Homeless Men's Move to FiDi Hotel in Limbo Following Judge's Legal Pause

Shams DaBaron, a spokesman for the homeless men at The Lucerne, speaks to reporters on Oct. 20 during a demonstration by supporters who oppose the city's decision to move the residents to the Financial District. Photo courtesy of UWS Open Hearts Initiative

Oct. 26, 2020

Outside The Lucerne hotel on West 79th Street last week, yellow school buses waited to transfer their first group of homeless men downtown to what would be their next temporary home, the Radisson at 52 William Street. 

Instead, the buses remained empty as the men and local activists protested the move, and three of the residents petitioned for a temporary restraining order—and won. The hotel’s homeless can stay put, at least until the next court date on Nov. 16. 

For now, there’s a pause in the protracted legal battle over the de Blasio administration’s order to turn the Radisson into a temporary men’s shelter and, later, a permanent one for homeless adult families.

“We won this battle but there will be many more battles to come,” said Larry Thomas, one of the petitioners who claim the move would endanger the men’s mental health and stability.

Just days before, Downtown New Yorkers, Inc., a group of FiDi residents organized to fight the move, had lost its own bid for a temporary restraining order. They claimed, among other things, that the mayor ordered the transfer not for the sake of good health policy but instead had caved to political pressure from a group of Upper West Side residents. 

De Blasio claims the selection of the Radisson is part of his wider policy to fairly site permanent shelters in neighborhoods around the city. “What will be ultimately a long-term shelter in the Wall Street area, an area that hasn't had one is a good thing, providing shelter with full services that's not available in hotels,” de Blasio said during a press briefing.

Some on Community Board 1, however, see the siting as retribution for the board’s opposition to the mayor’s plan to put one of the borough-based jail towers in Chinatown. “This is a vendetta against us from the mayor who’s angry about the jails, and don’t any of you forget it,” Susan Cole said at the board’s Executive Committee meeting on Oct. 21.

“I don’t disagree,” responded CB1 Chair Tammy Meltzer. 

With the fate of the Radisson as a temporary shelter now in a judge’s hands, Meltzer said she has refocused the board’s opposition, this time to the city’s plan to turn the Radisson into a permanent shelter for adult families. In a resolution, the committee called on the city to consider other Lower Manhattan locations where the streets aren’t narrow and offer other advantages over William Street. (Water Street, from Whitehall Street to John Street, is an area the board has suggested.) 

And in a recurring theme, the committee is demanding to be consulted by the city over its next steps. “Try talking to us, try working with us, try understanding who we are and our street grid,” Meltzer said. 

Patrick Kennell, president of the FiDi Neighborhood Association and a member of Community Board 1, has filed a Freedom of Information request to multiple agencies, seeking to obtain the city’s review of the Radisson prior to the mayor’s relocation announcement. He said he was told he would have to wait until April 2021 to hear back.

“It just goes to show that the city has no intention of being transparent in regard to temporary homeless shelters,” Kennell said.

Like approximately 10,000 other homeless New Yorkers, Lucerne residents were relocated from cramped, dormitory-style shelters to one of the 139 commercial hotels being used to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Upper West Side residents complained about open drug use, people being accosted on the street and other quality of life problems, leading to the transfer of 50 men to other facilities.  

“We think these transfers were really helpful at The Lucerne,” Jody Rudin, chief operating officer for Project Renewal, the agency contracted by the city to run many of its shelters, told a CB1 committee earlier this month. “Not only did it decrease our headcount by about 50 clients, but it created a more stable population of clients who we know better. So we feel we have harmony in the community at this point.”

Still, Upper West Side groups continued to fight The Lucerne’s use as a homeless shelter. One of them, West Side Community Organization, threatened to sue, hiring lawyer Randy Mastro, the well-connected former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani. In an apparent sign of success, the city mandated the move. The order came despite the loss of services now provided by volunteers from UWS Open Hearts Initiative, and an offer by the Uptown non-profit Goddard Riverside of 50 jobs in its Greenkeepers program, plus recreation space. 

The men at The Lucerne have already been moved three or more times since the city emptied its congregate shelters in the spring, and they say they are worn out  and emotionally burdened by the experience.

“We dont want to go through that anymore,” said Shams DaBaron, a Lucerne resident and spokesman for the men. “Its not even about the accommodations as much as its about the fact that we don't want to be further dehumanized, demoralized and traumatized.”

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