Not in My Back Yard, Again

Terry H. Schwadron

Sept. 16, 2020

It ought to be a fable, referencing glass houses and stone-throwing — only those involved would likely use it to highlight opposing morals to a story that should be directing “what will you do about this” to “what will we do about this” thinking.

On the one hand, it’s a small story from one yuppified neighborhood in New York City, the always politically liberal Upper West Side and its discomfort with seeing the effects of housing 300 homeless men, many people of color, billeted to a local hotel because pandemic made shelters unsafe. It ends with a mayor bumbling to address vocal neighborhood dismay, and resulting in a series of moves of hundreds of other homeless families around the city — in other words once again seeing triumph by the organized well-to-do in our politics.

On the other, it is a story for our times, where we’re having trouble living with the consequences of our circumstances, where we insist on personal comfort over communal welfare, where we say we care deeply — so long as it is not in my backyard. Or neighborhood hotel.

At heart, the story reflects the complexities of dealing with homelessness in the decades after we’ve shut mental health and social service institutions, after we’ve cut money for services, after temporary shelters have proved poor solutions for long-term problems. That story is not unique to this city; across the country, approaches to dealing with homeless residents, whose numbers often are boosted by evictions following rising rents and changing economics, reflect an increasingly serious issue for cities.

The gist: After pandemic required solutions to get the homeless off contagious streets and out of unsafe shelters, Mayor Bill DeBlasio turned to 60 otherwise empty hotels and offered to rent to house hundreds. One was the Lucerne on the Upper West Side, but DeBlasio forgot to meet with area residents first since he probably had a lot to do at once.

But, like everyone else, the homeless don’t stay indoors all day, and quickly, the neighborhood noticed that individual homeless persons were passed out non the floor of the drug store perhaps overdosed or that someone was exposing himself or there was more evidence of needles in the streets — issues of safety, they say. A vocal minority of neighbors got upset, ugly even, demanding action, and over weeks of lobbying, yelling, tattling on social media, got DeBlasio to agree to empty the Lucerne — only to face the prospect of moving the residents to other hotels elsewhere in the city which, in turn, have to turn out other homeless persons, including families with disabilities.

Sound like a plan being made up on the spot?

It’s New York

We lived in the UWS several years ago before moving to Harlem (with more diversity and more challenges that we take on as community) — all the while much more concerned about street noise than by our location next to a single resident occupancy (SRO) building, where we would exchange hellos with those we came to know. Indeed, that neighboring building did not stand out in any way until we were selling the apartment, when we heard plenty about it from potential buyers who were insistent that the SRO made the apartment suddenly undesirable.

We actually had thought it was interesting that New York City would spread SRO housing throughout, so as not to favor this neighborhood or that. Over decades now, the closing of various institutions has left cities — and police departments — having to become first responders to people who otherwise might need a lot of medical and social services. Indeed, part of the “defund the police” confusion comes exactly out of growing police responsibilities for dealing with such issues rather than fighting crime.

But over the years we lived in the neighborhood, there was discernible change. In ways that seem more descriptive of wealthier suburban areas, some neighbors grew increasingly snobby, and less forgiving about anything that did not support a lifestyle that they thought they had chosen. The neighborhood sarcasm usually involves the blasé pushing of baby strollers three across insistently and unthinkingly shoving Westsiders to the edge of the pavement.

The West Side had changed from an area once considered dangerous in the 1970s-80s to an upper-scale home to cafes, Starbucks, retail and restaurants. Now the fight seems to be whether to protect the area from adopting the attitudes more reflective of gated communities — even as this area deals with a huge increase in closings of stores, restaurants and clubs as the result of the ever-increasing rents that preceded coronavirus.

Shuffling Families

The plan to shuffle families around to remove homeless residents from the Lucerne will means that families living in a Brooklyn shelter will be abruptly sent to different facilities all over the city, uprooting kids just as school starts, requiring school changes and exacerbating learning problems during pandemic. Those at the Lucerne would go to the Harmonia Hotel in Midtown, which, in turn, will send its disabled residents to a hotel in Long Island City, which already is occupied by women in a homeless shelter. So, there will be more moves to a facility in Brooklyn ready to receive families.

You get the idea. In all, there may be 900 moves, at city expense.

Each shift begets another, all prompted because of Not-in-My-Neighborhood feelings that built up without being addressed head-on.

City agencies now are warring with the Legal Aid Society of New York which opposes the overall resulting moves as “reckless and callous.”

No one wants to see homelessness spreading on the streets. But the tone of Westside complaints has grown shrill, at least very illiberal, with postings about using wasp spray on the homeless and the appearance of a noose outside the Lucerne.
Eventually, it will work out. But what will not be addressed is this basic I-don’t-deserve-this feeling, this anti-homeless sense, that we’re reading and hearing more about as systemic.

Weirdly, DeBlasio is disliked by many for bending protocols to attempts to help the city’s poorest, to support “progressive” causes, even to seem insufficiently supportive of police; just ask Donald Trump. In this instance, DeBlasio is being seen as appeasing a wealthier neighborhood and betraying progressive principles.

What price should be paid as community discomfort to solve a larger problem?

Maybe once these homeless men are moved, those vocal Westsiders can become comfortable with expressing liberal generalities while breathing easier that they don’t have to see evidence of urban unpleasantness on their daily walk.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer