It all seemed to make so much sense when the idea was proposed in the early days of the pandemic.
Hotel rooms were vacant. The homeless populations in America’s major cities were not insignificant and COVID-19 was going to spread through encampments like wildfire if something wasn’t done. The solution suggested itself — except plenty of hotels chafed.
In Los Angeles, city officials were frustrated enough that back in May, they said if they didn’t get more hotels to volunteer, they would “commandeer” the rooms themselves.
“If hotels are making a distinction among people classifying housed and unhoused differently in terms of accommodations that they’re going to be repaid for, that the city and county will pay for with reimbursements, then I think there’s a potential civil rights violation,” Councilman Mike Bonin said at the time.
Why might the hotel owners have been reticent? Maybe because they had a good guess about how a move like putting the homeless into high-end hotels was going to end up.
A similar experiment in New York City gives a picture.
On New York’s Upper West Side, an area that’s achieved iconic status in American pop culture thanks to movies, television and the presence of celebrities with real-life homes there, residents say that hundreds of homeless men who were moved into three hotels — two of them high-end luxury establishments — have turned the area into “a spectacle of public urination, catcalling and open drug use,” according to the New York Post.
According to a series of articles published in the Post last week, the situation is bad enough that some Upper West Side residents (or UWS if you’re an NYCer) are leaving — for good.
The Post reported that three hotels are being used in the rehousing effort: Luxury establishments the Lucerne (West 79th St.) and the Belleclaire (Broadway). Less swanky is the “more down-market Belnord” on West 87th Street, according to the Post. Trust me, it’s still not a hostel.
The problem, according to the paper, is that among the new residents “are people who are mentally ill, recovering from drug addictions, and registered sex offenders” — and they’re turning the neighborhood into a nightmare, according to reports.
“It doesn’t feel safe anymore,” 39-year-old nanny Michele McDowall told the Post.
This isn’t just coming from a place of a scaredy-cat whose white privilege bubble has been shattered. McDowall told the Post that two homeless men tried to sell her crack as she wheeled a 2-year-old along Riverside Park.
“You want to buy crack?” they shouted at her repeatedly.
Her frightened 2-year-old charge, she said, put her hands over her ears and screamed “Too loud!”
The relocation of homeless individuals to high-end and slightly-less-high-end hotels is part of a joint federal government-city initiative. FEMA will pay 75 percent of the cost of housing the homeless individuals while the city will shoulder 25 percent of the costs.
In New York’s case, the men are being moved out of dorm-style housing into the hotel units where COVID-19 (at least in theory) is less likely to spread.
“The contract is short-termed and runs through October but will likely be renewed,” a source with the Hotel Association of New York City told the Post.
The problem is that while the Department of Homeland Security is responsible for moving the homeless individuals into the shelters, it’s not responsible for telling the neighbors — and isn’t exactly going above and beyond in that department.
“The DHS is a rogue agency,” one community board member told the Post, adding that board members had been informed the city was raking in $175 for a single individual or “two guys in a room at $350 a day.”
“You do the math,” the board member said. “It’s a lot of money.”
Unfortunately, the city might lose a lot of money in the long run, given the possibility of taxpayers fleeing the city for keeps.
“It feels like the 1970s. Everyone who can move out is moving out,” the board member said told the Post.
So let’s go through a short rundown of what the Post catalogued in new homeless shelters:
First there were the sex offenders — 10 housed in the Belleclaire as of Thursday, a hotel blocks from an elementary school playground.
“I tell my 10-year old, ‘I’ll be back in two minutes’ — I guess I won’t do that anymore,” area mom Mariane Dabo told the Post at the playground after learning of the sex offenders housed nearby. “It’s scary.”
Then there are the drug addicts and alcoholics.
“Since they have arrived just a week ago, members of our community have seen men urinating in public,” a letter from the local PTA letter to parents states.
“There have been fights at 79th and Amsterdam, on Broadway between 79th and 80th. Some of community families have been verbally harassed, men have been spitting in Metal Park (in Covid times) and sadly, some have reported seeing men looking for drugs or using drugs.”
One resident interviewed by the Post confirmed that.
“They shoot up, sniff up, crack, K2, everything,” the resident said.
K2 is a form of synthetic marijuana noted for being linked to psychosis and organ damage, among other things, according to a 2013 Forbes report.
When one homeless man tried to sell it to the Post reporter only to be rebuffed, the homeless man said, “It’s not for everyone.” Agreed.
Then there is the other misbehavior among the relocated homeless. One restaurant owner told the Post that that’s what’s driving away his business, already damaged by the coronavirus crisis.
“They go to the tables, they asking for money,” Mariano Ouatu, 49, who runs Coppola’s, across from the Lucerne, told the Post.
“Screaming, forget about it. It’s like a jungle. They get drunk and they start fighting,” he said, adding he can’t tell them to move along.
“Already there are 20 around you. … They are now on Broadway. Everywhere. Everywhere. Sitting on the bench. Drinking. There is a liquor store. You see them go in and out, in and out, in and out and buying those liquor bottles.”
As for the Lucerne?
“Beautiful hotel,” Ouatu told the Post. “I can’t believe it.”
There were other problems. Needles. Aggressive panhandlers. Shoplifting. Threats. And if you think residents will tolerate this for too long, think again.
“People are saying we’ve moved back to the 1970s,” one resident told the Post. “But the people who were here in the 1970s say it’s much worse than it was.”
It’s gotten bad enough that residents have started a 1,700-member Facebook group showing some of the more flagrant activities going on in their Upper West Side neighborhood.
“Our community is terrified, angry and frightened,” one of the group’s organizers told the Post.
The DHS pushed back, saying it was ensuring the safety of the neighborhood and seeming to impugn the motives and morality of those making the complaints.
“New Yorkers experiencing homelessness are our neighbors — and the notion that they are not welcome in some neighborhoods for any reason is an affront to basic decency,” a DHS spokesman told the Post.
“We don’t discriminate based on people’s previous experiences or backgrounds, and we will not create gated communities within our city — we extend a helping hand, no matter what.
“Now more than ever, these services and supports, this empathy and humanity, are essential, across all communities, across the five boroughs — and our commitment to providing them to those in need must be unwavering.”
There’s a difference between a commitment to humanity and a commitment to poorly planned, poorly policed, poorly executed programs. This is what DHS, FEMA and New York City have wrought.
Instead, they have the gall to turn the mirror back on you, insisting you need to put up with boozed-up brawls, drug dealers, public urinators, sex offenders and hypodermic needles on your streets in order to prove just how empathetic you are.
Shuffling the homeless around from building to building, shelter to shelter isn’t a workable solution, particularly not this problem that already existed and promises to get worse. It’s time for real solutions, ones that aren’t slapped together like this one obviously was.
Wonder why they had problems getting hoteliers on board Los Angeles? Look no further than New York for your answer.
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