The real Upper West Side story: Residents at crossroads while coping with influx of homeless and mentally ill

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Upper West Side residents are split about having the homeless living in their community as many were settled into local hotels including the Lucerne. Some residents wrote messages of support on the ground in chalk. (Photo by Todd Maisel)


Wearing nothing but shorts, the man sat on the traffic island of Broadway and 79th Street on the Upper West Side as traffic whizzed by Tuesday. 

Residents tried not to notice him, nor the scuffed-up end table and rickety chair that he had dragged from the trash to make himself at home. He was talking to himself and waving his arms wildly.

Only hours before, a homeless man nearby overdosed on heroin,  EMS administering life-saving drug Naloxone, witnesses said. There were two other cases of overdosed men: one inside the local Duane Reade Pharmacy, and the other at the Lucerne Hotel on West 79th Street, where homeless men are now residing.

Upper West Side residents are split about having the homeless living in their community as many were settled into local hotels including the Lucerne – a security man stands outside. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Upper West Side residents have noticed in recent weeks the uptick in homeless individuals, including those with mental illness, on the streets. Their presence has elicited numerous reactions — from empathy for the individuals in need of help to disgust over the situation. 

Published reports have painted the new homeless on the Upper West Side as nothing more than blisters on a middle and upper middle class neighborhood — yet the situation is more complex than depicted.

The homeless haven

Walking outside the Lucerne Hotel and other homeless havens in the area, one could find signs of empathy written in colorful chalk on the sidewalks. The comments included messages of support with comments such as “Make America Care Again,” and “Welcome to our new neighbors.”

Upper West Side residents are split about having the homeless living in their community as many were settled into local hotels including the Lucerne. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Security officers stood outside the Lucerne Tuesday, with homeless people coming and going. In addition, members of the Guardian Angels were on patrol outside the hotel, a few expressing concern that a few of the residents were “a threat to the community.” Others, they said, were using drugs inside the hotel and on the street.

Guardian Angels patrol outside the Lucerne Hotel. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Heather and Candace (who withheld their last names) came to offer support to the homeless – they provided gift cards to the people to buy food. Heather said some have painted the homeless in a “super dangerous, Trump-esque way.” 

“We don’t want the rhetoric. We are not interested in hearing it, because it deters from the real issue, which is to treat humans as people,” said Heather, who said she doesn’t fear for her children in the community, despite their presence. “To say you don’t want it on the Upper West Side is white privilege at its finest.”

A homeless man leans on scaffolding nodding out. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Others were not so charitable to their new neighbors. 

Resident Fred Bellvadiere said the city was “wrecking the community.” He said a woman was writing with chalk outside one hotel and some of the homeless “didn’t think it was a good idea.”

“She started arguing with them, and so they started following her and she lives three doors down and she sat down on her stoop and started crying,” he recalled several days earlier. “They ganged up on her and wouldn’t let her walk away so I had to get in the middle and stopped them from following her.”

Parents in the park

Zach Bouchar, a resident of West 82nd Street for 22 years, took his two children, ages six and three, to Tecumseh Park on Amsterdam Avenue for a day in the sprinklers, but he and other parents were concerned about the influx of homeless.

“You gotta look at it from two sides, but this is a time for us to be united not to separate,” Bouchar said as he watched his children frolic with other kids. “There are always bad people wherever you go, and just because they are homeless doesn’t make them bad people.”

Zach Bouchar of West 82nd Street, watches his children play in Tecumseh Park. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Sue Miller sat with other mothers in Tecumseh Park watching her two children, 7 and 9, play ball with other neighbors. She said the increased presence of homeless has made her consider moving from the city.

“I’m just nervous about the safety of my kids,” Miller sighed. “My bedroom overlooks the doorway of the Lucerne and there are ambulances there all the time. People are half slumped over in the street, drugged out, there was a picture of a guy masturbating over there (corner of the park), they go into playgrounds. There are things going on and I don’t want my kids exposed to that.”

