Advocates for the homeless said they were contemplating legal action over Mayor de Blasio’s decision to evacuate the Lucerne.
Mayor de Blasio might have dodged one lawsuit with his decision to cave to vocal opponents and move 300 homeless people out of an Upper West Side hotel. Advocates for the homeless, however, furiously condemned the move Wednesday and threatened legal action of their own.
The controversy on Manhattan’s West Side erupted during the summer over the city’s moving more than 700 homeless people to four hotels in the neighborhood—just part of the 13,000 people moved to more than 60 hotels during the pandemic in an effort to give homeless people the ability to practice life-saving social distancing.
A segment of the neighborhood revolted over the arrivals, and organized opponents hired former Giuliani administration Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro to coordinate a legal and political attack on the hotel placements.
On Tuesday, de Blasio moved to remove the homeless residents from one of the Upper West Side locations, the Lucerne on 79th Street, and a hotel in Queensbridge. According to a statement from Mastro, a second Upper West Side hotel, the Belleclaire on Broadway, will also be evacuated.
“We appreciate that the city—at our urging—will be immediately taking concrete steps to address the chaos that reached a crisis point over the past several weeks when the city relocated hundreds of homeless individuals into the Lucerne Hotel, many of whom suffered from mental illness, addiction and other serious problems,” Mastro said in his statement. “While there is still more work to be done to repair the damage to this neighborhood and to address the many homeless individuals still left adrift at other SRO hotels, we are gratified that the community is being heard and concrete action is being taken to remedy this tragic situation.”
Megan Martin, president of the West Side Community Organization, one of the groups that opposed the presence of the homeless hotel residents, called the decision “ a win-win for all involved.”
“The goal of our organization was always to improve the conditions of not only our community, but the lack of resources these men were receiving,” she said.
But the Department of Homeless Services confirms that the hotel residents were receiving all the services they normally receive. Some of those offerings were not on-site, but that is the often the case for people in the shelter systems who have diverse needs.
Indeed, a coalition of Upper West Side residents formed to defend the homeless residents dismissed the concern about a lack of services as fig leaf.
“Here we see a tale of two cities. If you are black or brown or poor or homeless in New York City the mayor is not interested in building affordable housing for you and finding you a home. And so you remain in a shelter and you can be moved around at the whim of the mayor,” said Joshua Goldfein from the Legal Aid Society. “If you are rich then you can treat some parts of the city as a gated community.”
“If the mayor is planning to move people back into congregate settings that are not safe, we will sue to protect our clients,” Goldfein warned.
As of now, the people moved from the Lucerne are not heading back to congregate shelters, according to the Department of Homeless Services. They are moving into shelters with individual units that were being used to house homeless families. The families already living there were moved to other shelters within the family shelter system, which has some excess capacity: The number of people living in the city’s family shelters has steadily dropped over the past four years, and now stands at a lower level than Mayor Bloomberg’s final summer in City Hall. On the other hand, the census of single adults in the system has exploded, and now is 67 percent higher than when de Blasio’s first year in office.
In a press conference Wednesday, de Blasio said removing the homeless residents from the Queens and UWS hotels was part of a move to reverse the “temporary measure” put in place as the pandemic peaked.
“This is the beginning of a larger effort to come back from those hotels, get back into our traditional shelter system,” he said. Without offering any specifics, the mayor said he focused this move on the Lucerne because he viewed the neighborhood last week “and what I saw was not acceptable and had to be addressed.” (He also said he’d seen the impact of the Queens hotel “when I was out there a few months ago.”)
“This was the right time to start to move away from hotels, and we’ll be continuing to do that in a variety of neighborhoods going forward,” the mayor said.
On the Upper West Side on Wednesday, advocates and supportive neighbors did not find the mayor’s rationale persuasive.
“In the time of COVID when millions have lost their jobs and are holding on because of unemployment insurance and an eviction moratorium, these men and women could be any one of us – a step away from the despair of homeless and life in the street,” said Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal. “It is sad that in our neighborhood a bastion of great privilege and of liberal family values that the temporary presence of these homeless individuals moved here in the midst of a public health crisis of unprecedented proportions divided our community so intensely and caused some to respond with fear and anger.”
Advocates predicted that there would indeed be calls from communities around the city for the same treatment the Upper West Side received—perhaps even in areas where the target of complaints is not a temporary COVID hotel but a regular shelter or supportive housing development.
“It is absolutely shameful that Mayor de Blasio would make a backroom deal like this that will do nothing but embolden the intolerant, hateful and certainly racist voices we will hear across New York City for years to come. We will be feeling the consequences of this deal for a long time,” said Dave Giffen, the executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless.
“In this last stretch of the mayor’s term I cannot think of a more poignant symbol of his complete failure to address the tale of two cities that he once claimed to oppose than this agreement to help rid a mostly affluent neighborhood of poor people of color.”