringer said that at a separate meeting with elected officials the day before the hearing, he was told that DHS would be in touch with him about an upcoming hearing, but he was unaware that the hearing would take place the next day.
“We demand transparency. We demand openness,” Stringer said.
Seth Diamond, the commissioner of homeless services, maintained that the homeless shelters fulfilled a crucial need and said that DHS has always been willing to work with the community.
“No community necessarily welcomes a shelter when we arrive,” Diamond said, adding that since the shelters were established, the facilities have been enhanced and security has been tightened.
“The shelter is here—it needs to be here,” Diamond said. “The shelter is here to stay.”
Residents said that they were concerned that the shelters, housed in a residential building across the street from a public elementary school, threatened the neighborhood's safety.
Some said that they had seen broken windows, muggings, and drug abuse in the neighborhood and no longer felt secure walking around at night.
Diamond maintained that his department had done outreach, citing the Dec. 13 meeting.
But according to City Council member Gale Brewer, “not one single human being knew about that hearing.” Although the hearing was advertised in the city record, Brewer said that this did not count as genuine outreach.
Assembly member Linda Rosenthal said that DHS's lack of engagement with the community reflected an “amazing disregard” for its needs.
“You called us and said, We are doing this. We do not care what you say,'” Rosenthal said.
CB7 chair Mark Diller said after the meeting that, in addition to failing to publicize the public hearing, DHS still has not completed its “fair share” analysis, a measure that analyzes how homeless shelters are distributed throughout the city's districts.
Given that, according to one count, CB7 houses 21 percent of the city's homeless shelters, Diller said that “any sane process” would include a chance for the community to see how DHS had conducted its analysis.
“We couldn't have commented on the most crucial part,” Diller said.
Residents and elected officials also expressed concern about the potential profits the landlords would receive—the city pays around $3,000 monthly to fund each single resident occupancy unit.
Marti Weithman, director of Goddard Riverside Community Center, said that the shelters were not a permanent solution to homelessness in the area.
“We want to work with the city,” Weithman said, “but transient shelters is not the answer. This only adds to the crisis of homelessness in this city.”
City Council candidate Helen Rosenthal, a former CB7 chair, said toward the end of the meeting that DHS could start thinking about ways to make its services, such as mental and physical health care, and other data more visible so that community members could better understand how the city's funds are used.
“The loudest thing I heard was a call for transparency,” Rosenthal said.
“Maybe you could start to think outside of the box,” Rosenthal added, suggesting that DHS could redirect funding to “modify one floor of the building to be permanent affordable housing.”
“We are perfectly happy to have that dialogue,” Diamond said in response. He pointed out that, when DHS had argued for and implemented a rental subsidy program, several elected officials present had voted against a budget that included it.
Residents and officials left the meeting dissatisfied with DHS and its plans for the shelters.
“I cannot agree that the story that you've told is the story that I've received,” Diller said.
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