Over the past few weeks, a controversy has erupted on the Upper West Side regarding the temporary use of local hotels to shelter men experiencing homelessness. The majority of these men were previously housed in shelters where social distancing is impossible and therefore were at greater risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.

We understand that there are concerns and fears about this decision. However, many of these are based on misinformation that has been circulating, and we believe it is important to understand the facts at hand. We and other clergy members on the UWS have been in touch with the Director of Project Renewal, the agency running the shelter at the Lucerne Hotel, and he has put together this one-page overview of what is happening at that hotel. In addition, toward the bottom of this message, we are highlighting some key points about the situation.

Since the city’s decision was made with urgent public health concerns in mind, the normal community engagement process for housing these men in residential neighborhoods was not followed. That said, we do believe that the city should have done better in engaging with and educating the community.

Though the process was flawed, we are deeply pained by the vitriolic response coming from some Upper West Side residents, including nasty comments on social media, active harassment of the men and also of Project Renewal staff (largely because people confuse them with residents due to the color of their skin), and photographs of the residents being posted online without their permission.

Regardless of how one feels about the city’s decision, such rhetoric runs contrary to the fundamental Jewish principle that all people are created in the image of God, deserving of being treated as such. Further, dehumanizing these men makes the problem about them instead of seeing homelessness as a systemic issue that needs to be addressed through policy and societal change.

We believe that caring for those in need is part of our religious obligation. For decades, we have operated the women’s homeless shelter in partnership with the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, and the Judith Bernstein lunch program, to provide food and shelter with dignity and respect. In this case, too, we are confident that we can work together with elected officials and with Project Renewal to ensure that the Upper West Side continues to be a safe space for its residents, while also fulfilling a civic duty to care for the city’s most vulnerable using the resources we have in our neighborhood.

We will soon share information about community education forums and other efforts, which are in development together with other UWS faith institutions and concerned citizens. Rabbi Lauren Grabelle-Herrmann of the SAJ is one of the leaders in this effort and we are grateful to her for compiling much of the information in this letter and permitting us to adapt parts of her message to the SAJ community to share with you.

Again, a few key points of information are below. If you would like to show your support for these men, you can learn more about ways to do so here.

Please do not hesitate to be in touch with questions or comments.

Noteworthy Information:

  • 700 men and women are living in three hotels on the Upper West Side. This is of a total of now over 13,000 people experiencing homelessness living in around 140 hotels throughout the city.
  • Not all hotels in the city have been able or willing to comply with the city’s requirements for housing individuals experiencing homelessness, including installing cameras and other security measures. The three UWS hotels were willing to do so, which is part of why these individuals were moved here, and not to other neighborhoods.
  • In the Lucerne Hotel, there are no registered sex offenders that are legally required to be distanced from school zones. There have been rumors about the other two hotels and current reports state that everyone who needed to be moved has been moved.
  • The shelter accepts men who have a history and current use of alcohol and drug abuse, which is often the reason they were homeless in the first place. These men, as well as the broader community, are safer when they are in shelter and not on the streets; there is also evidence that drug and alcohol use decreases in shelter.
  • When ambulances are called to the hotel, this does not necessarily indicate a drug overdose. Many of the men have chronic health conditions and out of concerns of liability, ambulances are called.
  • Crime rates have primarily stayed the same or decreased in the weeks since the men’s arrival into the neighborhood and have been lower than in years past at this time. (CompStat Book, Precinct 020)
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