By Milo Mandelli-Valla ’24
Today in New York City, there are tens of thousands of homeless people living in shelters. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly 9,500 people who are now homeless have been placed into 63 temporary shelters across the five boroughs. Thirty-two of those shelters are in Manhattan.
Residents on the Upper West Side in particular, though, are unhappy with high-end hotels in their neighborhood being used as shelters for the homeless people of New York City.
An example of one of these high-end hotels turned into shelters is the Lucerne Hotel, where, according to the New York Times, almost 300 homeless men are housed. There are also other hotels on the Upper West Side where homeless women are temporarily being housed, like the Belleclaire, the Park West, and the Belnord. The residents of the Upper West Side have more complaints about the men than the women, though.
A group on Facebook, Upper West Siders for Safer Streets, was created in late July with over 13,000 members. In the group’s description, they state, “In a few short months, several hotels in a 10-block radius were converted to homeless shelters housing over 500 single men, many of whom are mentally ill and/or alcohol and drug addicted.”
According to the New York Times, group members have reported that the homeless men sell drugs, urinate, defecate on the streets, and threaten pedestrians. It is also stated that some of the homeless men are sex offenders, and many of the victims were children as young as 4 years of age.
According to Gary Kokalari, a resident of the Upper West Side, people are scared of the thought of going outside, adding to the fears of the pandemic.
According to the Daily Mail, residents of the Upper West Side are considering suing Mayor Bill de Blasio if he does not move the homeless out of these hotels.
On an emergency Zoom meeting with 1,100 people, including residents from the Upper West Side and people with views on the situation, attorney Randy Mastro told ABC7, “What the city has to do legally is house this vulnerable population in proper shelters, where they will get support and supervision and social services they will need.”
Mastro later told the New York Post, “We are calling on the de Blasio administration to clear up this mess of its own making,” as he directly attacked Mayor de Blasio to get his act together. This put de Blasio in even hotter water after having pushed back school openings due to teachers refusing to go.
This issue comes when COVID-19 has impacted people of color disproportionately, and at a time where Black Lives Matter is gaining more of a global platform. The Upper West Side is 68% white, and the average home value is $1.2 million, which is almost double the average of New York City.
There is another side to the story, though—a side that encourages the homeless to stay at hotels. One of these people is the owner of the Lucerne Hotel, Sam Domb, who says that this is a matter of survival for the homeless. There are also people like Michele Breier, who believes that homeless people coming to the Upper West Side is a way for the other residents of the Upper West Side to get a reality check and pop the bubble of wealth that most of them live in. In fact, there are many people on the Upper West Side who support the homeless being housed at hotels. Many are sleeping outside the hotels with the homeless, and making art on the sidewalks as a show of unity with the homeless.
Even though there are convicts staying at the hotels, there are also people trying to make a better life for themselves. An example is Marcus M., who is staying at the Lucerne Hotel on 79th Street. Marcus M. is employed, is saving money, and is trying to get a home for himself. He highlights the divide between New Yorkers when he says, “I would think that being New Yorkers, we’d have more love for one another, especially with September 11th coming up and the coronavirus. Things that us as New Yorkers have been through, we gotta do things together, being unified.”
UPDATE: Per the de Blasio administration, as of September 9, the homeless will be moved out of the hotels. The decision has elicited some backlash but also satisfaction among Upper West Side residents.