Heather Cohen said she was very concerned and is also considering moving from the city.

“It’s not about caring for homeless people, Upper West Siders in general are very kind warm and we do a lot of community service – yes, a lot of us are liberal – it’s not about the homelessness, it’s about safety,” she said as she watched her children, 11 and 14. “If you are telling me that taking care of homeless people comes before the safety of my kids, then I do not agree. I’ve seen people masturbating in front of the New-York Historical Society, I’ve seen people doing drugs on 79th Street, I’ve seen people OD’ing and acting crazy. Within a few weeks our neighborhood has gone back to the 70s.” 

Upper West Side residents are split about having the homeless living in their community as many were settled into local hotels including the Lucerne. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Mr. Noon, while walking his son past the Lucerne, thanked the Guardian Angels for being on patrol. He said he understood using unused hotels to the homeless, but he said it was damaging the neighborhood.

“Where can we move them, nobody likes them so where will they go,” he asked. “We would love to help the homeless people if they were really, rally homeless and they behave. We try to be safe but they are out here fighting every day.”

Joan Barrons sat with her 6-year-old twin boys Teddy and Henry in the park. She said she understands people are in a “tough spot right now.”

“I’ve seen a couple of people who stand out, but I’m not afraid o the homeless and it made sense to relocate them under the circumstances,” she said. “We have to be a little more careful, but we all have to be more responsible and my personal approach is to be more aware, but also more accepting because everyone is in a spot.”

Joan Barrons sat with her 6-year-old twin boys Teddy and Henry in Tecumseh Park. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Fallout from health crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic already drove a number of Upper West Siders from the city for the greener pastures of their second homes in more pastoral settings. Some neighborhood advocates complain that it is not the disease, but the after-effects that are driving the exodus.

With the city increasing its use of hotels to provide roofs to those on the streets, considering the risk to people in traditional bunk-house style shelters, many Upper West Side residents say they got more than they bargained for with widespread homelessness and crime.

Giselle Routhier with Coalition for the Homeless says the impact of stories that characterize the unsheltered individuals in negative ways is detrimental, many of whom were in a living situation without a lease and received no help from the state’s eviction moratorium. 

“The message that we have been trying to get out there is that hotels are literally life-saving. We’ve worked with epidemiologists at NYU to calculate age-adjusted mortality rates due to COVID for single adults in the shelter system, and it’s 80% higher than the New York City rate overall,” Routhier said.

On the other hand, Michael Fischer, the president of the Central Park Civic Association, attested to another New York newspaper’s negative depiction of the homelessness and crime situation in the Upper West Side which falls into the realm of the organization. 

According to Fischer, the homeless crisis has pushed the city into a reactionary mode of operation of putting homeless individuals into hotels without any regard to notifying the communities or bringing them into the fold beforehand.

“What happens when you do this is you get an uptick in crime, you have drug use on the streets, you have people defecating in the streets, urinating in the streets and it creates a very dangerous situation for the people in these communities,” Fischer said.

Willy T. Lewis, a temporary resident of the Lucerne, says writing on the ground is a show of love. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

‘They should have no fear of us’

Willy T. Lewis, a temporary resident of the Lucerne says he was homeless and had gone through St. Christopher Shelter, then to Bellevue Shelter for nine weeks before finally being relocated to the hotel. He peered down at the letter on the ground he called, “an expression of love.”

He said the community should have “no fear of the homeless” as they are tested for COVID-19, TB — “medically we are fine.”

“Everybody in this community should have no fear – every man and woman who walks into a shelter, especially Bellevue are scanned for coronavirus,” he said. “People have a fear of the unknown and what a parent or guardian fears is something like COVID, HIV, but they should have no fear of us.”

He added as he looked at the chalk writing, “I think that the people who put this here, they do it everywhere – little kids do that and not only little kids, but adults too – the ones that know what love in their heart is.”

Writing on ground at Lucerne, is a show of love, says Willy T. Lewis. (Photo by Todd Maisel)