Experts agree that the first rule for communicating in a crisis is to get the facts out as accurately, fully and quickly as possible. In the saga of sheltering some of the neediest among us from COVID-19, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration have taken a different approach.
They have parsed the meaning of immediate (as in, we will immediately begin the process of moving people out of commercial hotels), put down critics with buzzwords like “gated community” (as in, we won’t allow a neighborhood to be turned into one) and fogged a relevant piece of the timeline of what happened.
When the accurate timeline emerged, it showed that many of the men in The Lucerne Hotel came not directly from congregate shelters but from another hotel, The Washington Jefferson on 51st Street, allowing Upper West Side opponents to challenge the basic premise that use of The Lucerne had been an emergency action to prevent deaths from the coronavirus.
At a community meeting with more than 1100 participants, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer castigated city officials for exacerbating neighborhood resistance by being less than transparent.
“Without telling the community, then we can’t plan,” she said. “I understand you don’t want to be told ‘No, you’re not going to go into the hotel,’ but you got to plan.”
It is difficult to know whether the debate can be returned to the core question of how best to reduce the spread of coronavirus among those without housing. The threat by a group of Westsiders, represented by Randy Mastro, to sue the mayor if he doesn’t remove the homeless from the West Side hotels, prompted this warning to de Blasio from Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society:
“If his Administration caves to the racist NIMBYism from some residents of the Upper West Side and forces vulnerable New Yorkers from their hotel rooms back to congregate shelters before it is safe to do so, Legal Aid will immediately file litigation seeking a temporary restraining order on behalf of the Coalition for the Homeless and the nearly 18,000 single adults who sleep in Department of Homeless Services shelters each night. “
Members of the West Side Community Organization, the anodyne name chosen for the organization created from a raucous Facebook group called Upper West Siders for Safer Streets, insisted that their objection is not to the race or heritage of the new residents of the hotels, but to their urination in the street, their congregating without masks and to the increase from 64 to 84 in the number of serious street crimes reported in the precinct over the last 28 days compared to August last year.
“The shaming and virtue signaling with words like racist distract from the shocking lack of oversight of city decisions,” said Alison Morpurgo, a cofounder of the West Side Community Organization. “Although I don’t love being called a NIMBY, I am much more bothered by a moral superiority that inadvertently silences critical dialogue and masks the mismanagement of enormous societal issues.”
“Dear 51st Street Community”
One of the group’s points is that the city was less than complete in the original statements that the 283 men at the Lucerne came from two congregate shelters on the Lower East Side.
They did come from there, but not all directly. Many were first moved in May to the Washington Jefferson on 51st Street. A knowledgeable city official said that 51st Street already had two other community facilities and that the arrival of a third with the shelter in the hotel “was too many, according to the community board.”
In a “Dear 51st Street Community and neighbors” note from Project Renewal, the not-for-profit that ran the shelter in the Washington Jefferson, Jody Rudin, Executive Vice President and COO, wrote that “we have understood from all of you the unique challenges of using the location as a hotel for the homeless, given the other two existing programs on the block.” For these reasons, she wrote in late July, “we have been exploring alternative locations for some time.”
She thanked Community Board 4, the block alliance “and, of course, the tremendous leadership from Speaker Johnson’s office.”
The street is at the north end of the district of the speaker of the City Council, Corey Johnson. At the end of July, the men were moved to the Lucerne.
The West Side Organization argues this was just moving the political problem, not responding to a health threat from coronavirus. A Department of Homeless Services official said it was Project Renewal that sought a new location, larger than the Washington Jefferson, in which it could consolidate homeless men from the hotel with others still at their shelters downtown. “The decisions made working closely with not-for-profit social service provider partners are made on the basis of operational needs, not politics,” the official said.
All told, about 2100 homeless were moved to hotels in West Midtown, compared to about 700 in The Lucerne, The Belleclaire and the Belnord on the Upper West Side. “New York City was in the midst of a homelessness crisis when the pandemic hit, and Covid-19 made matters even worse,” said Johnson’s Communications Director, Jennifer Fermino. “As a temporary solution, moving people into hotels was done as a life saving measure because of this unprecedented pandemic, and the Speaker strongly supports this mission.”
Johnson had no objection to emergency shelters in his district, she said, although he shared community concerns that there were problems with siting on 51st Street, adding that his district office played the same role any district office would play in facilitating meetings between DHS officials and the community board and neighborhood representatives concerned about the Washington Jefferson shelter.
When the Washington Jefferson was closed, the speaker’s office had no knowledge of where the shelter was being moved to, Fermino said.
Return to Shelters
The Department of Homeless Services said it will not move any more persons into hotels on the Upper West Side. But when those already there may leave is a different matter.
A couple of weeks ago, de Blasio said he would immediately begin the process of moving homeless from the emergency hotels, a statement that apparently blindsided the officials at the Department of Homeless Services who have since insisted he wasn’t saying anything new.
The homeless will return to shelters when health experts say it is safe, the DHS officials said.
The mayor was asked at his daily news briefing this week when they would begin leaving the hotels, since he had said the process would begin immediately.
“I did not say immediately,” he said. “And it’s really important. Because I made clear that we need the space in the shelter system. So what I said and I mean it, is this was always temporary. We moved folks into those hotels because there was a health care crisis, a pandemic that caused us to need to make sure that coronavirus did not spread through shelters with a lot of people in them. It was absolutely a temporary measure.”
“So what I said was we’re going to start that process, but it requires having safe spaces in our shelter system to move people back to. As that becomes available, we will act on it. I’ve been to some places looking at the situation. I’ve talked to a lot of different people about what they’re seeing, but I want to do some more of that. Over the next few days, I’ll have more to say after that.”
When the accurate timeline emerged, it showed that many of the men in the Lucerne Hotel came not directly from congregate shelters but from another hotel, The Washington Jefferson on 51st Street.