By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Residents of Kips Bay and Murray Hill expressed concern over a new shelter opening on East 31st Street between Fifth Avenue and Madison, especially since the Department of Homeless Services said at a recent meeting on the topic that the commercial hotels being used as shelters in the surrounding neighborhood won’t be closed until 2021.
Many at the meeting were also furious at what they felt was the community being steamrolled because the meeting served as an announcement about a finalized plan rather than a forum that would influence the plan’s outcome. The DHS has already said that the shelter is expected to open at the beginning of January.
“Isn’t this already a done deal?” asked resident Edward Leitman, who lives at East 33rd Street and Lexington Avenue. “This whole meeting is just BS. You’re here under the pretense of asking for feedback but the whole thing is already approved.”
Jackie Bray, first deputy commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), said that the agency is required to provide 30 days notice when a new shelter will open and given the estimated opening date for this new site, the notice will probably have been about 45 days.
Bray explained at the meeting that the commercial hotels being used as shelters will not be closed for a number of years because DHS is working on closing the controversial “cluster sites” first, which are individual private apartments rented across buildings throughout the city on a per-unit basis and which don’t offer any social services on-site.
Bray said that 40 percent of the cluster sites have been closed and once all are closed, the city can start closing the commercial hotels, but DHS first needs to open new shelters in their place.
The new shelter will be run by nonprofit organization Services for the Underserved (SUS) and this site will have program space for services like yoga, meditation and a computer room, as well as mental health programming and career services. The building will house 170 families, with a total of about 340 people. The building is currently the Hotel Chandler and will be closed in subsequent weeks for minor renovations before it reopens as the shelter.
“SUS is good at knowing how to service these folks who really need help,” Bray said. “They’ve taken over a handful of sites in the city and turned those sites around, so we’ve seen that they can come into an area and have a positive impact. There are other locations in the city where the surrounding residents didn’t even know there was a shelter there.”
The site will also exclusively house adult families, meaning domestic partners or a single parent with a child who is over 18. The shelter will be the first in Manhattan that has in-unit bathrooms, which Bray said is especially helpful because these families seeking housing often have a parent caring for their adult child with developmental or physical disabilities, or a child caring for an elderly or disabled parent.
Bray said that the contract for the building is $12.8 million a year. According to a report from Comptroller Scott Stringer last December, the commercial hotels cost the city more than $72.9 million in the previous year.
Since the shelter doesn’t have an official opening date yet, DHS does not have information about the specific people who will be housed there.
Bray offered statistics about DHS clients system-wide, noting that 55 percent of shelter residents have their GED and 30 percent have a college degree or higher, but those at the meeting were frustrated about the lack of details on the new shelter.
“You talk about citywide statistics, which is great, but we’re only interested in the hotel on East 31st Street,” said resident Mingee Kim. “The announcement about this meeting was sent to me by a neighbor. An openness needs to be communicated about this. I’m scared about this as a single woman.”
Bray said that the building will have 24/7 security both inside and directly outside, but others at the meeting expressed concerns about security because of other homeless activity up and down East 31st Street and the surrounding area.
“There should be security all down East 31st Street,” said Jen Cohn, who lives on East 31st between Broadway and Fifth Avenue, a block west of the new shelter. “This could create a homeless thoroughfare. Midtown South is already overwhelmed.”
Maria Verel, who lives on Park Avenue South at East 29th Street, said that she and other residents are frustrated because of recent changes from the mayor’s office on how low-level offenses are being prosecuted, and she and others at the meeting expressed concern that adding another shelter would create additional problems in the neighborhood.
“People are loitering and urinating around here all the time and the mayor says we can’t do anything about it,” she said.
East 30th Street resident Mauro Pennacchia said that he understands the need to provide services for the homeless population but is frustrated about the tenuous situation that already exists in the neighborhood.
“We support mental health initiatives but you need more safety measures,” Pennacchia said. “Something different has to happen in this community. I can’t walk two blocks with my kid without getting accosted.”
Bray said that she understood the frustrations but noted that the street homeless, those who often loiter and urinate outside residential buildings, are a separate population from those housed in the shelter opening on East 31st.
“(Street homeless) are folks who haven’t built a trust or bond that would allow them inside,” she said. “It’s a very intractable problem. We try very hard to build those relationships through substance abuse counselors and outreach teams but people with substance abuse issues often have lost faith in institutions.”
SUS Vice President Roberto Moran confirmed that security for the new shelter will primarily just be outside the building rather than on the entire block, but he said that the organization is open to extending the radius.
DHS and SUS did not get a chance to complete their full presentation at the meeting because of yelling from the meeting attendees and instead mainly took questions, despite encouragement from State Senator Liz Krueger to find out more about the plan first.