Residents Threaten Suit over Homeless, Crime

Electeds and west siders say city should be doing more to get homeless off the street amid spike in crime.

23 Aug 2020 | 01:38

There is a rooftop deck at the Lucerne hotel, with air and sun and sprawling views of the Upper West Side. But the current residents, 283 men without homes, can’t use it. Instead, many of them spend their days on the streets of the neighborhood.

Their visibility has clearly stoked neighborhood anxiety, and may or may not be a factor in the recent local spike in robberies and assaults reported by the precinct.

But what’s really beginning to boil over among residents and officials is a feeling that the city is doing less than it could to address the challenges created when it moved some 10,000 homeless out of crowded shelters and into 63 hotels, including the Lucerne and three others on the west side.

One west side group stepped out of the pages of Facebook, where they had been posting pictures of people using the street to sleep or engage in objectionable acts, to say they would sue Mayor Bill de Blasio IRL (that’s in real life) unless the city fixes things.

Community concerns are running so high that 1,100 people joined an emergency meeting Monday evening convened by Community Board 7 on Zoom. “The first three weeks were truly a nightmare,” said Dale Brown, the president of the west 79th Street block association, in describing the period right after July 27 when the Lucerne was converted to a shelter.

She reported, however, that “things seem to be getting better,” thanks to the increased presence of police and the attention of the social service group operating the shelter, Project Renewal.

“It has been a tradition that west siders have welcomed the less fortunate and the homeless,” said Brown.

Gale Brewer, the Manhattan Borough President, said she had been “very upset” that the city consulted neither elected officials nor the neighborhood before converting hotels into shelters, thus making planning impossible.

That was a key theme of a letter full of questions and demands that she and other elected officials sent last week to the Commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, Steven Banks.

Why, for example, can’t some of the residents of the Lucerne relax on the roof deck rather than on the streets, the group of elected officials asked?

“Each hotel must have designated recreation space for its clients,” said the officials. “For example, we strongly urge that DHS have the owner of the Lucerne Hotel repair the roof deck in the building. If there is no space available on the property, each provider should find a site within walking distance of the shelter that can be used by the residents.”

’More Must Be Done’
Officials reported that the roof deck at the Lucerne was never properly approved by the city when the Lucerne was functioning as a tourist hotel. But since the city seems to have moved all sorts of obstacles to make dining in the streets possible, the roof deck became an illustration of a lack of planning or proactive action when these men and women were moved out of shelters and into neighborhood hotels to protect them from coronavirus.

“Street homelessness on the Upper West Side has now increased dramatically,” the officials wrote. “We often hear that DHS and other homeless outreach organizations are doing all that they can. The increases in drug dealing, street encampments, and public disturbances make clear that more must be done.

One of the problems, the officials wrote, is that people are ending up on the streets through a variety of routes — from the converted hotels, ousted from the subways, clients of other local shelters and service organizations.

“In addition to security, we greatly need DHS to immediately fund outreach workers who are coordinated centrally and able to respond to the individuals in the street,” the officials wrote. There are social service workers at each hotel “but they are assigned only to work with their own clients. As a result, they are tripping over each other some of the time, or not in the right place at the right time. Central coordination and outreach workers would make a real difference both in the perception of responsiveness to homeless individuals on the street (regardless of whether they are housed), and in the care of those men and women who need help.”

Commissioner Banks did not respond to a request for comment made through the press office at the Homeless Services Department.

Mayor de Blasio said last week that the city would be examining the use of the hotels and begin to reduce it. He left the impression this would begin soon. But a DHS spokesman said the statement represented nothing new and was consistent with the department’s previously announced pledge to follow the guidance of health officials on when it was safe to return to the shelters.

West Siders Threaten Suit
“Soon” was the timetable set by Randy Mastro, an attorney and former Deputy Mayor and Chief of Staff, under Rudy Giuliani, to describe how when a newly formed group, West Side Community Organization, would act and sue the mayor.

The new organization was formed by members of a Facebook group, Upper West Siders for Safer Streets, who decided that sharing photos and stories about the problem wasn’t enough. They created the new organization and hired Mastro. The Facebook group has 11,000 members.

“Something fundamentally wrong has happened here,” Mastro said Saturday.

“City government has failed both the residents of this neighborhood and the vulnerable population. The city has broken that social compact it has with neighborhoods and vulnerable populations.”

He noted that the Upper West Side is in the top ten among neighborhoods for shelter beds. “The upper west side has accepted vulnerable populations like this for decades,” he said.

The mayor’s comments are an admission, Mastro said, that the city has “made a mistake” and now needed to correct this by returning the men and women in hotels to shelters with services. If he does not do this soon, the group will go to court.

While the Department of Homeless Services faces criticism on several fronts, another city agency, the NYPD, is engaged, said Ian Alterman, a longtime west sider and former chair of the precinct community council.

Crime had generally been flat or down in the precinct this year, with the exception of burglary, possibly as a result of so many unoccupied apartments and stores.

But in the last month, which coincides with the use of The Lucerne as a shelter, robberies and assaults rose, from a combined total of nine in this period last year to 19 in the last month this year.

In recent days the precinct has increased visible presence along 79th Street, placing a marked patrol vehicle on the corner of Broadway whenever possible as well as putting auxiliary police in uniform on the street, freeing police officers for patrol duty and quicker responses.

But the police have limited power to remove people from the street or to enforce what the law views as minor transgressions, such as public urination, Alterman noted. He said that local residents with requisite skills could help identify homeless who were not from the hotels and notify the Goddard Riverside Outreach program.

“Here is a chance for those who want to “do something” (and who have some experience in social services or homeless outreach, and feel safe doing so) to do so,” Alterman said. “This could help to “calm” the situation.”

He said he would be doing this beginning this week.