Homeless NYers Living on the Upper West Side Pay the Mayor a Visit

Rosie Rudavsky Sep 14, 2020

Sunday afternoon local protesters and homeless advocates gathered outside the mayor’s residence at Gracie Mansion and called on Bill de Blasio to reverse his decision to move hundreds of homeless residents from an Upper West Side hotel, the Lucerne, to a separate facility in Midtown that currently houses families and people with disabilities.

While the displacements are now on pause, advocates urged the mayor to listen to the city’s most vulnerable constituents.

The move would displace families and people with disabilities housed at the Harmonia Shelter inside the former Hotel Chandler and scatter them around the city, without regard for their accessibility needs. 

De Blasio’s decision, now on pause due to a lawsuit, came at the behest of a group of Upper West Siders who complained of a lowered quality of life and increased crime in the neighborhood brought on by the influx of homeless residents. 

While the displacements are now on pause, advocates urged the mayor to listen to the city’s most vulnerable constituents, and act in their favor, instead of giving in to the pressure of Upper West Side residents’ threat of legal action. 

Ogoby Gonzalez, a resident of a separate shelter who attended Sunday’s rally, said that he has been transferred by the mayor’s Department of Homeless Services three times since the beginning of the pandemic. In the process, he has had his property stolen, including his winter clothing. Where he lives now there’s no cooking allowed. 

“How are you supposed to properly feed your child if you can’t cook?” Gonzalez said. “The food they give us is horrible. It’s worse than hospital food.”

Gonzalez is one of many homeless people transferred through the system during the coronavirus crisis. At a time when the city is vulnerable to a pandemic, Legal Aid Society lawyer Josh Goldfein questioned the mayor. 

He “wants to uproot people, move them all around, disrupt kids who are about to start school in Brooklyn, send people who are in places that accommodate their disabilities to places that don’t accommodate their disabilities,” Goldfein said. “Why?”

Jose Hernandez, an advocate with the United Spinal Association, was furious when he heard that disabled residents of the Harmonia would be moved. “Now their lives are being uprooted, not knowing where they’re going, not knowing if they’re gonna have a place that’s accessible,” said Hernandez. “Mayor de Blasio is a coward to pick on the most vulnerable class to appease the most privileged class.”

Protesters called on de Blasio to hear from shelter residents themselves and attempted to deliver a letter to the mayor. The letter, based upon the transfer orders given to homeless people being displaced from their residences, read: “ Because you are DISPLACING 900 homeless NYers and think that ‘shelters are better environments,’ please be advised that you will be transferred from Gracie Mansion to a homeless shelter.” Mike Bonano, a homeless resident of the Harmonia shelter who, like Gonzalez, has already been displaced three times, planned to give de Blasio the letter, but was barred entry by the NYPD. 

Upper West Side City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who stayed with organizers at Gracie Mansion until 10pm Sunday night, called on De Blasio to stop the displacements of homeless people and to meet with them. 

“He’s met with Mastro,” Rosenthal said, referring to the Upper West Side group’s lawyer, Randy Mastro. “Let him meet with the folks whose lives he’s upending.”  

After hours of demonstrating outside Gracie Mansion and phone calls with mayoral staff, Marco Carrion, Commissioner of Community Affairs, agreed to meet with residents of the Lucerne and the Harmonia this week, to hear from them and pass along their concerns to the mayor. 

Rosenthal said she understands the quality-of-life complaints of her Upper West Side constituents but noted things have changed since the initial media uproar in the well-to-do neighborhood erupted last month. The shelter’s Good Neighbor Policy, which requires residents to adhere by standards of respect for the neighborhood and the shelter, is being enforced, with 21 residents removed for violating it. While de Blasio has sided with the Upper West Side group, Rosenthal repeated, “There’s no shame in changing your mind.” 

Activists also urged de Blasio to provide real and permanent housing solutions for New Yorkers in need, emphasizing that pushing vulnerable New Yorkers out of sight would not solve homelessness. They cited his election promise to end New York’s “tale of two cities” and called out de Blasio for what they see as his purely symbolic support for the Black Lives Matter movement, noting that 58 percent of the city’s shelter residents are African American. 

“This is about racial equity,” said a Lucerne resident and spokesperson for the homeless activists who goes by the moniker “Da Homeless Hero.” Addressing the mayor, he added, “My hope is that you listen to what is being said today and begin to really think about the humanity of those you serve, whether rich or poor.”

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