A judge freed the de Blasio administration last week to move 240 men from the Lucerne Hotel, where they sheltered from the Pandemic since the end of July, to a hotel in the Financial District, where each will have his own room.
A group representing businesses and residents in the Financial District immediately appealed. But the de Blasio administration said it was confident the ruling, from Justice Debra Adams of Supreme Court in Manhattan, would stand, settling one of the most contentious neighborhood fights in the recent history of the Upper West Side.
The administration said it would begin this week “to move forward with an orderly phase out of the Lucerne temporary COVID site.” Under the court ruling, the men will be moved to a former Radisson hotel at 52 Williams Street in FiDi.
Adams described this move as “rational” because it “will enable each of the residents to move from a Lucerne hotel room with two beds and a roommate into a single bed hotel room at the Radisson.” She had earlier rejected a request from the FiDi group to block use of the Radisson as a shelter.
In her decision last Wednesday, she lifted an earlier, temporary order that had blocked the move – an order she had issued when three men in the Lucerne filed affidavits saying they were thriving there and feared the move would endanger their health, safety or sobriety. A fourth resident then filed an affidavit saying conditions were unsafe, that he was sharing a room and wanted to move to the Radisson.
“There is no doubt that the intervening residents have a real and substantial interest in the outcome of this proceeding, i.e. a determination where they will live,” Adams wrote. “Notwithstanding such real interest in the outcome, this court now finds that at this juncture, none of the intervening resident parties are entitled to any relief under the law.”
Once moved to the Radisson, the men are free to file administrative complaints through the Department of Homeless Services, Adams wrote.
“We are Hurt”
Critics of the Lucerne shelter welcomed the decision but one of the residents who had brought the case was outraged.
“We are hurt,” said Shams DaBaron, who also goes by the nom de plume, Da Homeless Hero. “This decision negatively affects homeless people throughout America and that’s really what this fight was about: having our voices heard, challenging an irrational decision made by the Mayor to please some rich folk. But the fact that we got this far in the conversation and exposed the City for the inhumanity it has not just towards homeless individuals but towards all Black and Brown people is a huge win.”
“We wish the men well,” said Megan Martin, President of the West Side Community Organization, which fought the shelter. “And we know that they will be better served at a facility like 52 William where there are individual rooms, there are on site medical and therapeutic services, job training/placement, indoor recreation space, and where methadone clinics are within walking distance. We know that proximity to treatment is key to maintaining sobriety. From everything we have learned, individuals who have entered the shelter system are brave, and are asking for a second chance. But the best opportunity they have at a second chance, is not at a crowded SRO hotel without services.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said she was “disappointed” by the court ruling. “If the city moves these residents to the Radisson, it will likely displace 22 homeless residents already living there,” she said. “There may be more developments on the legal front underway, but let’s be clear: the approach to our city’s homeless population is misguided and ill-advised. We must do better.”
The Upper West Side Open Hearts Initiative, created to support the men in the Lucerne, rallied outside the hotel on Sunday demanding that the city halt the move. The group argued that the Financial District hotel should be used to move more people out of congregate shelters.
At issue in the case was the city’s management of its emergency program to shelter New Yorkers with nowhere safe to live as the pandemic swept the city. More than 60 hotels have been put into use to reduce the population of congregate shelters.
The program had already been underway for several months when, on July 27, the men were moved into the Lucerne, at Amsterdam Avenue and 79th Street. Half of them came from a shelter on Third Street and half from another hotel on 51st Street. Two other hotels, the Belleclaire and the Belnord, not far from the Lucerne, were already in use as emergency COVID shelters.
But the arrival of the men to the Lucerne created a controversy that seems likely to outlive the use of the hotel as a shelter. Local residents described distasteful and at times dangerous scenes around the hotel. Conservative media reveled in the vision of Upper West Siders, exemplars of liberalism, demanding law and order on their block.
A Facebook group created to monitor safety grew to more than 15,000 followers. The group continues to post photographs, for example, of emergency vehicles at the hotel, including one last week of a Medical Examiner’s car called for the death of one of the residents.
Some members of the Facebook group spun out to create West Side Community Organization, which hired attorney Randy Mastro to get the Lucerne shelter shuttered.
Mastro had threatened to sue to close the Lucerne Shelter but before he did he reached an agreement with City Hall to move the men. It was that agreement that Adams had temporarily blocked before last week’s decision.
“The Court recognized what we have been saying all along,” Mastro said in a statement, “that the city made the right decision here, acting well within its discretionary legal authority, to move this vulnerable population from an SRO hotel on the Upper West Side to a better, safer facility downtown.”
Praise for Services
While Mastro and WestCo had been fighting to move the men, others in the neighborhood organized the Open Hearts Initiative, which welcomed the men and organized food, clothing and services for them.
Open Hearts said it was not directly involved in the legal actions brought by the three residents. But both the men and the judge praised the efforts to create services for the men at the Lucerne shelter, which is run by a nonprofit called Project Renewal.
“Project Renewal has pledged to replicate the successful Lucerne programs for the residents who move to the Radisson Hotel temporary shelter,” the judge noted. “Though the intervening petitioners and their UWS supporters are unhappy with the prospect that the wheel will not be fully reinvented by the FiDi community, they may take some reassurance and satisfaction with the template that they have forged.”
While conditions on the street around the hotel improved considerably with the intervention of UWS Open Hearts and other community and social service groups, the political exchanges only intensified. Mastro’s home on the East Side was attacked by vandals on bicycles, and each side accused the other of deceit and distortions to prove they had been right.
Police are still investigating the vandalism.
Candidates for mayor and other offices made regular stops at the Lucerne to demonstrate that they supported the rights of the homeless.
“And we will not stop doing this work,” DaBaron said in his statement. “From this point on, we will be meeting with elected officials, including the Mayoral candidates, city and state legislators, and many others to draft policy and laws that will protect the invisible, vulnerable, and voiceless population that is the homeless community.”
Some neighborhood critics of the shelter had complained of what they saw as “virtue signaling” from political figures who paid scant attention to the details.
“As far as this community is concerned, we have always been embracing of vulnerable populations and are home to a great many number of permanent shelters,” said Martin of WestCo. “This was not the right place for the men, because hotels are not shelters. We know their best opportunity for transition to permanent housing is in a facility that is a proper shelter with vital onsite services and necessary support.”
DaBaron added: “This case was not as much about the Lucerne as it was about homeless people being able to challenge the city and its agencies in regards to their well-being, and while the law doesn’t fully protect us as of present, we will from this day forward be committed towards fixing those laws that are so obviously broken. This flawed system has allowed people like the Mayor to profit off of poverty by funneling money to his political and personal benefactors, while leaving us to languish in a broken system.”
This story was updated on Nov. 29, 2020.