Compassion and fear – when homeless shelters move into your neighborhood
“When you look historically at homelessness among single adults, there are two common patterns,” says Muzzy Rosenblatt. “One is being mistreated as a child – psychologically, emotionally, physically; and the other is being thrown out of school for your behavior, particularly if you have a mental health diagnosis.”
The CEO and president of Bowery Residents' Committee (BRC), which recently moved 100 men with mental health needs from The Boulevard Hotel shelter in East Harlem into the Cachet Boutique Hotel on W42nd St, continues: “So who are we serving? We're serving individuals who have been told for a very long time by other systems that you'll never amount to anything, that you can't do things. They come from a life of instability, a life without much support, a life of poverty, a life of a lack of access to the things that some of us take for granted, like a decent education, health care, and a family who loves them."
The decision to move vulnerable people from dormitory-style shelters into hotels has played a key role in slowing the spread of Coronavirus and saving lives among the city's homeless population – of 1,300 positive cases, around 95% have been fully resolved.
“We know about the disparities, right?" says Muzzy. "This disease doesn't affect everybody. It affects poor people, and people of color worse. And, of course, our homeless shelters are disproportionately poor and disproportionately people of color."
"I have personally witnessed drug deals, harassment, aggression. We have people following women and masturbating behind them.”
But, as we reported last month, some relocations have been deeply unpopular with residents. “For the first time, I am frightened to be in my own neighborhood,” says Holly-Anne Devlin. "I have personally witnessed drug deals, harassment, aggression. We have people following women and masturbating behind them.”
"Our city is badly failing on this issue,” says Speaker Corey Johnson. “This awful pandemic has exposed many of the worst problems our city had already been dealing with for years, and the homelessness crisis is a truly painful example. Working to solve the homelessness crisis has been a priority of mine for my entire career and earlier this year I put out a robust plan that I believe would create real progress. Unfortunately, the virus had other plans, and now the city's responsibility to protect the most vulnerable among us has created new issues. The de Blasio administration can and must do better. My office is working around the clock with business owners, Hell's Kitchen residents, DHS, and service providers to improve things, and we will continue to do so until we solve this problem.“
Of New York City's 700 or so hotels, 139 are currently occupied by 13,000 adults experiencing homelessness. The DSS could not confirm the locations, as those staying there are protected by law. However, in Hell’s Kitchen that list is thought to include the Skyline Hotel on 10th Ave, the Comfort Inn on W44th St, and The Watson on W57th St, among others.
Holly-Anne Devlin, a theatrical producer who has lived and worked in Hell’s Kitchen for 20 years, was galvanized to launched the grassroots Hell's Kitchen Neighborhood Action Committee after she was followed home down W42nd St one evening while walking her dog.
“We are not here to take people out of shelters,” she insists. “We understand that people need to have those resources. What we're angry about is the fact that the city gave us no warning, there was no way to prepare for any of this. Why is this so disproportionate? Why is everybody coming over to Hell’s Kitchen? If the city is ever to come back to even a shadow of what it was, you cannot put all of your social services with no support into one neighborhood.”
"This is going to destroy an entire neighborhood."
The group has met with the leadership of BRC, with Erik Bottcher from Corey Johnson’s office, district leader Marisa Redanty, and the NYPD, calling for more officers on the street. “We said to the them, ‘We understand that you guys have issues with the city. We understand that you have issues with the budget. We understand that everybody is in a bit of chaos due to COVID. What we're asking is for you to cover a very specific region from W42nd St to W46th St, from 8th Ave to 10th Ave. And we want to have the same guys out there. We need to see you during the day so that these people [the drug dealers and vagrants] understand somebody is watching them, that somebody is going to take responsibility. And so that citizens aren't putting themselves in harm's way every day, because the police won't do anything.’”
She conceded that, to the police, some of these issues may seem small. “But I've lived in San Francisco, and people said the same thing there. Now the Tenderloin is basically unlivable because nobody was taking dealers in for these ‘minor’ offenses. This is going to destroy an entire neighborhood."
