Editorial Observer: Gimme Shelters, Manhattan


Editorial observer

Midtown residents mount shameful battle against a city homeless shelter.

Mara Gay

The plan to turn the Park Savoy Hotel in Midtown Manhattan into a men’s homeless shelter has drawn a range of reactions.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

In the August heat two years ago, residents of Maspeth, Queens, learned of a homeless shelter planned for their neighborhood and erupted in fury, unleashing a campaign of vulgar, racially tinged protests. Maspeth residents picketed the hotel that the city hoped to convert into a permanent shelter, spewing hate as homeless children sat inside.

They voted the local councilwoman, Elizabeth Crowley, out of office, replacing her with the man who had led their crusade.

They shouted down Steven Banks, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration, as he appealed to their sense of compassion during a community meeting, then took their protest to the doorstep of his Brooklyn home.

“Leave Maspeth Alone!” some of their signs read. “Maspeth Lives Matter!” The city ultimately surrendered.

Now, a similar battle is unfolding in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, as residents fight a men’s shelter the city plans to open in the now-shuttered Park Savoy Hotel. The site, on West 58th Street, is one of 90 that Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he will open as part of a yearslong plan.

In Maspeth, a mostly white, blue-collar area of Queens, the news of a homeless shelter was met with something barely short of a riot. On West 58th Street, a block from Central Park, residents have taken a more urbane approach: They formed a committee, the West 58th Street Coalition, to fight the shelter, built a sleek website and hired a public relations expert to make their case. Curiously, they also sought the help of Robert Holden, who beat Ms. Crowley in the Maspeth council race.

Diane Cahill, the public relations consultant, told me recently that the shelter was just as bad for the homeless men as it was for the community because the neighborhood was so expensive. Plus, she said, there had been those stories about homeless men masturbating in public. “That’s what you want tourists and children and families to have to walk by?” Ms. Cahill asked.

Opponents of the West 58th Street shelter speak in more polite and polished tones than their counterparts in Queens. But when it comes to homeless New Yorkers, the message is often the same from Midtown to Maspeth: Not on my block. Not in my backyard.

“I’m concerned about how people we serve who are homeless are being stigmatized,” said Mr. Banks, who oversees the city’s homelessness initiatives.

It isn’t only white, or wealthy, neighborhoods that are rejecting shelters. In Crown Heights, a diverse, fast-gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood, many residents reacted angrily to the news that the city planned to open three new shelters. At a community meeting, some accused city officials of brushing aside their concerns after they had been cowed by the opposition in Maspeth.

Still, it’s become clear that the city would open the shelter on West 58th Street over residents’ objections.

“I’m worried about the safety of my family,” Helen Ohw Kim, who lives on the block, said at a news conference the group held last month outside the hotel. Ms. Ohw Kim said the site would be better served as a shelter for women and young children, so “my 3-year-old daughter won’t get punched in the face.” Other residents said they were also willing to accept a shelter for single women with young children. How young? Under 10 years old, they said, leaving unclear what would happen on a child’s 11th birthday.

City officials have said they were forced to abandon the Maspeth shelter when the owner of the hotel they had hoped to use backed out. But even in an administration that has at times shown little backbone when it needs to stand up for its liberal principles, some de Blasio aides privately talk about the episode as a shameful retreat. They say they are likely to site a shelter in Maspeth in the coming years. And administration officials say that from here on, they are determined to open the shelters, regardless of community opposition.

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Suzanne Silverstein heads the coalition opposed to the proposal for the West 58th Street shelter.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

City officials say they are open to compromises. One proposal for a men’s shelter in Crown Heights, for example, was changed to serve senior men at the request of the community.

About 60,000 New Yorkers are living in the city’s shelter system, a crisis created by soaring rents that have pushed housing out of reach for those living in poverty. About 22,000 of those people are children. Roughly one-third of families in shelters are working, but are homeless anyway, according to city officials. Thousands of others are simply people in need, and that is reason enough to help them.

Mr. Banks said the city planned to move forward with the men’s shelter on West 58th Street and open it by early summer. He said the space in the former hotel wasn’t set up to serve families. And he said the city’s shelter system was in desperate need of a facility where working men could have easy access to jobs in Midtown. “These are men that need a helping hand — not the back of the hand,” he said.

That includes men like 27-year-old Ronnie Jones, a communications manager for a security company in Manhattan who is living in a shelter until he can get back on his feet. Mr. Jones said he was renting a room for $600 a month in Queens a couple of years ago when he lost his job at a cleaning company and was homeless within a month. Mr. Jones told me that he grew up in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, one of the poorest areas of the city, but had big dreams despite getting little support from family or friends.

“It’s just me,” he said. “But I refuse to be anything other than great. It’s about your mentality. You gotta be ambitious, have blind ambition.”

Community resistance to shelters for men slows the process.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times