By Deborah Berkman
The New York Daily News
There is a hysteria spreading through the ostensibly progressive Upper West Side, caused by the temporary resettlement of New Yorkers experiencing homelessness from congregate shelters, where many people share a room and social distancing is impossible, to a few neighborhood hotels. Not only did this move protect this vulnerable population from the threat of COVID-19, it also provides a lifeline to our beloved local hotels, saving them from financial ruin and having to lay off staff.
Unfortunately, some neighborhood NIMBYs view this sensible action as a threat and have targeted our new neighbors for removal to other, less affluent neighborhoods. It’s not lost on me that these attitudes stem from racism and prejudice against people experiencing homelessness.
The transfer of men — mostly men of color — experiencing homelessness to the Upper West Side has presented a challenge to those of us who are supporters of progressive, anti-racist causes. I know. My husband and I own a co-op on the Upper West Side. We have three small children in neighborhood schools. I am also a homeless rights lawyer, running the Shelter Advocacy Initiative at New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), a leading free legal services organization for those experiencing poverty.
I know firsthand the benefits to my clients, and to our society, of moving them into hotel rooms. First, they are at a much lower risk of getting COVID-19, which previously ravaged congregate shelters. Lessening the spread of the virus in this way makes us all safer. Moreover, they are now able to sleep without the distractions, noise and danger of large, congregate settings. They feel safe from assault and theft, and, importantly, they have access to the internet, which allows them to obtain benefits, enroll in job training and apply for employment online. This too is good for all of us.
However, many of my neighbors, a number of whom are self-proclaimed “progressives,” view the new hotel guests as a scourge that has ruined our neighborhood. They blame all discord on the hotel guests and some have created a Facebook group to organize the expulsion of these men from the Upper West Side. Members roam the neighborhood, taking pictures of people they think are the hotel guests to post online.
Sometimes these pictures merely depict people of color congregating, which is apparently seen as a threat to public safety. Hotel guests report being followed and harassed. Some members of the Facebook group used coded racist language to refer to the hotel guests as “animals” and “creatures.” One member suggested setting off an M-80 into a homeless encampment. This has all been done under the guise of ensuring “safety” for residents of the Upper West Side, and is accomplished through a public relations plan that focuses on ensuring a “quality of life” for all but those transferred to our neighborhood hotels.
In reality, it’s the panic itself that has created an unsafe atmosphere, and, in some cases, suggested illegal acts.
There is no reason to believe that the Upper West Side is less safe than it was. In fact, crime is down in the neighborhood when compared with a similar time last year. Our playgrounds remain filled with families and laughter, and our local restaurants are visibly thriving with outdoor dining.
The arrival of our new homeless neighbors on the Upper West Side places the fate of those who have historically been oppressed squarely before us. Glib slogans and donations to progressive causes alone will not eradicate the challenges faced by New York City’s homeless population. We must embrace our progressive values and facilitate compassion and inclusivity. Isn’t this what we signed up for when we chose the progressive Upper West Side to raise our families?