The NYPD did not respond to a request for a statement.
"Drug dealers are thriving on $4 heroin right now. We have seen thousands of needles over the past month during neighborhood clean-ups. Gun fights over territory."
“The Hell’s Kitchen issue is more than just any one shelter or incident,” agrees Dominick Costa, the manager of Treadwell Park bar and restaurant, which has been forced to close following incidents with the Cachet residents next door. “Thousands and thousands of hotel rooms have been converted, and are now occupied by homeless shelters.
"Yes, there are plenty of people who are definitely just down on their luck and are fully utilizing this time to get back on their feet, and that’s amazing. The problems begin with those in recovery, or the recently released, who aren’t given the proper tools, and find themselves living next to bars and with easy access to drugs. Drug dealers are thriving on $4 heroin right now. We have seen thousands of needles over the past month during neighborhood clean-ups. Gun fights over territory. Hell’s Kitchen is no stranger to drugs – plopping vulnerable people in mass quantity here was just asking for trouble.”
Muzzy Rosenblatt agrees that it’s not enough to simply relocate a group of vulnerable people without providing them with support. “We’ve moved all our staff. We've moved our site directors, we've moved our counselors. We've moved our caseworkers, we've moved our security staff. So we are running the same program with all the same staff, because those relationships that our clients have with their caregivers is so important in providing the support they need so they don't return to the street. That would be horrible – for their health and for the community.”
Residents receive three meals a day, following nutritional guidelines defined by BRC’s chief medical officer. “We do room checks almost every hour, if not more, checking that people are well, that they're safe. We do medication monitoring. So for people who have a prescription, we hold their meds for them. They come to the medication office where there is a certified nursing assistant who supervisors their medication.”
Normally there would also be group activities, like the celebrated art therapy program, but Muzzy says: “Those are hard to do, obviously, unless we can achieve social distancing.”
There is a 10pm curfew.
BRC uses what Muzzy calls “the best practice out there” known as motivational interviewing, “which is to really motivate the individual, without using coercion or intimidation, to encourage people to follow the behaviors that will enable them to achieve their goal.
“So we spend a lot of time talking about goal setting. ‘Why are you here and what do you want to achieve? What are the tools you can use to achieve that, and why haven't you achieved that before? What are the things we can do with you that, that, address your fears, your concerns, your struggles, and help you become your best version of yourself?’”
A Good Neighbor Policy, meanwhile, is designed to establish expectations about how each resident should interact with their peers, the staff, and in the community. “We want our clients to be respected, and we teach that the best way to get respect is to give respect, the best way to be shown love is to give love. Do people come in on day one embracing that and have that insight, given the life they've given – with systemic racism, mass incarceration, and a country that makes it really hard if you're poor and black to make it? No, they don't. But what we do is we help them learn that, achieve that, and do that.”
"We're not going to punish people for being sick. We're not going to punish people for being poor. We're not going to punish people if they're homeless."
Success is measured when a resident moves to supportive housing … and doesn’t end up back on the street. “Northwards of 85% of those who go through the program move to housing and, more important, don't move. Because if we get you housed, but you can't succeed in that housing, then we failed.
“We don't believe in punitive actions as a way to achieve behavioral change,” he adds, ”particularly when much of the behaviors are driven by a disability, by an illness. So we're not going to punish people for being sick. We're not going to punish people for being poor. We're not going to punish people if they're homeless. Our goal is not to drive you out to the street. And, if we took a punitive, coercive role, people would go back where there's nobody punishing them. I don't think that that's what the community wants, and that's definitely not what we want.”
Obviously, he adds, if a resident – or anyone – breaks the law, that must be enforced. “But our approach is much more motivational, where we engage, we encourage, and we give people the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
"First and foremost," he says, "what we try to do with BRC is to say, ‘You have value, you are capable and you can achieve.’ That is a message that hasn't been consistently said to people nearly as much as it needs to be.
“And we fill that void. We provide that education. We provide that support. And by doing that, our clients begin to see themselves differently, so that who they are when they leave is very different to who they were when they arrived.”