‘After hearing that I would be kicked out of the Lucerne, I felt traumatized – dehumanized at the thought of being moved from shelter to shelter like a pawn on a chessboard during a global pandemic.’

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.

On September 13, I stood on the grounds of Gracie Mansion, home to Mayor Bill de Blasio, alongside other homeless New Yorkers and advocates. We protested the mayor’s decision to remove hundreds of us from the Lucerne Hotel on West 79th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, giving in to the demands of neighbors who objected to us being there despite the fact that we were moved to the hotel to keep us safe from coronavirus. The mayor’s original plan would have resulted in the domino displacement of hundreds of other homeless New Yorkers, including families with children, people with disabilities, people suffering from substance use disorder, and people with mental health issues.

The mayor heard our message, and he put a temporary pause on moving all of us. But ultimately, they decided to kick us out of the Lucerne in the coming weeks, and the entire experience has caused our anxiety to rise. 

After hearing that I would be kicked out of the Lucerne, I felt traumatized – dehumanized at the thought of being moved from shelter to shelter like a pawn on a chessboard during a global pandemic. The words of the mayor brought back thoughts of traumatic experiences from my past, as a young child growing up in New York City’s foster care system. As a foster child, I was moved around from foster home to foster home, never finding stability and at times being separated from my siblings. That instability led me to the streets, and I have been battling homelessness since I was a teenager and throughout my adulthood, as I raised my son in the family shelter system, despite my best efforts to get back on my feet.

It disturbed me that the mayor seemed to reflect the sentiments of those who have espoused racist, hateful, and unwarranted views about a vulnerable and often voiceless population – a population that was easy prey for exploitation and dehumanization. 

After the news first broke that we would be moved, I walked the halls of the Lucerne and saw some of the strongest individuals I’ve come to know showing fear, confusion, and disorientation. The trauma could be seen on their faces. Some of them spoke of being triggered to relapse after months of sobriety, some were experiencing emotional trauma, and others wanted to immediately use their substance of choice. It was painful to see grown men in tears as they expressed their feelings. I let them know we would be okay, but the reality was that I was feeling the same as they did. I witnessed how trauma in situations like this could lead a person toward self-destructive behavior. One person in particular had been attending our harm reduction groups and was sober, until he got the news about the transfer and succumbed to his coping mechanism. He ended up spending the night in jail and subsequently moved to another place. Personally, I had to send an SOS out to the director of Project Renewal’s Recovery Center to indicate I was in crisis. I’m grateful that they were able to respond quickly and ensure that I would be able to use the skills I’ve been learning to cope in a healthy way, such as by advocating for myself and my fellow residents.

We are in the middle of a pandemic just trying to find ways to stay alive. The mayor is using his power to move us and inflict harm on us, triggering many of us who suffer from substance use disorder and mental health issues.

If he really wants to do better for New York City, he must stop criminalizing and dehumanizing us. New York City needs to come together on all sides, but instead, the mayor caved to discussions that left the most directly impacted people out of the conversation – a discussion rooted in white supremacy that puts Black and brown lives more at risk for violence and death. 

True leadership would have been to work with the community and us to create a space where we would respect each other’s humanity, but instead his response has been to move us out of a safe place again and transfer us to a different facility for no good reason.

I keep thinking that it’s strange that a few months ago, the mayor would honor a movement and paint a street to show that Black Lives Matter, but when it comes to actual Black lives, suddenly we are expendable. It’s the equivalent of politics without economics, of emancipation without reparations. With over half of the heads of household in shelters being Black and 32 percent Hispanic/Latinx, homelessness is a racial justice matter. Black and brown people dominate the shelters, so by dehumanizing the people living in these conditions, the mayor does nothing to fight for racial equality.

I was taught that when truth comes, falsehood vanishes, so I hope that we can move forward and really think about the humanity of our New York neighbors, whether rich or poor. I would imagine it’s not easy to run a city, but the mayor needs to act with compassion, not make rash decisions when lives are at stake. All we are seeing is trauma on top of trauma.

Shams DaBaron, also known as Da Homeless Hero, is a screenwriter, filmmaker, and hip-hop pioneer currently experiencing homelessness. Shams is currently a resident of the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side.

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