The residents of New York’s Upper West Side are considered liberal and open. But the fact that homeless people are now being quartered in the hotels because of the corona virus divides the quarter.
By Antje Passenheim, ARD-Studio New York
The “Lucerne” is fully booked. But the guests of the four-star hotel on New York’s Upper West Side look different than usual. “It’s not that we’re here because we want to be here,” says a man in ripped jeans and an open shirt on the polished marble staircase. The man in his forties next to him, who introduces himself as Michael, corrects: “It’s better than sleeping on the street”.
Michael knows what he’s talking about: He often lived on the street, stood in line for a place in a homeless shelter. Until the corona pandemic came – and the city closed the accommodations and billeted people in the hotels that were emptied by the pandemic. There, the homeless should be better protected from the corona virus. “I’m fine,” says Michael. “I know: not everyone here is happy with the situation.”
The people who live in the district are not: They looked irritated when the bus repeatedly stopped in front of the pillars of the red sandstone building with new guests and spat out the men – with their bags, dented suitcases or just what they had on Carried body.
In three days, 283 homeless people moved into the rooms, which otherwise cost the equivalent of around 200 euros a night. And they pushed the neighborhood to its limits: “Among them are the mentally ill. They run around out there. Are ready for violence. That affects the quality of life here,” says one resident. Another resident of the district says: “I observe open drug use. There are needles and bottles in the doorways. I cannot accept that.”
Facebook group “for safe roads” is popular
The district on the edge of Central Park is one of the most liberal in the city: intellectuals, artists and Nobel Prize winners live there. Nobody here votes for Donald Trump. The “New York Times” is required reading. They have block parties and support immigrants. No dog owner leaves anything on the sidewalk.
“I would describe myself as very liberal,” says a local resident. “I do volunteer work. I donate. I care about people. But this goes too far. When I walk my dog in the evening, I’m afraid. I’ve already bought myself pepper spray.”
One day after the new guests moved to “Lucerne”, there was a new Facebook group: “Upper West Siders for Safe Streets”. Robert Montano is there. “We want people in the hotels who behave appropriately. There really is no discrimination. It’s about people sticking to the rules of our society,” he says.
In a very short time the group had 9,000 members. In order to be accepted, everyone has to say what they think of hotels being converted into shelters for the homeless and – so literally – being used by sex offenders and drug addicts. Montano is annoyed that needles and liquor bottles are lying around in the streets: “We have to pick them up. But what if a child finds a needle and picks it up?”
Councilor: “No reason to criminalize poverty”
The city has housed around 13,000 homeless people in the empty New York tourist hostels. A matter of course for Helen Rosenthal. The Upper West Side representative on the city council is furious about the resistance: “That’s incredible,” she says. “There is no reason to criminalize poverty or get racist because there are some black-skinned people here who weren’t there before.”
And those who did not ask to be there, says the homeless Michael: “I have no control over whether I am here. Not everyone here is crazy and pumped full of drugs.”
Michael wears a shirt of the black civil rights movement: “Take your knees off our neck”, it says. After the African American George Floyd suffocated under the knee of a white policeman, many people in the Upper West Side expressed their solidarity with Black Lives Matter. “Enough is enough,” it says behind many window panes.
Homeless people? “Not with me in the garden”
So be it, says Michael. In any case, he doesn’t cause any problems. He worked in construction for decades. Then he broke his arm and was unable to work. Michael also knows: Among the tens of thousands of homeless people in his city there are many who are not as much under control as he is.
“25 percent of adult homeless people are seriously and permanently mentally ill. That applies to New York, that applies to the whole country,” says Bobby Watts, who heads the organization “National Health and Homeless Council”. “Mentally ill people lose their homes faster, they lose their jobs faster – especially because we don’t have enough treatment options for them in this country.”
Watts also knows the other side: enlightened people in affluent neighborhoods who are open to everything – as long as it doesn’t get too close to them. He knows an expression for this: “Not in my backyard” – “Not in my garden”.
Mental health problems drive people into homelessness
Saul Solomon can understand that. He spent years in the Manhattan homeless shelters. “You see what’s going on in there. The abuse. You see why the people are out here,” he describes. Solomon knows ups and downs. He was a successful musician in the rap business – and became depressed, couldn’t get things done, ended up on the street. Most recently he was one of the guests at the “Lucerne”. He even shares the aversion of the residents there: “Even if I was in the homeless shelter myself – I understand that: Who wants to go out with their children and feel insecure?”
Solomon made it back to the other side. He has a job and, since this month, has his own little apartment again. The transfer via the hotel helped him to gain a foothold again. But not everyone there behaves properly. “It doesn’t matter if people think we are judging them because they are homeless. We don’t,” he said. “They empty themselves on the street. People feel insecure. You can’t always say: the rich are the bad. No, you have to name it: The guy pees on the street. Or he steals someone’s wallet. That is unacceptable. “
The President of the New York Hotel Association, Vijay Dandapani, sees it differently. He appeals to the common sense of the local residents: “These are not wild animals that were brought there from the jungle. They are people with mental health problems. And they must be helped.” His association helps the city find suitable hotels for its homeless program. It helps many homes survive. 150 hotels in his association have been closed since the lockdown.
Even if they need a complete renovation afterwards: The homeless program guarantees them the equivalent of around 100 euros per room per night. He admits: “If you are a neighbor of such a homeless hotel, then you are not happy about it. I admit that”.
“New York has already dealt with something completely different”
The people around her lived in a bubble, says Jennifer Bergman. She was born on the Upper West Side and is the owner of the local toy store. She disgusts to see how some of her neighbors react to poverty: “I grew up here. That has always been part of New York City. I think it’s pretty presumptuous, racist. Elitist.”
Your neighborhood has gone through many phases, says Bergman, who stands between wooden trains and cuddly toys in the store: First there were professors and creative people. Then came the less exciting investment bankers. And in between the drug barons: “The biggest crack dealer in New York lived here in the early 1990s”. The time when people stopped walking here in the dark. At that time they really had to be scared, she says – “but we got it under control”.
New York has already done other things, says Bergman. The basic mood in the country is worse: it creates the basis for a dispute like the one that is shaking your neighborhood. She remembers a conversation with a customer: What if Trump were re-elected? “I said: you make me cry – and then I started crying,” she says.
The presidential election in November will show whether the country will press the reset button. If not, the toy dealer fears, this is just the prelude: “Then the American experiment would be over”.