By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Recently, the city has begun using hotels in Flatiron and NoMad as temporary homeless shelters, and the practice has area residents outraged.
New shelter neighbors gathered at the American Sign Language School last Tuesday evening to voice their concerns about the shelters as well as the homeless population in general.
A number of residents at the meeting insisted that they were empathetic to the homeless and acknowledged that it is a small percentage of the population that is causing problems, but many who spoke said that safety was a serious concern.
“The risk doesn’t come from the 70 percent of the homeless population who are working poor, who are just trying to get by,” Third Avenue resident Thandi Gordon-Stein said. “We’re worried about the other 30 percent who are convicted criminals and sex offenders. When you add so many facilities in one neighborhood, it becomes a danger. They say we should call 311 or the police but that’s not working.”
Many at the meeting said they were worried that the neighborhood could become oversaturated with homeless facilities. Matt Borden, Assistant Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services, argued that the decision to use hotels in Flatiron and NoMad was based on the so-called “Fair Share Criteria,” which is supposed to prevent neighborhoods from getting saturated with shelters and making sure other areas are home to some. According to the data from DHS, which examines the homeless population within community district lines, Community Board 5 is under the city average of 1,016.
Jennifer Brown, Executive Director of the Flatiron BID, noted that many in the area feel that the community district lines are somewhat arbitrary.
“It’s a centralized neighborhood that crosses three community boards,” she argued.
She noted that although the official numbers for the homeless population in CB5 is lower than the city average, many residents feel that the Bowery Residents Committee on West 25th Street and the Men’s Shelter on East 30th Street both impact the neighborhood even though DHS considers them to be in two different districts. The BRC has 328 units and the shelter on East 30th Street has 850 beds so when considered together, the two have 1,937 residents, higher than the city average.
Gordon-Stein agreed that the boundaries are frustrating.
“I don’t care about imaginary border lines,” she said. “I don’t hit Fifth Avenue and think, that’s not my neighborhood anymore, just because that’s where the Community Board ends. There’s literally just a line in the middle of the neighborhood and they can just divide it up however they want. They’re saying we have only five when there are another three across the street.”
One resident who lives next door to the MAve, a hotel on Madison Avenue north of the park currently being used as a temporary shelter, said there are often homeless people defecating and urinating on the façade of his building and since this is no longer an actionable offense, calling 311 or notifying the police haven’t helped.
NYPD Deputy Inspector Ray Kaplan, who works with the crisis outreach and support unit, explained that punishing those who urinate and defecate on the street didn’t have an impact on the homeless population so the city wanted to try an alternative route.
“We made thousands of arrests for that, put them in the system because of it, but they were back out on the street 24 hours later,” he said. “Mass arrests weren’t correcting the problem, so we started focusing on outreach rather than enforcement.”
Another concern relating to safety that residents had was the housing of class 2 and 3 sex offenders at the 30th Street Shelter, specifically because of the rape that occurred nearby last April and was committed by a shelter resident. Following the incident, DHS assured the community that sex offenders, who were not supposed to be housed in the facility because of its proximity to a school, would be moved out of the facility. A loophole does technically allow sex offenders to remain at the location because the law technically only applies to offenders out on parole or on probation, but DHS has said at previous meetings that sex offenders would be moved out of the facility.
Although the state registry currently notes a handful of sex offenders at the shelter, Borden assured meeting attendees that there are actually no sex offenders currently at the facility. He said this data is out of date but the state, rather than the city, controls the website where this information is listed.
Aside from the safety concerns, residents at the meeting were also frustrated about the lack of transparency in regards to the hotels changing use and regarding the plans for the hotels-turned-shelters in the future. Multiple attendees at the meeting noted that the neighborhood had not been informed that the MAve was going to be used as a shelter and even at the meeting on Tuesday, DHS had little information about how long homeless residents would be housed there. Officials at the meeting didn’t have specific data at the forum but DHS told Gothamist last week that the city pays an average of $165 per night per room at the MAve, which is roughly $5,000 per month, with no set end date for the temporary housing.
Councilmember Corey Johnson, who represents the neighborhood west of these shelters, said he didn’t have a perfect solution for the concerns in the neighborhood but he noted that there were similar issues in his district that have at least been partially addressed, and the answer wasn’t hotels.
“The Times Square Hotel is in my district and there were hundreds of homeless individuals housed there, many of them who were drug addicts,” he said. “But we were able to get them into supportive housing and connect them with services. It’s been a success. Hotels are not the solution. Supportive housing is.”