BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated April 27, 2:25 p.m.: Heeding Chinatown’s outpouring of concern and outrage over a planned homeless shelter on Grand Street, Community Board 2 on Tuesday evening overwhelmingly opposed the plan. In doing so, the board bucked the position of its Human Services Committee chairperson, who had strongly advocated against the board coming out against the contentious project. In the end, the vote was not close, 37 to 6.
In a surprisinging twist, the board’s Human Services Committee issued an advisory resolution opposing the Safe Haven-style homeless drop-in center with stabilization beds, which is planned to open in the heart of Chinatown late this spring. The shelter would be run by Housing Works along harm-reduction lines, meaning people could freely use drugs inside of it.
The resolution was posted on the board’s Web site Monday, with the full board’s vote set for Tuesday evening.
Previously, Susanna Aaron, the committee’s chairperson, had said she would not write or support a resolution opposing the facility, planned for 231 Grand St. Ultimately, though, the resolution was a “team effort,” according to Aaron: She wrote a first draft that William Benesh, a member of the committee, then added to, including the resolution’s closing, with bold and underlined type added by the committee for emphasis: “Community Board 2 believes the city should not move forward with the current proposed 231 Grand St. shelter consisting of a drop-in center and stabilization beds at this time.”
The vote on the resolution was 5 yes to 3 no, with Aaron voting no, along with Ryder Kessler, who is running in the June Democratic primary election against Assemblymember Deborah Glick, and Wayne Kawadler, director of community relations for Lenox Health Greenwich Village.
Speaking before Tuesday’s full-board vote on the resolution, former City Council candidate Susan Lee, a leading opponent of the Housing Works plan, said she was glad the committee came out against the contentious project. However, over all, she called the resolution “lukewarm,” noting it could have been more forceful.
“I believe Susanna should have recused herself from writing the resolution,” she said. “I think it would have been a stronger resolution if she was not involved.”
Told of Lee’s comment, Aaron told The Village Sun, “I did not recuse myself from the resolution. I voted against it. I remained involved in writing it because our committee shared a lot of common ground, and because it is a long reso with a lot of information…and it was helpful to the committee for me to remain involved. … Our committee agreed on the attention Chinatown deserved [on] issues it is facing in its neighborhood. That was not a point of contention. …
“We collaborated on most of it and then [Benesh] went into the direction of building argument for opposition [to the Grand Street shelter]. We agreed on the…clauses regarding Chinatown needs — but the conclusions of the majority [to oppose the shelter] were a point of divergence.”
Concerned that “lobbying” was going on to try to reverse the committee’s resolution at the full-board vote, Lee’s group, the Alliance for Community Preservation and Betterment, rallied at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, at 62 Mott St.
There were, in fact, a relatively small number of people who did testify for the Housing Works plan on Tuesday night, but they were vastly outnumbered by speakers from Chinatown vehemently opposed to the project, who accused the pro-shelter speakers of being “lobbyists.”
“This is not fair share, this is dumping,” said former District Leader Jenny Low. “I urge you not to destroy our neighborhood.”
Similarly, Ed Cuccia said, “People in Chinatown and Little Italy are not opposed to homeless and homeless shelters. It’s about fair share. Keep it simple.”
“This is a real-life manifestation of structural racism,” added Denny Salas, a candidate for Assembly. “We need to step up and realize that working-class communities of color have a right to say what communities look like. Stop [this plan].”
On the other hand, speaking in favor of the Housing Works plan, C.B. 2 member Kessler said, “I would love for there to be a shelter like this in the West Village. I would love for there to be a shelter like this on my street.”
Chris Dignes, another C.B. 2 member, who is a firefighter, noted that he responded to a fire call on the Lower East Side where a homeless man sleeping or nodding out in a public-housing stairwell was intentionally fatally burned.
“He was set on fire because they didn’t want him there,” he said. “I oppose this resolution. I saw a guy die because he was homeless.”
However, fellow board member Rocio Sanz, owner of Tio Pepe restaurant, said, “No one wants to see people on the street, but how much can the community take?”
Hundreds of concerned Chinatown residents had turned out at two previous C.B. 2 meetings on the Housing Works shelter, begging the board to write a resolution in opposition to it. Initially, the committee had only written an informational letter that took no position on the heated issue, so it took another month to draft and vote on a resolution.
Speaking at last month’s Human Services Committee meeting, Keen Berger, a former Democrat district leader, said, “I’ve been on the board a long time and I’ve never seen such a passionate and collective outpouring as I did the other night [at the March full-board meeting] from the Chinatown community. They feel overwhelmed. They feel unsafe. And I think the resolution should reflect that.”
The site, 231 Grand St., was formerly a Best Western hotel, but during the pandemic, was used by the city as a non-congregate homeless shelter from spring 2020 to summer 2021. Locals said the shelter’s presence hurt the neighborhood’s quality of life and that people were sometimes “harassed” by some individuals housed there.
The Mayor’s Office of Contracts may have already issued a contract to Housing Works for the eight-story, 49,000-square-foot building, to run from March 1 through June 2027, with a three-year renewal option. The contract would pay Housing Works nearly $63.8 million to operate the facility. Housing Works also seeks to buy the building.
It’s not clear exactly where the contracting process for the building stands at the moment. However, the project is reportedly included in the city’s budget.
