On August 11, the Upper West Side seemed as normal as any neighborhood in New York during the fifth month of a pandemic. Pedestrians wearing masks walked along West 79th Street, while people enjoyed food at the elegant street-side tables setup outside the French bistro Nice Matin.
This is not what you read in recent coverage in the New York Post, which reported that “crime and chaos” and “increasingly squalid conditions” had overtaken the neighborhood since homeless New Yorkers were temporarily placed in hotels in the area, and things had gotten so dire that neighbors were fleeing. There’s also a petition circulating online to kick the homeless out of the neighborhood.
The paper was not concerned, of course, with the perspective of the homeless people themselves, who are just trying to remain healthy during a historic health crisis. So what’s really going on? Standing outside one of the hotels, the four-star Lucerne, I met William Lewis, a 57-year-old New Yorker who was placed there by the city this week. A tall, talkative man dressed in a grey T-shirt with a picture of Mr. Rogers on it, Lewis said he’s been homeless on and off for two years, and that he recently left a rehab center in the Hudson Valley.
“I wouldn’t consider that the neighbors are hateful,” he said when asked about the hostile reception from the community, “I would say that they just don’t understand.”
But some area residents have been anything but neighborly since the city’s Department of Homeless Services began temporarily placing people like Lewis in Upper West Side hotels as part of a citywide effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus in often-crowded homeless shelters. Not too long ago, a neighbor witnessed someone yelling at one of the homeless individuals, asking him to leave, and telling him he was causing his property’s value to diminish — and comments of a similar vein are being widely shared on Twitter and in Facebook groups.
There are now several security guards stalking the entrance of the Lucerne, but most of the hotel residents are just trying to go about their lives. Despite breathless social media posts and tabloid stories that make residents out to be violent criminals, most are people like Lewis — simply trying to exist without a home, and some without jobs, during this pandemic.
But there has been a more empathetic response too, part of which was written out on the sidewalk in front of where Lewis stood. Messages like “Make America Care Again,” “love thy neighbor,” and “everyone is welcome on the UWS” written on the pavement in in colorful chalk.
Lewis says he tries to give back to his neighbors, too. One of the things he learned in rehab— and in his 11 months of sobriety — is to be worthy of love and respect. “I try to look out not just only for my best interest. Anybody who looks like they’re having a bad day, I try to put a smile on their face,” said Lewis.
As we spoke, two women, Heather Gunn Rivera and Candice Braun, passed by to drop off some $5 gift cards for the hotel residents so they can buy snacks and drinks. The women are members of a local group that drew the murals. They have also begun circulating a counter petition supporting their new neighbors.
“The real issue is treating humans as humans, treating homeless people as equal people in our community,” Gunn Rivera said. “And this is the city. Every other neighborhood is dealing just with what you’re dealing with, so to say that you don’t want it on the Upper West Side ... that’s white privilege at its finest.”
A short walk down Broadway is the Belleclaire, another luxury hotel where unhoused people are staying, including Roberto Mangual, a 27-year-old New Yorker who has been living there since June. Mangual, a leader in the campaign that urged the city to place homeless people in empty hotels during the pandemic, says, “As clients being homeless, [we] don’t pick and choose where we wanna lay our heads. We are assigned by the system of the Department of Homeless Services where we have to lay our heads at every other night.”
So the Belleclaire is his safe harbor for now, but Mangual has no plans to stay on the UWS longterm. He works as an event planner on the weekends, and is trying to get an apartment of his own in the Bronx, where he grew up.
The sidewalk in front of the Belleclaire is also adorned with welcoming chalk messages, and it’s such gestures that make Mangual say he’s never seen that kind of support from neighbors in the two years that he’s been homeless. “It feels nice to feel accepted,” he says.