The guests arrived at the Lucerne Hotel, two blocks from Central Park, carrying their belongings, stepping off buses and filling the hotel’s empty rooms, which typically cost more than $200 a night.
They were not tourists nor business travelers but residents of homeless shelters whom the city sent to the Lucerne to contain the spread of the coronavirus in the crowded shelter system. Over three days, 283 men moved into the hotel.
Their arrival has become a flash point and a test of values for the Upper West Side — a neighborhood with a reputation as one of the most liberal enclaves in New York and in the entire country.
The city had already moved shelter residents, including some women, in May into three other Upper West Side hotels — the Park West, the Belleclaire and the Belnord — and the neighborhood is now home to about 730 homeless people transferred during the outbreak.
One day after the men began moving into the Lucerne, on West 79th Street, a private Facebook group — Upper West Siders for Safer Streets — was created by residents who were up in arms. The group has more than 8,700 members.
Many commenters said the men menaced pedestrians, urinated and defecated on the street and used and sold drugs in the open.
In interviews, some longtime residents said the hotel’s conversion into a shelter had dimmed the quality of life and evoked memories of an era when the neighborhood was filled with single room occupancy hotels that helped fuel crime.
“I see a lot of people that are sort of down on their luck either high or intoxicated, and I see more of them than I normally see,’’ said Gary Kokalari, who has lived in the neighborhood for over 30 years.
“People are generally concerned to go outside now,’’ he added. “The fear is palpable.’’
On the other side are neighbors like Amanda Fialk, a clinical social worker, who said in an interview that she was appalled by “some pretty tone-deaf, racist, biased, privileged” things people have said on social media.
“To the best of my knowledge being homeless is not a crime, but we’re treating these people like criminals,” Ms. Fialk added.
The controversy comes at a moment of national ferment over systemic racism, economic stratification and the disproportionate impact of the virus on people of color and the poor.
And it is unfolding in a neighborhood that lies in a congressional district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly seven to one, and where nearly 90 percent of voters supported Hillary Clinton four years ago. The neighborhood is 68 percent white, and the average home value is $1.2 million, nearly double the New York City median.
Some elected leaders and residents say they support helping the homeless, but complain that they were not given enough notice before the men were moved to the Lucerne.
“This took everyone by surprise,” said Helen Rosenthal, the city councilwoman who represents the neighborhood.
Caught in the middle are the hotel’s newcomers, like Joseph Bryant, who said he had lived in several shelters since being released from prison in 2018.
“They know there’s Covid,” said Mr. Bryant, who spends most of his days traveling to and from a 12-step program in Brooklyn. “I don’t know what they expect us to do, how they expect us to live.”
Another man living at the Lucerne, Clinton Bynum, 63, said he had also gotten an icy reception. “It makes me feel upset when I walk on the street and people walk on the other side of the street,” he said.
The blowback highlights the challenges of keeping the city’s homeless shelter population safe during the pandemic, a task made more difficult because the population has grown to record highs during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure.
During the outbreak, the city’s Department of Homeless Services has moved roughly 9,500 people from shelters into 63 hotels across the city, 32 of which are in Manhattan. The relocations have also led to complaints in Hell’s Kitchen and parts of Queens.
On Monday, Mr. de Blasio said on NY1 that the city was going to start figuring out when it will be safe enough to transfer the homeless back to shelters. The homeless agency said it had no details or a timetable.
The agency works with the Hotel Association of New York City to identify hotels that can serve as a shelter and pays an average of $174 a night per room. The city said it eventually expects reimbursement for at least 75 percent of the cost from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Many financially pressed hotel owners were grateful for the chance to serve as temporary shelters, said Vijay Dandapani, the Hotel Association’s president and chief executive. “There are zero tourists,’’ he said.
The Lucerne’s owner, Sam Domb, said that the hotel took in the shelter residents because “this is a matter of survival.”
At the Belleclaire on Broadway and West 77th Street, the homeless people included several registered sex offenders whose presence has alarmed neighbors. The city said they were already part of the general shelter population and were legally entitled to live at the hotel, though at least one was moved because of its proximity to a grade school.
The relocation of homeless people began on a large scale in April, as the virus started sweeping through packed shelters.
The city has recorded over 1,400 positive cases and 104 deaths among the homeless, which includes roughly 60,000 people in shelters. The number of active cases has now dwindled into single digits.
The need to swiftly move people made it impractical to provide neighborhoods with more than just a few days’ notice or seek input, city officials said.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 17, 2020
Why does standing six feet away from others help?
- The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It’s a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it’s windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
“While we can always communicate better, our data show that our emergency actions helped stop the spread of the virus and saved lives,” Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Homeless Services, said, adding, “As members of the community, we intend to be good neighbors.’’
The men at the Lucerne were sent from shelters in the Bowery run by Project Renewal, a group that offers treatment for substance abuse and mental illness. The group said 20 guards were on site at the hotel at all times.
The owner of a well-known French bistro, Nice Matin, which adjoins the Lucerne, said he believed the harsh rhetoric among some in the neighborhood had hurt business.
“There was so much talk about here are 300 sex offenders who are going to attack you while you’re seated, so they’re not showing up,’’ said the owner, Simon Oren, who added that “so far we did not have even one situation with homeless from the hotel.”
Nicole Metzger, a neighborhood resident and a moderator of the Facebook group, said she was not opposed to living near homeless people, but that “the influx of such a high volume of homeless men, some of whom have violent backgrounds, in such a short amount of time, without adequate security provided by D.H.S., has resulted in unsafe conditions.”
In the Facebook group, some commenters were less measured — one described the men as “subhuman,’’ while others called for “the National Guard” or “animal control” to clean up the neighborhood.
In the 15 weeks since the homeless started moving to hotels on the Upper West Side, there have been 1,289 homeless-related calls to 311 from the neighborhood compared with 539 in the 15 weeks before, though that period encompassed colder months, when 311 calls about the homeless tend to dip.
The police department said that drug-related complaints had risen more than 50 percent in the 20th Precinct since the Lucerne began housing shelter residents compared to the same period last year. The department could not immediately provide arrest numbers.
Ms. Rosenthal, the council member, said the captain of the precinct had told her that “there has been no uptick in crime” since the men moved into the Lucerne.
Still, she added, until the homeless return to shelters, “We are watching every single day.”
While advocates say negative reactions to homeless people in residential neighborhoods were nothing new, the backlash during an emergency was particularly unfortunate.
“We’re talking about something that is necessary in the middle of a pandemic, in order to save the lives of people who are poor and have nowhere else to go,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless. “And in the absence of this we would have more people dying in the shelter system, more people leaving the shelter system for the streets.”
On a recent hot afternoon, a group of men who said they were from the Lucerne sat on benches in a pedestrian plaza in the middle of Broadway at 79th Street, some of them smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.
Michele Breier, 69, who was walking her small dog, said her view of the men had shifted 180 degrees.
“When you don’t know, you’re going to expect the worst,” she said.
Now, she has come to see her new neighbors as a reality check for an area she described as “sheltered.”
“Truthfully, I think it’s really good for the neighborhood to see the struggle that people have,” Ms. Breier said, and to recognize “the humanity that everyone has.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.