The end of June ushered in a “bittersweet” farewell when roughly 60 men experiencing homelessness were transported by bus from their temporary refuge at the Lucerne Hotel to city shelters, according to Upper West Sider Corinne Low. The local exodus marked the beginning of the end of hotels across the city serving as homes for those who might otherwise turn to shelters.
“A lot of us were crying and a lot of the guys were pretty upset,” explained Low, who co-founded the Upper West Side Open Hearts Initiative, a volunteer group that advocates for affordable housing and for those experiencing homelessness. “For them, they’ve got to keep moving ... it’s our privilege to be able to even shed tears over it, because, you know, we don’t have to keep living it.”
Nearly one year ago, community members banded together in forming the UWS Open Hearts Initiative to support the men housed in the Lucerne Hotel during the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused a rift in the community. Now, with the residents relocated, it would seem that the saga of intense debate over the fate of the hotel, and those within its walls, has come to a close. But it’s not the end for the UWS Open Hearts Initiative, which will continue to stand for more affordable housing on the Upper West Side while expanding its volunteer efforts to include other nearby shelters.
The move of New Yorkers experiencing homelessness out of the Lucerne followed Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement in mid-June that approximately 8,000 people would be moved out of 60 hotels citywide and back into shelters by the end of July. “In the midst of the worst of the pandemic ... we had to take immediate and emergency action to protect homeless folks, move them out of shelter settings to hotels for their health and safety,” de Blasio said during a press conference. “But now, the situation has changed.”
As of the end of June, the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) reported that over 47,000 people — adults and children — were living in shelters throughout the city. Data indicates that nearly 6,750 clients have been fully inoculated against COVID-19 by the DHS, most recently through a model that brings vaccines to shelters. To ease vaccine hesitancy, the agency is prioritizing education, hosting informational events and offering incentives like gift cards and prepaid MetroCards to those who choose to get vaccinated.
The agency is also continuing to offer free COVID-19 testing to adults at shelters citywide, isolating those who test positive for the virus upon shelter intake.
A Rocky Send-Off
During the past pandemic year, the Lucerne Hotel had become the topic of particularly fierce debate on the Upper West Side; opponents to the temporary housing arrangement argued that residents (many of whom struggle with substance abuse or mental illness) should be moved. Legal battles that threatened to expel New Yorkers from the Lucerne multiple times ultimately afforded residents the choice to stay or go.
Though not prompted by those earlier circumstances, the recent relocation of men from the Lucerne Hotel to two shelters in the city, Kenton Hall and the Third Street Men’s Shelter, felt tinged with sadness and frustration for Low and others. The night before the move, the UWS Open Hearts Initiative held a “send-off” event with care packages containing supplies like toiletries and flip-flops for Lucerne residents. Low estimated that 30 volunteers attended that evening and fewer showed up the following morning, on June 28, to protest the decision to move those staying in the hotel to shelters instead of into permanent housing.
One temporary resident of the Lucerne, Daniel Freeman, told press on the morning of the move that staying at the Upper West Side hotel had felt reinvigorating. By contrast, Freeman said he was “going back to jail,” in a video taken by an UWS Open Hearts Initiative volunteer, referencing the living conditions in congregate shelters.
Some Lucerne residents were relocated to other hotels, according to Low, if medical conditions made staying in a shelter during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic more perilous.
Envisioning The Future
In the aftermath of the move, UWS Open Hearts Initiative volunteers are working to stay in touch with those who had previously found temporary homes at the Lucerne Hotel. “It felt like you’re trying to track people down in a refugee camp,” Low said of her efforts to reestablish communication, “trying to figure out who got moved where.”
Low plans for UWS Open Hearts Initiative volunteers to help out at other nearby shelters and to encourage volunteer efforts in the areas surrounding the two shelters to which Lucerne Hotel residents were moved. The group will also continue to rally alongside local activists; on July 10, UWS Open Hearts Initiative volunteers will join activist and former Lucerne Hotel resident Shams “Da Homeless Hero” DaBaron for a march to Gracie Mansion, the residence of the city’s Mayor, to protest the citywide closure of hotels as alternatives to shelters and advocate for more permanent housing scenarios instead.
DaBaron is currently one of 22 finalists, selected from over 10,000 New Yorkers, in the running for $200,000 awarded to each of five winners of the David Prize for their work as “visionaries” in a range of fields, according to a press release.
Through it all, Low hopes that a sustained push for affordable housing on the Upper West Side will help her to someday soon welcome new — or familiar — faces to her neighborhood more permanently.
“I wish that the people who were in the Lucerne,” she said, “could become our permanent neighbors, because there was affordable housing for them to access.”
“A lot of us were crying and a lot of the guys were pretty upset. For them, they’ve got to keep moving ... it’s our privilege to be able to even shed tears over it, because, you know, we don’t have to keep living it.” Corinne Low, co-founder UWS Open Hearts Initiative