This shelter near Westchester Square in the Bronx touched off a tense community battle in 2009. Now, however, many neighbors say the shelter has had little impact.

Adi Talwar

This shelter near Westchester Square in the Bronx touched off a tense community battle in 2009. Now, however, many neighbors say the shelter has had little impact.

For Jeremy Gallant, it started with the flyers.

“Fundraiser to Help Stop the Plan to Warehouse Homeless Families on Cooper Ave!” was the headline of one. “Come out and support your community,” it continued.

“It just struck me as backwards,” said Gallant, 23, a lifelong resident of Glendale, Queens, a middle-class neighborhood that borders on the site of the proposed homeless shelter. “I couldn’t believe that people thought that [protesting plans for] a homeless shelter would be helping our community,” he said.

So Gallant decided to voice his opinion: “I went over to the fundraiser,” he said, “asked the musician playing there if he knew any Rolling Stones songs that he could back me up on, and sang ‘Gimme Shelter’ for the crowd.”

The performance didn’t go over very well, said Gallant. “A few boos, in fact.”

The ongoing dispute in Glendale is one of many battles over homeless shelters that have raged in neighborhoods across New York City recently. Rates of homelessness in the five boroughs climbed rapidly in 2014 before easing slightly in January. More than 58,000 people now sleep in shelters every night, according to the city’s daily shelter census. These bitter fights over shelters shine a spotlight on New York’s growing ranks of poor and dispossessed, and on the city’s increasing difficulty of accommodating all of them. And as the cost of living in New York continues to rise while wages stagnate, no clear end to the problem is in sight.

A map of disputes

The contested shelters are widely dispersed across the city. A residence for homeless families in Elmhurst, Queens, sparked a wave of protests this summer that drew attention in the press for their sheer virulence. Among the sources of frustration in Elmhurst was the lack of notice given to the community beforehand—a grievance that other neighborhoods have aired as well.

“There was absolutely no community input on the placement of the shelter,” said City Councilman Donovan Richards Jr. of another recent dispute, this one in Far Rockaway, which falls into his district. Because of local opposition there, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) ultimately nixed its plans for the facility this fall—an outcome that Richards saw as fair. “Far Rockaway is home to a number of shelters,” he said, citing a nearby facility for homeless families that opened over the summer.

Aaron Biller raised similar objections over Freedom House, an emergency shelter on the Upper West Side that originally housed 400 homeless adults. “This area has become oversaturated,” said Biller, the president of the civic group Neighborhood In The Nineties. “[We’re] doing far more than about 90 percent of the other neighborhoods in the city.” In November, DHS yielded to local pressure and reduced the number of Freedom House residents down to 200.

Biller said that Freedom House’s proximity to schools was another issue, as did Richards in the case of the proposed shelter in Far Rockaway. Schools also have been a sticking point in Glendale and Middle Village, where DHS has spent more than a year trying to turn a contested property on Cooper Avenue, a vacant factory building, into a shelter for more than 100 homeless families. “We’re the most crowded school district in the city right now,” said Salvatore Crifasi of the Glendale / Middle Village Coalition, which is raising money to challenge DHS’ plans in court.

Javier Lacayo, a spokesman for Glendale’s City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, echoed this concern, questioning whether the area can “accommodate a large influx of new students in a school district that does not even have adequate space for children already living here.”

Crifasi of the neighborhood coalition brought up other issues with the plan as well, including the size of the facility, alleged zoning and procedural violations and the employment opportunities of prospective residents.

But as Gallant sees it, objections like these are a thin veil for what’s actually driving the opposition in Glendale. “The real reason they don’t want [the homeless] there is that they’ll diminish the quality of their neighborhood,” he said. “If you walk around the neighborhood and listen to people, that’s the only thing they’re talking about.”

What does the research say?

What effects do residential facilities for the homeless really have on their surroundings? Are the anti-shelter groups in Far Rockaway, Glendale, Elmhurst and on the Upper West Side right? Does housing for the homeless put an undue strain on local services and pose a threat to schoolchildren? Does the city give communities too little input or concentrate such facilities unfairly in certain neighborhoods?

A number of studies have sought to address questions like these. And while the quantitative research on the subject is not comprehensive, it does offer insight into the legitimacy of some of the common concerns surrounding residences for the homeless.

Most such studies have focused on the impact of supportive housing—long-term subsidized residences for special needs populations (e.g. the formerly homeless) that usually offer an array of services like on-site case management and job training. Supportive housing is not the same thing as shelters, which usually only allow for short or mid-length stays.

Unfortunately, few studies have addressed the impact of shelters themselves. And while there is some overlap between certain types of supportive housing and shelters, findings on the former may not apply to the latter. The distinction between the two is often lost in local disputes over supportive housing, which is why it’s worth examining the impact of each respectively, insofar as reliable assessments exist.

