Chalk drawings in a rainbow of hues lined the sidewalks of the Upper West Side on Sunday, starting at the Lucerne Hotel — where 200 homeless men are being sheltered — and stretching around the corner along West 79th Street.
It was the neighbors’ way of telling the homeless people who live there, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, that they support the shelter residents and reject the idea that the majority of the community reject don’t want them to stay.
Members of the Upper West Side Open Hearts appealed to the city to allow them to stay in the hotel and not move to another location. The art protest came days after a judge ruled that the city could move forward with a plan to relocate the men from the Lucerne to a hotel in the Financial District.
About 200 homeless men will have to vacate the hotel that has been used as an emergency shelter during the pandemic — the latest in a contentious battle involving homeless advocates in a community that is touted as one of the most liberal neighborhood’s in the city.
While the few dozen supporters of sheltering the homeless in the Lucerne who drew 5,500 chalk stick figures to represent homeless people living shelters, say they welcome the downtrodden. Others have privately said their presence has lowered the quality of life in the community – some homeless taking up residence on the avenues in front of stores and residential buildings during the day – some doing drugs, while others either fighting with each other or defecating in corners or out in the open.
However, those taking part in this war of chalk words say they must stand up for the needy.
Prior to the pandemic, the Lucerne used to offer valet parking and spa services to tourists and is now one of 63 hotels the city has temporarily used as shelters to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 at group shelters where homeless were sometimes kept 50 to a room.
Corine Low, a leader of the effort to preserve the hotel for homeless people, defended keeping 235 homeless in the hotel, saying the move would “displace homeless people who already have hotel rooms and safety from COVID-19.”
“There are still 5,500 people sleeping in congregate shelters, with 10-15 people to a room,” Low explained to the crowd. “A lot of people think that congregate shelters were emptied over the summer, then we realized just how dangers COVID was. They were then ‘de-densified’ from 30-40 people to a room, to only 15-20. Even with 15-20, you have the potential to have a super spreader environment. So we are here asking the mayor to take a step back and think about what the priority is for rooms. If there is rooms gvailable at the Radisson, then the people who desperately need them, those in congregate shelters with 1–15 per room, or those sleeping on the streets as winter starts.”
Former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messenger, a resident of the community, asked the media to focus on the drawings of the stick figures.
“This represents a human being – a person for any set of reasons currently does not have a home and is currently being housed by the city in congregate shelters, squeezed together, no social distancing, no space, no services,” Messenger said.
“Those people need homes and it is a challenge to the city of New York to find the room and this is that moment because there are hotel spaces available, so there are rooms for those 5,500 people,” Messenger said.”They want to move them now, at the whim of the mayor – nobody could survive that kind of transiency. They are resilient people who are making a contribution to the neighborhood and they are talking with their neighbors and most importantly, they now have a full compliment of the services they need at the Lucerne for addiction, mental health and most important for employment training – and they have gotten jobs.”
Jason E. Zakai, an attorney representing some of the residents, said he is asking the city to hold off moving the homeless “until a full appeal is heard because they will be irreparably harmed if they are moved downtown.”
“We are optimistic with our chances on Appeal. The homeless Lucerne residents will be irreparably harmed by the transfer downtown. And, as the Court recognized, it is the homeless Lucerne Residents who have a real and substantial interest in where they are sent to live by the City. The City has failed to provide a single piece of evidence that demonstrates a rational basis for the decision. There was no review, no study, and no analysis done that showed moving these residents downtown would be a good idea.”
All of those writing on the sidewalks agreed that the homeless would be harmed and most greeted them as neighbors.
Resident Olivia Killingsworth said she was chalking the sidewalk because the homeless matter.
“There are 5500 people who live in congregate shelters in the middle of the second wave of Covid and we should be moving those folks into hotels, instead of moving the people in the Lucerne to another hotel,” she said. “The mayor can make that decision right away – we urge him to do so.”
Candace Braun was writing in blue chalk “de-densify the 5,500 in crowded shelters.”
“I’m doing this because there are a lot of haters in the world who are not very nice, and I believe that love wins, love begets more love,” Braun said. “There are people crowded into shelters all over NYC and instead of getting them out of crowded, COVID laden places, they are moving people around and instead they should be focused on saving lives.”
Alice Dolsson, a 19-year-old neighbor of the Lucerne, said “the people here have been disgraceful, a disgrace to the upper west side and we haven’t been treating these people as our neighbors and fellow New Yorker’s, but rather disregarding them and looking at them as trash.”
“I’ve lived her a long time, there is no difference what was here two or three years ago and what has been occurring ever since they got here, and I think it is very selfish and a lot of people are only thinking of themselves,” Dolsson said. “If they are forced to live downtown, it endangers their lives and the lives of those in lower Manhattan.”