New Yorkers Who Say, “Not In My Backyard”

Posted May 17, 2018 10:56 p.m. EDT

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 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?” 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 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. 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.

Suzanne Silverstein, president of the West 58th Street Coalition, said she believes the de Blasio administration is trying to make an example of her and her neighbors.

“Yes, we live comfortably,” Silverstein told me, “but he’s not sticking it to billionaires, he’s sticking it to people like myself who work 100 hours a week. We’re not bad people. We’re just trying to get ahead.” Silverstein said she wouldn’t rule out a lawsuit if the city put its plan into effect.

Some of the requests by the residents are reasonable and deserve a thorough response from city officials. If they can’t stop the city in the end, the West 58th Street Coalition, for example, has asked for a security plan that includes cameras facing the street outside the shelter, something the city told me it would do. Residents also expressed deep concerns over a Daily News report in April that suggested the city was playing down crime in shelters by not including certain incidents in the data. City officials said the police in recent weeks have begun posting arrest data for shelters. The city should accurately and transparently report such data and work with the New York Police Department to improve security in and around shelters, presenting those plans to all residents.

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.

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. 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. 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.”

Some New Yorkers are already showing us how to treat the homeless like neighbors rather than enemies. In Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, residents responded with a friendly shrug to the opening of a shelter for women with mental health issues last year. In Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood, residents eventually came to embrace a family shelter that opened in 2015 after first opposing it. They organized “welcome” packets and diaper drives for the families. Councilman Keith Powers, who represents Midtown, has vowed to back the West 58th Street shelter, resisting pressure from residents and developers in a plucky show of support. He also supported a homeless shelter the city opened this year down the block from his Stuyvesant Town home.

“We have an impossible task in the city right now, which is to shelter 60,000 homeless people,” Powers said. “Where would we be if every council member stood up and said, ‘Not in my backyard?'”

Well said, Mr. Powers.

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