Researchers say that two of the most common concerns about residences for the homeless—shelters and supportive housing—are that they will reduce property values and increase crime. Accordingly, these claims have received the most attention in scholarship.

A study released by NYU’s Furman Center in 2008 found that supportive housing in New York City does not have a negative impact on nearby property values. In fact, the authors found that, five years after a supportive development opens, nearby property values tend to have risen more than in similar areas with no such facility. Importantly, neither the size of the building nor the density of the neighborhood had any impact on these results.

A 1999 study conducted by the Urban Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., came to similar conclusions about property values—in this case in Denver. It also looked at the impact of supportive housing on Denver’s crime rates. These researchers determined that, on average, crime rates were not higher near supportive housing compared to similar areas with no such development, except for disorderly conduct charges within 500 feet of facilities.

A subsequent report by the same researchers largely reiterated these findings, although it also identified a trend of increased total and violent crime within 500 feet of new supportive housing—and near larger facilities in particular. While the difference in the average levels of crime between the supportive housing areas and other areas was not statistically significant, it might have become so if the trend had continued unabated after the period of observation.

However, facilities for “the most threatening clientele” were no more strongly associated with this trend than others, which led the authors to hypothesize that the residents themselves were not responsible for these upticks in criminal behavior, but rather constituted a large pool of potential victims that may have attracted crime from the outside. (It’s worth noting that some advocates question how applicable the Denver findings are to the model of supportive housing used in New York.)

Little scholarship exists on the impact of shelters and supportive housing on a neighborhood’s quality of life—a fact that may reflect the nebulousness of that term. A 1993 study conducted in suburban Virginia did, however, survey residents on their perceptions of four small group homes for the mentally ill that had faced strong local opposition upon opening. The vast majority of respondents reported that the homes had little impact on things like “distressing incidents,” “neighborhood appearance” or “the experience of children,” suggesting that, at least in some cases, local concerns that such facilities will damage a community’s quality of life can prove untrue.

The contention that shelters or supportive housing would put a strain on local services and amenities is similarly difficult to assess. Kathy Dawkins, a spokesperson for New York City’s Department of Sanitation, said that the department’s borough chiefs had not observed any increase in litter on streets where new shelters open: “Based on the response I’ve received,” she said, “this is unfounded.”

Harry Hartfield, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Education, would not directly answer a question on the strain that new family shelters may put on schools, saying only: “Every student in New York City—no matter where they live—is entitled to a high-quality education, and the DOE is committed to providing the resources and services our students need to thrive.” (Hartfield also did not directly answer a question about the threat that shelters allegedly pose to nearby schools.)

As for the complaints of overcrowding in Glendale’s schools, a 2011 report by the city’s Independent Budget Office did find that 90 percent of classes in School District 24 (which includes Glendale and Elmhurst) exceeded targeted capacity levels—among the highest in the city that year. But DOE’s Enrollment, Capacity & Utilization Report for 2013-2014 offers a more nuanced picture of the student-to-capacity ratio in the vicinity of the proposed shelter. P.S./I.S. 87, the “zoned” elementary and middle school for the Cooper Avenue site, operated at only 90 percent of targeted capacity last school year. However, the zoned high school, Queens Metropolitan High School, operated at 123 percent of targeted capacity.

There is one common complaint about shelters, at least, that’s received strong affirmation from a report on the topic: that DHS’ procedures in siting new shelters are inequitable and opaque. A report released by the city comptroller’s office in May 2013 identified a systematic tendency at DHS to bypass established procurement procedures and to avoid community input when opening new shelters. The authors also found that city-run shelters for families and adults are not distributed evenly across the city, as many neighborhood groups have argued. (DHS did not respond to questions about its siting procedures.)

In fact, these facilities seem to be overwhelmingly clustered in poor neighborhoods: The community district encompassing the Upper West Side had only four such shelters at the time of the study, while the Central Harlem district had 22. Of course, there are other sorts of facilities that local residents may take issue with and that my cluster differently. But in the case of city-run family and adult shelters, at least, it’s particular poor communities that contain the most.

Some exceptions notwithstanding, these publications and statements indicate that concerns about the impact of residential facilities for the homeless on surrounding neighborhoods often prove untrue—at least in the case of supportive housing. Of course, much depends on the context and management of the facility, and size seems to matter in certain cases as well. These findings can’t be generalized, but they are suggestive: the local effects of housing for the homeless may not be as outsized as they seem.

After the battles

The recent sparring over shelters is nothing new. Facilities for the homeless have long faced opposition from civic groups and local politicians, and the fights that break out over them have been well chronicled in the pages of neighborhood newspapers.

Far less attention has been paid to the performance of some of these controversial facilities after they opened. Were the early opponents right? Was a particular shelter or supportive housing facility a bane on its neighborhood as expected?

