The 40 or so families living at the Hotel Ellington in Manhattan, where the city has been paying for rooms to house homeless New Yorkers for nearly two decades, were told late last month they would have to move. “I’m tired of moving,” one tenant said.
Outside the Hotel Ellington in Morningside Heights, a group of moms discussed their unexpected, upcoming moves.
The 90-degree Monday afternoon heat had driven four women and their toddlers out of the 115-year-old hotel, which has been used by the city to house homeless New Yorkers since 2002. Soon, the women and children will all leave for good.
Last late month, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and the Bronx Parent Housing Network, the embattled nonprofit that operates the site, informed the 40 or so families living at the Ellington that the place was closing down, West Side Rag and Patch first reported. The agencies provided bags and boxes to the women and told them they’d be shipping off to new locations—some to permanent apartments with the help of city housing vouchers, others to yet another shelter.
For some, the idea of restarting an apartment search from an unfamiliar part of the city tempered any optimism. Others said they feared the sudden disruption.
“I don’t want to leave a shelter and go to another shelter,” said Kamela Friday, who has lived at the Ellington for the past two years.
Friday said she has been preparing to move into a place on Brooklyn’s Fulton Street with her 14-year-old, but isn’t sure when that will actually happen. She was one of five people interviewed for this story who did not know where they were going next, even though moving day was fast approaching.
“I hope I’m heading to my apartment but it seems like DHS and the landlord are dragging their feet,” she said.
‘I’m tired of moving’
DHS commenced some transfers last week, moving a handful of families out of the Ellington’s cramped studios, where women and their children share bunk beds without air conditioning, and into so-called Tier II shelters throughout the city. The facilities are built to serve as temporary apartments with on-site social services, but the surging rate of family homelessness over the last decade has forced the city to put more and more children up in commercial hotels instead.
Gradually, though, the number of homeless families in DHS shelters has decreased. With eviction protections in effect during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of families with children staying in DHS shelters dropped from 11,405 families per night in March 2020 to 8,817 on June 10, according to the agency’s most recent daily census report. The lower population has freed up space in shelters, enabling the city to move families out of hotels.
DHS officials said the city first committed to closing the Ellington more than five years ago, after administering a 90-day review of shelters in early 2016.
They did not say what took so long, or whether they would be moving families out of every hotel used to house the homeless — a pledge Mayor Bill de Blasio made in 2017. DHS has closed more than 260 shelter sites deemed inadequate since releasing a new policy plan four years ago.
Agency spokesperson Isaac McGinn said DHS was determined to “transform the haphazard approach to homeless services that built up over four decades, which we inherited, we committed to phasing out the stop-gap, quick-fix shelters of the past, such as commercial hotel locations and cluster sites, as well as a small number of shelter locations, which did not effectively meet the needs of our clients.”
DHS officials also said the decision to close the site had nothing to do with the provider, Bronx Parent Housing Network, whose founder and ex-CEO faces federal bribery charges and accusations of sexual abuse by multiple women living in agency shelters. An organization vice president who handles media inquiries hung up the phone when contacted for this story and did not respond to follow up calls or emails.
The hotel is owned by California Suites LLC, a company connected to notorious property owners Jay and Stuart Podolsky, which lists Mordechai Elchanan as its head officer. When contacted by phone, Elchanan declined to discuss the pending shutdown, or the possibility of selling the hotel so that a nonprofit developer could convert it into affordable apartments, a tactic both advocates and state lawmakers are embracing as means to help address the city’s housing crisis. The city has moved to cut ties with several Podolsky-owned properties after paying them millions of dollars to house homeless families and individuals.
The building has 37 open violations from the Department of Housing and Preservation, according to city records, but four residents said conditions were comparable to other shelters they had stayed in. Two said they had seen mice, but one said Bronx Parent Housing Network had actually made conditions somewhat cleaner.
Privacy and boundaries were hard to come by in the tiny units, they agreed. Each room has its own bathroom and kitchenette, but women share bunk beds with their children, including teens.
“It’s not right for a woman to share a bunk bed with a 14-year-old,” Friday said.
She and two other women who said they have landed permanent apartments in Brooklyn and Queens, but will have to move into another shelter while they wait for their new units to be ready.
Shatona Pickett, 30, said her case worker told her she wouldn’t be able to go directly into the Jamaica apartment she secured with a CityFHEPS housing voucher. The home wasn’t ready, she said the landlord informed her.
“We gotta go to a shelter in Jamaica then to an apartment in Jamaica,” Pickett said, as she played with her 10-month-old son in the shade outside the Ellington.
Another woman, Starkeysha Love, sat on the front steps with her 1-year-old daughter Amira and said she worried about being placed in an unfamiliar neighborhood, far from Amira’s Bronx doctor.
