Hotels for the Homeless Spark New Controversy

Upper West Side leaders complain about a lack of community input

31 Jul 2020 | 06:47

Since March, hotels on the Upper West Side have been closed to regular bookings due to the pandemic. In an effort to protect the homeless from COVID-19, Mayor de Blasio and the city of New York have worked alongside the nonprofit Project Renewal to use some of these hotels to shelter the homeless in the empty rooms. NY1 reported that “there are about 700 hotels in New York City. One hundred and thirty-nine of them are occupied by homeless people.”

Some of these hotels include the Belleclaire on Broadway and 77th Street, and the Belnord on West 87th Street, which had been sheltering people since May. But people on the UWS were surprised last week when a newsletter from Council Member Helen Rosenthal said that 300 homeless men would be moved into the Lucerne Hotel on 79th Street, bringing the total number in the neighborhood to approximately 500 residents - and sparking a new controversy.

While many New Yorkers quarantined at home and faced their own set of struggles, many of the city’s homeless population were living in congested shelters where the virus can spread very easily from one person to another. In April a group of approximately 150 health care workers published a letter to Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo on homelesscantstayhome.com, asking them to protect the homeless from the virus. “The ability to practice social distancing should not be a social determinant of health, available only to some,” the letter says.

“Since COVID-19 began spreading through New York City, the lack of access to safe private spaces for homeless people has exacerbated transmission, hospitalization, and deaths among this vulnerable group of individuals and families, with those living in congregate shelters finding themselves at particularly high risk,” a data analysis released by The Coalition for the Homeless said.

Some residents of the Upper West Side have been unhappy about the hotels-turned-shelters. There have been concerns of drug use at some and reports that registered sex offenders were being housed in the Belleclaire. The West Side Spirit was unable to reach Hotel Belleclaire for comment.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal wrote in an email update: “According to the NYS Sex Offender Registry, there have been 14 registered sex offenders living at the Belleclaire - ten level 2 offenders and four level 3 [more serious] offenders.” She said that all of them were moved out of the Belleclaire, and that there will be no more sex offenders brought to any of the hotels.

“Behind Closed Doors”

One of the complaints was that the community was not made aware that the transition to these hotels was taking place.

“There was no community input,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. “It was done without anybody knowing, except for the newspaper. That’s how I find out.”

She said that Project Renewal, the nonprofit which has operated the shelter at the Lucerne Hotel, has been transparent about the shelter taking place, but the city of New York has not. Mark Diller, co-chair of Community Board 7, agreed.

“By doing these deals behind closed doors, it not only relegates our community to a place of non-engagement, but it evokes concerns,” Diller said. “It creates suspicions and assumptions — some of which may be true, some of which may not. It’s a giant disservice to everybody.” The Lucerne did not respond to any requests for comment from the West Side Spirit.

Diller believes that had the community been informed, the transition might have been improved, and notes that the Upper West Side does “more than its fair share” of relief efforts. He argues that communicating with the Upper West Side community would provide some useful insight into the process.

Process Put in Place by the City

“I believe there should be fewer temporary shelter residents in our neighborhood,” Rosenthal said in her statement. “Five hundred is just too many. I’ve made it clear to Commissioner [Steven] Banks and City Hall that it will be far more feasible to keep our community safe, and properly serve shelter residents, if there are fewer persons living at the Lucerne.”

Diller emphasizes that the issue with the shelters is more about the process put in place by the city that neglected the community. “In addition to the difficulties of whatever proposal that they’re working their way through, they will now have the compounding difficulties of having excluded the community from the process,” he said, “and thereby creating fear instead of collaboration, creating suspicion instead of rewarding a willingness to help. And that is a rotten shame.” The Department of Homeless Services did not respond to a request for comment from the West Side Spirit.

“They need to talk to the community before they move people in anywhere. Period. Bottom line,” BP Brewer said. She noted that, “We’re very supportive of permanent housing.”

Project Renewal wrote in a statement, “We are proud to work with the city to help fight the COVID pandemic. Our 70 staff and security members will be here around the clock to ensure the well-being of our clients and to work in partnership with the community.”

“They need to talk to the community before they move people in anywhere. Period. Bottom line.” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer