Manhattan hotel reopens as homeless shelter despite protest from Billionaires Row residents
The residents spent over $300,000 in lawsuits claiming ‘crime and loitering’ by the occupants would lead to ‘irreparable injuries’
Just a few steps away from the horse-drawn carriages that whisk tourists through New York’s Central Park and the opulence of the Plaza Hotel is an unassuming building on a quiet block in midtown Manhattan.
The building is marked by an awning that reads “Park Savoy Hotel”. Nestled in between a 24-hour parking structure and an apartment building on a predominantly residential street, the Park Savoy blends in with the other hotels in the neighborhood.
A sign on the front window of the building that says “Welcome to the Park Savoy rapid re-housing program” is the only marker that indicates it is a homeless shelter, built in one of the most-pricey neighborhoods in New York. One that rich locals fought for years, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars campaigning against the crime and “irreparable injuries” they said it would bring – fears that appear to have been unfounded.
The shelter quietly opened its doors in early November. It is designed to house up to 80 men and is known as an “employment shelter” meant for those who are seeking employment or who are actively employed, especially in midtown Manhattan. The shelter has been taking in about five new occupants a week since it opened 8 November, according to a city spokesperson.
The men will be neighbors with some of Manhattan’s wealthiest residents: the shelter abuts Billionaires Row, a nickname given to the cluster of super-tall luxury “pencil towers” that were constructed within the last decade. The penthouse of One57, the tower that is directly behind the shelter, was bought by billionaire Michael Dell in 2014 for $100m – the most expensive piece of real estate ever sold in the city at the time.
New York City has the highest homeless population in the US with more than 122,000 homeless adults and families – including more than 39,000 children – living in the city’s shelter system in 2020.
In 2017, a year before the shelter was supposed to open, de Blasio announced a new initiative to address homelessness in the city which included plans to build about 90 new shelters. “They’ll be in every kind of neighborhood,” de Blasio said.
The Park Savoy shelter was slated to open in spring 2018, but the city entered a lengthy legal battle with residents and business owners in the area who vehemently opposed the shelter and formed a group, called the West 58th Street Coalition to block it.
An online petition created in 2018 against the hotel, calling it a threat with “an enormous impact on our densely populated, narrow, high pedestrian-traffic street” garnered nearly 3,500 signatures. Members of the coalition argued that the city did not receive community input when starting plans to open the shelter and called the building “a dangerous fire trap”.
Suzanne Silverstein, a leader of the coalition, told the New York Times that residents believed that the city was trying to make a statement at their expense.
“[Mayor Bill de Blasio] is not sticking it to billionaires, he’s sticking it to people like myself who work 100 hours a week. We’re not bad people. We’re just trying to get ahead,” she said.
Determined to stop the shelter, the West 58th Street Coalition filed a lawsuit in 2018 that argued the building was too “unsafe” for occupants and that “crime and loitering” caused by the shelter would lead to “irreparable injuries”. The coalition also spent at least $287,000 toward lobbyists advocating against the shelter, according to non-profit news site The City. They spent another $100,000 on billboards in Iowa meant to prod de Blasio during his brief run for president in 2020.
Despite the coalition’s efforts, a state appellate court gave the final green light to the city in May to open the shelter. The group did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.
Steve Banks, commissioner for the city’s Department of Homeless Services, told The City that the campaign against the shelter was “the longest and the most-well-funded litigation” against the opening of any shelter.
Battles against homeless shelters have erupted across the city in recent years. Manhattan’s Upper West Side was embroiled in a debate over a luxury hotel that temporarily became an emergency homeless shelter during the pandemic as the city attempted to space out occupants in shelters. Most recently, residents of a neighborhood in Queens have voiced concerns over multiple homeless shelters that have opened within a few blocks of each other.
Advocates for the homeless say that fears of homeless shelters are typically overblown, creating a hostile environment for those who need a place to live.
“Usually it’s a lot of fears and anxiety that don’t actually materialize once the shelters open,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy director for the homeless advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless. Simone noted that the court’s ruling in favor of the city shows that the city can prevail in lawsuits against homeless shelters.
The shelter says we are willing to give people an opportunity to move on, to improve their lives, and to have a safe place to live
“One must ask who would have benefited from the Park Savoy shelter if it hadn’t been stalled for this many years,” she said.
While many new homeless shelters are met with opposition, some have been met with indifference and even community support. Despite vocal opposition against shelters on the Upper West Side in Manhattan and Kensington in Brooklyn, residents of both neighborhoods organized donation drives for local shelters.
On a Tuesday morning almost a month after the Park Savoy shelter opened, the block seemed like any other street in midtown Manhattan, full of fast-walking office workers and groups of tourists heading to Times Square.
Despite the legal battle that took place over the Park Savoy, residents of the neighborhood told the Guardian that the shelter’s opening has so far caused no problems.
“I was very apprehensive about it for various reasons,” said John, who lives in a neighboring building and wished to be referred to only by his first name. “I had a feeling there would be these real bums moving in, but I’ve seen no problems at all.”
“I see one or two people going in, but they look harmless.”
One woman walking her dog who moved to the neighborhood a few months ago said she did not realize a homeless shelter had opened.
John Sheehan, who lives in the neighborhood and works in advocacy for homeless living on the street, said he hopes the community will eventually embrace the shelter once people realize it will not affect the quality of the neighborhood.
“I think the shelter is a statement that says we are willing to give people an opportunity to move on, to improve their lives, and to have a safe place to live,” Sheehan said. “That should be something we should be proud of.”
Photo: The once low-budget Park Savoy hotel, a homeless shelter near Billionaires row, sparked a real-estate turf war with opponents fearing a threat to property values. Source: Bebeto Matthews/AP.