On the night of August 24, the ongoing fight over the temporary homeless shelters on the Upper West Side moved to the public square of the pandemic era: a Zoom call. Over 1,000 New Yorkers tuned into Community Board 7’s virtual meeting to confer on the three hotels in the neighborhood that have been housing homeless New Yorkers since earlier this summer. While the 25 onscreen panelists included elected officials like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Senator Brad Hoylman, there were also representatives from two new neighborhood groups: one that supports and welcomes the temporary sheltering of the homeless, and another that adamantly opposes their presence in the area — and is now threatening to go to court.
Dr. Megan Martin, one of the Upper West Side residents who has been vocally against the homeless individuals staying in the area and has become the face of the newly formed West Side Community Organization, said during the call that the neighbors have “witnessed in a very short period ... open and illicit drug use, needles on our playgrounds, aggressive panhandling, and public masturbation.” In an interview with the New York Post she described the community as being “terrified, angry and frightened.”
The conflict between residents has played out on the UWS for weeks. Some in the neighborhood have supported the homeless hotel residents with donations and other gestures of welcome, while others have complained loudly, in tabloid stories and on Facebook, about the “astounding deterioration” of the neighborhood, as one neighbor put it in the Zoom call. The latter group, which officially formed a nonprofit organization called the West Side Community Organization, has so far raised over $110,000 through a GoFundMe account, and hired lawyer Randy Mastro (who was Deputy Mayor under Rudolph Giuliani), to represent them in a potential lawsuit against the city.
On Thursday, Mastro sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio saying that the group would sue the city to transfer the homeless residents out of Upper West Side hotels — and only Upper West Side hotels — if the administration didn’t provide a timeline to do so within 48 hours.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a press conference earlier this month that the city would start figuring out a plan to reduce the “reliance on hotels” as COVID-19 transmission rates continue to decline. But the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has not yet said that it’s safe to move the approximately 10,000 people currently staying in 139 hotels across the boroughs back into the shelter system.
Meanwhile, the neighbors that have expressed their support to those staying temporarily in the shelters have formed a group called the UWS Open Hearts Initiative (not an official nonprofit, one of the organizers says). Its members have also penned a letter to Mayor de Blasio, which they plan to deliver on August 28, asking the administration to allow unhoused residents to remain in hotels around the city and on the Upper West Side until it’s deemed safe for them to go back to shelters.
“Giving in to this political-pressure campaign would endanger the lives of not just shelter residents but of all New Yorkers, because if we have an outbreak of COVID-19 in a shelter, then that exposes everybody,” says Corinne Low, one of the group’s organizers.
The nonprofit Legal Aid Society has also said that if the Mayor decides to move homeless residents out of hotels, its lawyers would also file a lawsuit on behalf of The Coalition for the Homeless and the thousands of DHS clients who sleep in shelters every night.
Open Hearts is now gearing up for a Saturday, August 29 “sleep out” and art protest in front of the Lucerne hotel on West 79th Street. They’re also forming a “housewarming committee” to help shelter residents moving into permanent housing find items for their new homes, like sheets, pots and pans, etc.
Low encourages other residents to join their cause and help the hotel residents directly: “If the problem that you are having is visible poverty in your neighborhood, then take your resources and help solve that problem, instead of just trying to move people someplace else.”