“It’s not easy being in a shelter. I’m tired of moving,” said Love, 30. “I grew up in a neighborhood that I can show my daughter and say that’s where I lived. I want that for my baby. I just want to get my own apartment and raise her in a steady place.”
Three days later, Love told City Limits she had been abruptly transferred to a shelter in Jamaica. She said her new room was larger than the one in the Ellington, and there seemed to be an on-site housing specialist to help her find an apartment, but she knew nothing about the neighborhood. As she spoke by phone, her GPS dictated directions to a local grocery store.
McGinn, the DHS spokesperson, said the city would “work directly and closely with each of the families currently residing at the site on next steps,” including helping families move into permanent housing and shifting others to “shelter placements closer to their children’s school where possible.”
‘More disruption in their lives‘
Unlike commercial hotels recently rented out to house homeless single adults, the city has been paying for rooms in the Ellington for nearly two decades, making it, in essence, a semi-permanent shelter with social service staff working in the basement.
The decision to move the families from the Ellington angered many of the neighbors in a community where residents tend to pride themselves on their liberal, welcoming attitudes and where some have embraced the hotel residents.
It wasn’t always that way, though.
Neighbors initially complained when they saw teams of movers hauling bunk beds into the hotel back in 2002. “The last thing this community needs is another transient population,” then-Community Board 9 member Daniel O’Donnell told The New York Times at the time.
But 19 years later, O’Donnell, now a state assemblymember, said the community quickly came to value their new neighbors. He questioned the timing of the city’s decision to move the women and said he feared they would simply end up in another shelter without a permanent housing plan.
“After 20 years, why the city finally figured out it was substandard is a mystery to me,” O’Donnell said.
Others living near the Ellington contrasted the situation to the notorious effort by Upper West Siders to force men out of the Lucerne Hotel on West 79th Street, which the city has been using as a shelter site throughout the pandemic. Unlike the Lucerne antagonists, neighbors near the Ellington say they were upset about the abrupt move.
“These are families that have experienced disruptions and we don’t want more disruption in their lives,” said Dan McSweeney, a 50-year-old former Marine and head of the West 111th Street Block Association.
McSweeney said some of the residents have participated in block association events, including clean-ups, historical walking tours and a COVID-adjusted Halloween party. “We like to think of ourselves as a community that helps other people, and on a practical level they are residents who have been involved in the neighborhood,” he said.
Lisa Greenwald, a high school teacher who has cooked for shelter residents throughout the pandemic, said the city and the nonprofit organizations serving the families there have done little to help them secure housing before the move.
“Their lives have been thrown into upheaval,” Greenwald said. “Finding affordable housing works at a glacial rate.”
Despite many of their neighbors’ good intentions, four of the women interviewed for this story say they haven’t always felt welcome on the block.
Love said community members have complained about the women and the children sitting outside the building, which does not have air conditioning. Multiple rooms are clustered together behind separate doors that lead to the hallway and further restrict airflow, residents said.
Ellington resident Quinise Wells, 33, said she has felt alienated by neighbors while coming and going from the building. She said the hotel residents, who are mostly Black, tend to stand out in a part of town that is predominantly white.
“Being homeless is one thing, but it doesn’t mean we’re bums,” Well said. “But if we all walk out of here, we’re all one.”
Wells said she became homeless when her mother got sick and she took custody of her sibling’s children. She said she had been renting a room in a Bronx apartment but didn’t have space for her nephew, so they were forced to enter the family shelter system.
She has stayed at the Ellington for two years and has worked the whole time, including a stint registering New Yorkers at the Javits Center vaccine site, she said. She recently began a new job with Amazon.
“I did it for my family and now I’m stuck,” Wells said of entering the shelter. “I’m like, what am I doing wrong?”
Her income prevented her from qualifying for a CityFHEPS housing voucher, which could enable her and her nephew to rent an apartment, she said.
Over the winter, she thought she had obtained a two-bedroom unit, but that fell through because she earned just over the income ceiling to qualify, likely because the apartment was set aside for lower-income New Yorkers, she said.
Other times, she said, landlords have rejected her because of her low credit score — a form of housing discrimination that can be illegal in New York City.
She said a case manager helped her secure an apartment in East Harlem two months ago, but she had yet to move in and did not understand the delay. On June 14, a week after first talking with City Limits, she was still at the Ellington and unsure of her next move.
“I’m not asking for a favor,” she said. “I’m just looking forward to the apartment coming through.”
City Limits’ series on family homelessness in New York City is supported by Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York and The Family Homelessness Coalition. City Limits is solely responsible for the content and editorial direction.