The facility’s catchment area for outreach to street homeless people would range from Sara D. Roosevelt Park on the east to Washington Square Park on the west. Clients would not be screened for drugs or weapons since it would be a “low threshold” facility, so as to attract people who have been resistant to coming in off the streets. Lower-level sex offenders — who do not have residential restrictions — would also be allowed to freely visit and live in the facility. Opponents, though, charged that half of the building’s clients would come not from the surrounding area but from outreach in the subway system.
The C.B. 2 committee’s lengthy resolution notes the impact of COVID on Chinatown, the recent surge of anti-Asian violence — including the horrific murder of Christina Yuna Lee in February just a block and a half away from 231 Grand St. — concern over the state of Chinatown’s economy and the principle of “fair share” in siting homeless facilities in the area.
The resolution, however, could have hammered home more forcefully the idea that the area is oversaturated with homeless shelters — opponents’ main argument.
Board 2, which covers the area between 14th and Canal Streets west of Bowery/Fourth Avenue, wants to do its “fair share” in terms of accepting homeless facilities. It currently has none. However, four are currently in the works: Paul’s Place, a drop-in center with 70 overnight recliner chairs and two-dozen stabilization beds slated to open any day now at 112-114 W. 14th Street, next to the Salvation Army building; 231 Grand St., the planned Housing Works facility in Chinatown, which is at the corner of Bowery and would have 50 overnight recliner chairs and 94 stabilization beds; the former Larchmont Hotel, at 27 W. 11th Street, planned as a 90-bed shelter for employed or work-ready women; and 349 Canal St., at Wooster Street, slated for a large, congregate shelter for 200 homeless men. The W. 11th Street women’s shelter is currently tied up in a lawsuit filed by neighbors.
Chinatown opponents charge their neighborhood is already doing more than its fair share in terms of housing such facilities. In its resolution, the C.B. 2 Human Services Committee acknowledges this fact, noting, “Although the [Grand Street] site is located within Community District 2, which currently has no homeless shelters, the neighborhood of Chinatown currently hosts shelters in [the adjacent] Community Districts 1 and 3, with an additional shelter in development in Community Board 3.”
Further compounding the impact on Chinatown, the committee noted, is the city’s plan to demolish the existing Manhattan Detention Complex a.k.a. The Tombs, and replace it with a new jail.
Aaron and some other C.B. 2 members had cast doubt on the accuracy of claims by Lee and others that there are currently six homeless facilities in Chinatown, with four more planned. However, Lee stands by her numbers. She added that she never said all 10 sites were actually in Chinatown but within a half mile of it.
“I’m a grant writer, I’m very precise,” she told The Village Sun on Monday. “I don’t say things for the sake of saying things. I know these shelters because I hang out in Chinatown, so I see them. I visit them. Two of the six are private shelters — one is BRC [Bowery Residents Committee] and one is Bowery Mission. Sixty-one Chrystie St. is a halfway house,” she added, noting she felt “unsafe” when she visited it.
Lee grew up in the East Village and now lives in Tribeca but said that, for her, as for many, “Chinatown is the mothership.” As a kid she was there all the time and now visits the neighborhood “at least four times a week.”
Aaron previously claimed that the rallying cry that Chinatown cannot support 10 homeless shelters — as in, six current ones and four more coming — was “not accurate.” She noted that the opponents’ materials specifically say, “No to 10 shelters in Chinatown.”
“I don’t think that the problem is the shelter,” Aaron said last month, though adding, “I think there are problems in Chinatown.
“The saturation in Chinatown…is not nearly what people feel it to be,” she stated of the actual number of homeless shelters. “What is undeniable to me is that people are unhappy in Chinatown and no one is paying attention to them.”
“That comes with the territory,” Lee said of skeptics of her efforts. “That’s what happens when you’re outspoken and you’re challenging people.”
Lee noted she has personally felt anti-Asian prejudice. She said that last February, at the World Trade Center subway station, a man shoved her down the stairs. Then, two weeks ago at the same station, she sneezed into her face mask and a guy cursed her out, calling her a “Wuhan bitch.”
“That’s not my perception,” she said. “That’s my reality.”
Speaking at last month’s Human Services Committee meeting, Carter Booth, a former C.B. 2 chairperson, said City Hall itself really needs to take a closer look at what’s going on in Chinatown — and how its decisions are impacting the area.
“Where is the town hall that addresses the Chinatown community,” he asked, “so that the voices can be heard as a whole? There’s a voice here that regularly is not listened to.”
As for her findings on the existing shelters listed by Lee, Aaron shared them with The Village Sun. By her reckoning, two of the current six facilities — including the one Lee said made her feel unsafe when she visited it — are only temporary.
“227 Bowery [Bowery Mission] and 197 Bowery [The Andrews/Breaking Ground] are on Bowery between Prince and Spring Sts. by the New Museum,” she said. “78 Catherine St. is next door to New York City Housing Authority housing in Two Bridges — and from what I was told, the only residents who attend its [community advisory board] meetings are residents of Smith Houses.
“61-63 Chrystie St. is a hotel,” she said. “These are supposed to close by the end of 2023, per the de Blasio homelessness plan.
“90 Lafayette St. is also [operated by] the Bowery Mission. 5 Allen St. is being used temporarily as a shelter by women who normally reside in an East Village shelter that was damaged by fire [which destroyed Middle Collegiate Church]. They are due to return to their normal location before the end of the year.”
Lee said that, just as they did for last month’s C.B. 2 full-board meeting, Chinatown residents planned to gather again at the C.C.B.A. to watch the livestream on a big screen.