You are here

No room for shelter amid glass towers

BT_20180723_WEEGLASS23_3508246.jpg
Opponents of the project by New York's Department of Homeless Services argued that the shelter would make the area unsafe and that in a place with so many hotels and so close to Central Park.

New York

EARLY this year, New York's Department of Homeless Services announced that it was opening a men's shelter on a stretch of West 58th Street adjacent to some of the most expensive real estate in the world. A social service agency had acquired the lease to a building, formerly the Park Savoy Hotel, and had won the contract from the city to operate it as a facility for 150 men who were working or actively looking for employment.

There would be job-training services on site and plenty of security, but this did little to appease the people living nearby, who envisioned their world erupting into chaos and formed the West 58th Street Coalition to resist the perceived onslaught.

The broader social order had unravelled long before, once the surrounding corridors of midtown were given over to towers with US$40 million apartments - many sitting empty. It was not necessarily obvious to people who seemed less terrified of the dark-money billionaires living around the corner than of the coming janitors and fast-food workers locked out of New York's forbidding rental market.

sentifi.com

Market voices on:

From the beginning, opponents of the project argued that the shelter would make the area unsafe and that in a place with so many hotels and so close to Central Park, it would threaten a tourist industry that over the past several years has seen the number of visitors to the city soar (a record 62.8 million came last year) even as the crisis in homelessness has accelerated to historic levels.

Last month, through its social media accounts, the West 58th Street Coalition stood with its warrior brothers in Ozone Park, Queens, who were fighting plans for a men's shelter there. The group cited comments from a resident who said at a community board meeting that the shelter would "inevitably" interrupt quality of life with "robberies, fights, burglaries, stabbings, shootings, defecating, urinating and possible sexual abuses".

Since Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan last year to put 90 new shelters in neighbourhoods across the city rather than aggravate the problems of concentrated poverty that already exist and, in many cases allow homeless men and women to live closer to the places that they are from, it has been easier to track NIMBY-ism's progress as a legitimised form of racial prejudice, as a means by which liberals can express their repressed discomforts.

How can this implicit animus against the most vulnerable be combated? In the years since she left politics, Christine Quinn has run Win, a social service agency that is the largest provider of shelter for women and children in the city. She has been successful - close to 90 per cent of Win's clients are still living independently a year after they are discharged from the shelter system - and she has fought aggressively to reframe the narrative that demonises homelessness.

When she arrived, she had the agency produce a major advertising campaign showing that the homeless as they really are - for the most part, working parents marginalised in an evermore Darwinian economic system. And yet biases even against poor mothers with infants are not easy to overcome.

A while back, there was a lot of opposition, for instance, to a proposal for a family shelter in Astoria, Queens, where real estate interest has been furious in recent years. When the shelter was finally developed, property values continued to go up and crime continued to plummet, precisely the reverse of what some people in the neighbourhood had feared. Anticipating the same line of complaint in another community where she had planned a shelter, a year ago Ms Quinn commissioned an analysis of the Astoria project to present to the people who lived in the new neighbourhood to ratchet down anxiety.

"Is something like this going to erase people's fears entirely? No, but it is going to bring a calming moment," she said. "The key to any of these settings is not to expect a lot of support but to get to a point of comfortable neutrality."

Win is building a shelter in Coney Island, Brooklyn, and Ms Quinn has been talking with residents there for two years to get to that place of neutrality. When residents worried that a bakery next door would be demolished, she set about to save the bakery. "You want to get a couple of people who are neutral to listen to you," she said.

How much neutrality can exist in neighbourhoods like the one surrounding the proposed West 58th Street shelter? This month, residents filed a lawsuit against the city claiming that the building in which the shelter is planned does not meet fire safety standards and has other problems pertaining to its construction that make it unsuitable: It will endanger the people who live there, the argument now goes..

The filing of the lawsuit follows a familiar pattern. First, residents will protest a shelter because they don't like it, and then, realising the negative optics, they switch the debate to worries over building infrastructure, environmental strain and so on. "Often concerns initially expressed around people become concerns around traffic," as Ms Quinn put it. NYTIMES