Westchester Square, a diverse, middle-class neighborhood in the Bronx, played host to one of the largest such fights in the city’s recent history. In August 2009, local residents were surprised to discover that a new building expected to serve as private rental housing had instead become a 38-unit shelter for homeless families, offering three- to six-month stays.

The backlash began almost immediately. “No sane person can honestly argue that the presence of a homeless shelter in a residential community presents no irreparable harm,” said John Bonizio, the chairman of a neighborhood merchant’s association, to the Bronx Times. “Properties in communities with shelters are considered less desirable. That’s irreparable, and we intend to show that this is what exactly is happening here.”

“I feel the Bronx is already oversaturated with such facilities,” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. was quoted as saying in the Daily News. “Forcing more of them into our borough, especially without any real dialogue, is unfair.”

The lack of advanced warning was a particularly sore spot. City Councilman James Vacca said DHS had only informed him of the shelter shortly after it opened; he described the department’s actions as an “ambush.”

DHS defended its expedited procedures, arguing that it was responding to a crisis-level increase in homelessness at the time. (The number of homeless New Yorkers rose by nearly 3,000 people that summer, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.) These emergency conditions justified skipping certain time-consuming administrative steps, the department said. In fact, DHS had no written contract with the facility manager, the non-profit Basic Housing Inc., which it was paying on a per diem basis—allegedly $90 per unit per night. (Basic Housing did not respond to a request to comment for this story.)

The concerns of residents were many. “Westchester Square is a very nice, family-oriented neighborhood and we want to keep it that way,” one local said to the Bronx Times. “The type of people living in the area now just don’t care about it and leave dirt everywhere,” another told the paper, referring to clients of other social service facilities in the area. “I can’t park my motorcycle in my driveway any more. I have to lock it in my garage because I am concerned it will get stolen,” still another said. State Assemblyman Michael Benedetto summed up the prevailing mood about the new shelter: “This is Mayor Bloomberg telling the community to drop dead.”

Residents protested outside of Bloomberg’s district campaign office for eight straight weekends. A group of neighbors and local merchants sued the city for not giving advanced notice to the local community board or conducting a fair share analysis—a public assessment of the number of city facilities in a given neighborhood. The comptroller’s office even joined the lawsuit, claiming DHS had flouted obligatory administrative procedures.

In June 2013, State Supreme Court Justice Geoffrey D. Wright sided with the plaintiffs, requiring DHS to review future shelter contracts with the comptroller’s office and stiffening community board notification requirements. In his decision, Wright compared DHS in its siting practices to a “CIA black op” and characterized the department’s financial dealings with the Westchester Square shelter operator as “suffused with subterfuge, double talk and evasion.”

The decision did not call for the shelter’s closing, however, and it’s still there today—a well-kept, inconspicuous building on a quiet residential street. It’s hard to imagine now that this same shelter provoked such outrage when it opened.

Annete Montoya has lived directly across the street from the building for four years and has little to report. “It’s kind of quiet,” she said. Montoya has seen a few disputes between residents or their friends out front, but she said that was rare. “Maybe I’ve seen that three or four times these past years.”

“There’s no problems around here,” said another area resident who’s lived nearby for almost two decades and asked not to be named. “It’s quiet, very quiet,” he said, adding that the facility hadn’t increased crime or street litter, as far as he knew. As for property values, he remembers his own home depreciating around the time the shelter opened, but that could have been due to the recession or the rise in foreclosures in the area, he said. (The sheer number of variables that influence property values and crime rates is among the reasons why it would be difficult to assess the quantitative impact of a single shelter or supportive housing development on its surroundings.)

“It worked out good,” the neighbor said of the shelter. “You hardly see anybody talking about it anymore. The same people who were out there [protesting]—they ain’t out there anymore. Where are they now?”

Sandi Lusk is one of those former protesters. A longtime area resident, Lusk was a vocal member of the opposition to the shelter and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Today, Lusk takes little issue with the facility itself. “The shelter has caused no problems,” she said in a recent interview. Its impact? “Very negligible.” According to Lusk, the building hasn’t hindered development or reduced the area’s quality of life, as some had originally feared, nor did she think that it had harmed commerce or increased crime.

Lusk emphasized that her primary gripe with the shelter had always been the expedited and furtive circumstances of its opening: “We know there’s a homeless crisis in this city,” she said. “The issue was examining these policies and trying to have these policies change.”

Porsha Johnson, 25, has been living in the shelter for three months, and her experiences there largely matched the perceptions of her neighbors. “It seems like a good neighborhood.” As for the shelter, she said “I don’t hear about any crime,” nor was she aware of any conflicts between residents and other community members.

Why had the shelter’s impact on Westchester Square been so minimal, despite the early concerns to the contrary? One resident pointed to factors like good management and the overall cohesion of the neighborhood. He also brought up the fact that families live there. “If it was a men’s shelter,” he said, “it would be a totally different story.”

Fear in Astoria

That Westchester Square resident might be imagining a place like the Residence at Hallet’s Cove, a 50-unit supportive housing development in Astoria, Queens, that provides long-term apartments and a range of services to formerly homeless, mentally ill adults. According to the website of Urban Pathways, the non-profit that runs the facility, nearly three quarters of residents are men. (Urban Pathways declined to comment for this story.)

The Residence, which operates primarily with state funding, opened in late 2012, but plans for the facility caught the attention of neighbors as early as October 2009, with a local outcry following shortly thereafter. “Certainly, no community can be thrilled about such a project,” then City Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr. was quoted as saying in the Western Queens Gazette. “But in this instance the consequences could be dire for a neighborhood that has long been struggling to improve itself.” Among Vallone’s concerns were that the facility would hamper development and that its location was too isolated from amenities and transit to integrate effectively into the community.

Vallone’s constituents agreed. “I feel it’s a burden for us,” one resident said to the Gazette. “We worry about the children.” Another told to the Daily News, “We’re already saturated with mentally ill, recovering drug addicts,” presumably referring to other social service facilities in the area.

In December 2008, the local community board voted against the Residence 35 to 1. Addressing Urban Pathways, board member Rose Marie Poveromo said: “Your population is using drugs, has HIV/AIDS, and the area for your proposal has drug problems to begin with.”

The fight continued well into 2011. “We can’t sustain the additional strain of a 50-unit development for homeless people with special needs,” Vallone told the Western Queens Gazette that October.

Despite these protests, plans for the building moved forward. And today, according to some community members, none of those original concerns have proven true. Glad Gelin, 25, lives directly across the street from the Residence and says that it’s a fairly unassuming part of the neighborhood. “I didn’t even know what it was,” he said. “I thought it was for the elderly.” Gelin didn’t associate any problems with the facility, nor did he think that it had increased crime or litter in the community. “I heard a lot of yelling coming from there [once],” he said. “But not really anything drastic.”

Elfege Leylavergne, 37, has lived across the street for a year and a half, and his perception of it largely matched Gelin’s. “Never, really never,” he said, when asked if he’d observed any problems associated with the facility. “A lot of people don’t feel safe or secure in this neighborhood,” he said, referring to some of the other tenants in his building and their concerns about the housing project across the street. “But it’s more fantasy than reality.”

Even Vallone, the former city councilman who claimed that the Residence would hinder development, now says that its impact has been minimal. “As far as I know, there have been no complaints,” said Vallone, who now has a private law practice. “I pass it just about everyday and I don’t see any problems.” (It hasn’t impeded development either: a billion-dollar residential complex is in the works for a nearby site.)

Ismail Abbas, 42, spent a week at the facility, staying with a friend who lives there permanently. Abbas said that the building does have some internal maintenance issues, and described some residents as a little rough around the edges, but agreed that it had a low profile in the neighborhood. “If you look at it from the outside, it looks very nice.”

More to come

While community members in Astoria and Westchester Square have gotten used to the new homeless residences in their midst, other neighborhoods have kept up the fight. Opponents of the shelter in Glendale filed an appeal in late 2014 over the city’s environmental assessment of the proposed site, forcing DHS officials to appear in court to dispute the allegations behind the lawsuit. In the first days of the new year, the Upper West Side civic group Neighborhood in the Nineties appealed an earlier ruling on the controversial Freedom House shelter in an effort to close it entirely. And residents and politicians protested in Elmhurst again in December over DHS’ plans to make the family shelter on Queens Boulevard permanent.

Meanwhile, the city is still struggling to stanch the flow of New Yorkers out onto the streets. Many advocates have called for increased funding for more permanent forms of housing like supportive models. Mayor de Blasio is focused on reducing spending on cluster-site housing—individual shelter units in private rental buildings—and developing new rental subsidy programs. If such measures prove ineffective, however, it seems inevitable that the city’s homeless population, and its portfolio of shelters, will continue to grow, with more disputes likely to follow.

As the city braces for these new battles, it would do well to remember the old ones. The history of the facilities in Astoria and Westchester Square may not prove any universal truth about how shelters or supportive housing impact neighborhoods. There’s just too much variety—in function, size, location, management and population served—to speak categorically on the topic. But the success of both properties, despite the intense opposition they originally faced, does show that fears about housing for the homeless can be overblown—a finding that largely reinforces broader research.

What’s to blame for this gap between expectations and outcomes, between perhaps understandable assumptions and more nuanced truths? “They just don’t want the idea of a shelter in their neighborhood,” said Johnson, the resident of the Westchester Square facility, of local opponents. Sometimes, it seems, ideas can be more menacing than reality.

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This story first appeared on City & State, with which City Limits is partnering to cover crucial housing policy stories in 2015.

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