National News

No Room Amid Glass Towers for a Homeless Shelter

Posted July 21, 2018 6:45 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Early this year, the city’s Department of Homeless Services announced that it was opening a men’s shelter on a stretch of West 58th Street adjacent to some of the most expensive real estate in the world. A social service agency had acquired the lease to a building, formerly the Park Savoy Hotel, and had won the contract from the city to operate it as a facility for 150 men who were working or actively looking for employment.

There would be job-training services on site and plenty of security, but this did little to appease the people living nearby, who envisioned their world erupting into chaos and formed the West 58th Street Coalition to resist the perceived onslaught.

That the broader social order had unraveled long before, once the surrounding corridors of midtown were given over to towers with $40 million apartments, many sitting empty, wasn’t necessarily obvious to people who seemed less terrified of the dark-money billionaires living around the corner than of the coming janitors and fast-food workers locked out of New York’s forbidding rental market.

From the beginning, opponents of the project argued that the shelter would make the area unsafe and that in a place with so many hotels and so close to Central Park, it would threaten a tourist industry that over the past several years has seen the number of visitors to the city soar (a record 62.8 million came last year) even as the crisis in homelessness has accelerated to historic levels.

Last month, through its social-media accounts, the West 58th Street Coalition stood with its warrior brothers in Ozone Park, Queens, who were fighting plans for a men’s shelter there. The group cited comments from a resident who said at a community board meeting that the shelter would “inevitably” interrupt quality of life with “robberies, fights, burglaries, stabbings, shootings, defecating, urinating and possible sexual abuses.”

Since Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan last year to put 90 new shelters in neighborhoods across the city rather than aggravate the problems of concentrated poverty that already exist and, in many cases allow homeless men and women to live closer to the places they are from, it has been easier to track NIMBY-ism’s progress as a legitimized form of racial prejudice, as a means by which liberals can express their repressed discomforts.

How can this implicit animus against the most vulnerable be combated? In the years since she left politics, Christine Quinn has run WIN, a social service agency that is the largest provider of shelter for women and children in the city. She has been successful — close to 90 percent of WIN’s clients are still living independently a year after they are discharged from the shelter system — and she has fought aggressively to reframe the narrative that demonizes homelessness.

When she arrived, she had the agency produce a major advertising campaign showing the homeless as they really are — for the most part, working parents marginalized in an evermore Darwinian economic system. And yet biases even against poor mothers with infants are not easy to overcome.

A while back there was a lot of opposition, for instance, to a proposal for a family shelter in Astoria, Queens, where real estate interest has been furious in recent years. When the shelter was finally developed, property values continued to go up and crime continued to plummet, precisely the reverse of what some people in the neighborhood had feared. Anticipating the same line of complaint in another community where she had planned a shelter, a year ago Quinn commissioned an analysis of the Astoria project to bring to the people who lived in the new neighborhood to ratchet down anxiety.

“Is something like this going to erase people’s fears entirely? No, but it is going to bring a calming moment,” she told me. “The key to any of these settings is not to expect a lot of support but to get to a point of comfortable neutrality.”

WIN is building a shelter in Coney Island, Brooklyn, and Quinn has been talking with residents there for two years to get to that place of neutrality. When residents worried that a bakery next door would be demolished, she set about to save the bakery. “You want to get a couple of people who are neutral to listen to you,” she said.

How much neutrality can exist in neighborhoods like the one surrounding the proposed West 58th Street shelter? This month, residents filed a lawsuit against the city claiming the building in which the shelter is planned does not meet fire safety standards and has other problems pertaining to its construction that make it unsuitable: It will endanger the people who live there, the argument now goes. Of course, the building is still in the process of being rehabilitated — it is scheduled to open later in the summer — so saying it is unsuitable is like walking into a kitchen in the middle of a renovation when the range hasn’t yet arrived and getting alarmed that you can’t cook dinner.

The filing of the lawsuit follows a familiar pattern. First, residents will protest a shelter because they don’t like it, and then, realizing the negative optics, they switch the debate to worries over building infrastructure, environmental strain and so on. “Often concerns initially expressed around people become concerns around traffic,” as Quinn put it.

When I heard about the lawsuit against the shelter on West 58th Street, I assumed it was being financed by Extell, the developer of One57, the premier address on Billionaire’s Row. Instead, according to the lawyer representing the West 58th Street Coalition, Extell hasn’t provided any money at all. The group has instead received donations from 150 individuals and businesses.