‘I’m appalled at how homeless advocates have lost sight of the needs of this vulnerable population and have turned against a community that spoke out against human suffering.’

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor de Blasio, seen in 2016, committed to moving the homeless from hotels to shelters. Rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a temporary move in the opposite direction.

You might have heard stories in recent weeks about how the city hastily moved 730 homeless individuals into four hotels on the Upper West Side in close proximity to each other. In fact, a recent op-ed by an attorney for a shelter advocacy group unfairly characterized opposition to this move as “stemming from racism and prejudice against people experiencing homelessness.”

Can you imagine an attorney who claims to be working for the civil rights of others using such language against people who merely want to make sure that their streets are safe for them and their children and who were shocked to see homeless individuals packed into hotels without adequate* support services? As a former Department of Homeless Services Deputy Commissioner, I’m appalled at how homeless advocates have lost sight of the needs of this vulnerable population and have turned against a community that spoke out against human suffering.

Homeless advocates, the mayor, and the DHS Commissioner have long opposed commercial hotels for homeless housing, noting that they were an option of last resort and could never provide the services that proper shelters can. But now, some of these same advocates are threatening the city with a lawsuit in an attempt to keep this vulnerable population in overpriced and underperforming private hotels with* inadequate on-site counseling and addiction services—and calling anyone who opposes them racists.  Who does this aggressive and near-sighted rhetoric help?    

The mayor did the right thing when he recently decided to begin moving homeless individuals from commercial hotels in overcrowded neighborhoods—like the Lucerne and hotels in Queens—back to proper shelters where these individuals can get the services that were inadequate* at the hotels.  The Upper West Side in particular has long been one of the most welcoming communities when it comes to housing the homeless.  In fact, city statistics show that the community contributes 303 people to the overall shelter system, but currently houses over 1,600 homeless clients in shelters—more than five times the number that it contributes.  

When the mayor visited this neighborhood, he recognized that without proper social services, oversight, and security, the city was failing both the vulnerable population and the rest of the community.  And the mayor was correct that public urination and defecation on streets littered with needles, sidewalk encampments, aggressive panhandling and harassment, and brazen public drug use and prostitution was “unacceptable.”   It’s clear that this community was not getting the support it needed, and the only thing left for the city to do is to solve the administrative issue of how to best utilize the available space in the shelter system to accommodate all of its clients in proper facilities and achieve its long-term goal of getting out of commercial hotels all together.

And space there is.  The number of people in family shelters has dropped significantly in recent years, including 2,000 fewer now compared to this time last year. Additionally, the city has congregate shelter facilities that used to house over 15,000 people, but are now operating at a fraction of that capacity.  With this underutilized space in existing facilities, coupled with the great work New York has done containing the spread of coronavirus, it is now time for the City to provide all its shelter clients with the services they can only receive at proper state-accredited facilities.  Indeed, COVID infection rates have been well below 1 percent for months; gyms, department stores, and museums have reopened; and schools and indoor dining are reopening very soon.  It’s only right that the city continues this reopening process with its rearrangement of shelter space which will provide social distancing, so as to not leave its clients stranded in faraway SRO hotels that cost the city nearly $100 million, but which don’t provide access to the counseling and assistance this population deserves and previously received.

Advocates have simply lost track of what is best for the individuals they purport to serve.  Instead of being warehoused two to a room in hotels, this vulnerable population is now beginning to return to certified homeless shelters where they can have private spaces and access to additional* on-site services—a goal which advocates have desired and fought for decades. In the end, the rearrangement of shelter capacity will guarantee that those families that were receiving all* necessary services in certified shelters will continue to do so at new locations, while also ensuring that those left to their own devices at SRO hotels these past few months can obtain the same benefits.  Instead of fighting to keep people in these hotels, advocates would better serve this vulnerable population by championing the wide distribution of social services and helping the City match these clients with proper facilities in which they can thrive while they seek out affordable housing of their own.  Shouldn’t that be everyone’s goal?

Robert Mascali is former Deputy Commissioner for Operations and Chief of Staff of the NYC Department of Homeless Services and Vice President of Supportive Housing at Women in Need.

*Editor’s note: The original version of this op-ed suggested that there are no services being provided at the Upper West Side hotels where the de Blasio administration temporarily placed homeless people this summer. Services are, in fact, provided.