BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Chinatown residents are up in arms about yet another homeless facility planned for their neighborhood. The city, for its part, argues the facility is needed because there are documented street homeless in the area that it would serve.
Meanwhile, Housing Works, the group that would run the site, says its program would benefit the community by shifting unwanted behavior — like heroin users shooting up — from outdoors to indoors. The facility would operate on the harm-reduction model, meaning people could freely possess and use drugs inside.
The issues around the planned homeless site, at 231 Grand St., came to a head last month at a meeting of the Community Board 2 Human Services Committee, at which the scheme was first presented.
The planned location is just a block away from Sara D. Roosevelt Park — and a block and a half away from where Christina Yuna Lee, 35, was brutally slain a month ago by a homeless man who stabbed her more than 40 times inside her own apartment.
The idea is for a 24/7, co-ed facility that would include a drop-in center for up to 50 persons, plus 94 stabilization beds in individual rooms. Couples would be allowed to share a room. The goal would be for individuals in the stabilization beds to be placed in permanent housing within 12 months.
Housing Works plans to acquire the existing hotel at the location. The plan was set in motion under former Mayor de Blasio.
Like Paul’s Place, a homeless drop-in site with 24 stabilization beds slated to open soon on W. 14th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, the place on Grand Street would offer showers, meals, laundry machines, psychotherapy, case management and crisis intervention. Both facilities are meant to cater expressly to street homeless persons who have resisted efforts to bring them inside.
Unlike Paul’s Place, the Grand Street building already is configured as a hotel, so a lengthy gut renovation isn’t needed. It could be operating as soon as May or June.
However, Chinatown residents currently are at the breaking point, crying that they already have six other homeless facilities in the area, with this being one of four new ones slated for the neighborhood. This oversaturation with shelters, they argue, violates the principle of “fair share” even further than it is already being violated currently.
According to the Greater Chinatown Civic Coalition (gccc-nyc.org), the six existing shelters include five in Community Board 3, 227 Bowery (the Bowery Mission), 197 Bowery, 61-63 Chrystie St., 5 Allen St. and 78 Catherine Slip, plus one in C.B. 1, 90 Lafayette St., while the new, incoming shelters include two in C.B. 3, 91 East Broadway and 47 Madison St., and two in C.B. 2, 349 Canal St. and the aforementioned 231 Grand St., which the coalition characterizes as a shelter and “drug injection site.”
The February community board meeting featured one of the most active and explosive chat sidebars seen by C.B. 2 during the pandemic Zoom meetings era. Throughout the meeting, an array of project opponents posted a flurry of about 10 to 15 outraged comments per minute. One accusation was that the C.B. 2 committee and agency officials were not representative of Chinatown.
“14 people in this gallery [view] — racial makeup does not reflect the Chinatown neighborhood,” Lisa Eng posted disapprovingly of the faces she saw on the screen.
Erin Drinkwater, a deputy commissioner at the city’s Department of Social Services, said the facility — with its drop-in shelter and single-room stabilization beds — is meant to target homeless people who are resistant to coming indoors.
“This model is very important for people who are experiencing homelessness on the street,” she said. “Folks on the street are often distrustful of coming into a congregate shelter.”
Similarly, she said, the drop-in site would have “a lighter-touch engagement” with the homeless.
“Why in this neighborhood?” Jeanie Gong demanded in the chat. “This will only endanger the residents in the area. We already got a sample of the ‘clients’ that were staying there during the pandemic: Mayhem and chaos.”
“They want to destroy Chinatown,” another said. “Then the developers come in and buy on the cheap.”
Known as the Bowery Hanbee Hotel, the eight-story building sits on the southwest corner of the intersection of Bowery and Grand Street. As Gong and others pointed out, the building was used as a “COVID hotel” for homeless people this past summer during the pandemic as the city sought to depopulate its congregate shelters for health reasons.
Drinkwater said the city is siting the new homeless shelter at 231 Grand St. because there are a documented number of street homeless people living in the area that it would presumably serve.
“There are 150 on the case list in Community Board 3,” she said of the unsheltered homeless, she noted.
C.E.O. Charles King was a founder of the 32-year-old Housing Works. A Baptist minister with a law degree who, as he put it, is “living with H.I.V.,” he became an AIDS activist in the 1980s. Housing Works was the first provider in America to house people “without regard of if they were alcoholics or drug users,” he noted. Today, Housing Works houses and offers services to more than 15,000 “low-income and marginalized New Yorkers,” he explained, adding that a large percentage of them are “on drugs, booze, ex-convicts and have mental health issues.”
Despite the challenges of dealing with that population, he said, “I think most people would say that we are an asset to the community.”
“This is a very, very low threshold center,” he explained of the plan for 231 Grand St. “It’s harm reduction. We don’t search people for drugs and alcohol.”
In short, he said, Housing Works feels it’s safer all around for people to do drugs and drink in the shelter than on the street, and that this is something the community would appreciate as well.
“Sounds like an open bar,” someone scoffed in the chat.
“I’m well aware of recent violent incidents that have occurred in the subway and Chinatown,” King acknowledged. “What we’re talking about is homeless people who are disconnected from care.”
King said that although Christina Yuna Lee’s alleged killer, Assamad Nash, was living in the Bowery Mission, he was “disconnected from care. Our goal is to connect people with care.”
“What about weapons?” Susanna Aaron, the chairperson of the C.B. 2 Human Services Committee, asked him.
“We find searches to be a deterrent” to getting people to come in for help, King said, noting, “Homeless people on the street often carry a lot of baggage with them. One person’s weapon is another person’s utility tool.”
Aaron asked how they would keep 231 Grand St. from “being turned into a drug-den situation.” King responded that they’re “good at patrolling” and that this kind of facility has been “a successful model.”
“If you live in a building with 10 or more apartments, you have neighbors that are using substances,” he pointed out.
Residents, however, said the new facility would be a magnet attracting troubled individuals to the neighborhood.
King countered that he highly doubted the shelter would draw people from across Manhattan but would instead serve homeless people living right in the vicinity, such as around Sara D. Roosevelt Park or in the subway.
In a follow-up interview with The Village Sun, King said half of the people in the facility’s stabilization beds would come from outreach in the local community and the other half from outreach in Manhattan and its subway system, the latter for which the Bowery Residents’ Committee has the contract.
Security, he told the meeting, would be a mix of “contracted security, Department of Homeless Services, peace officers and closed-circuit cameras.”
King said he also welcomes the creation of a community advisory board for the 231 Grand St. homeless shelter.
However, residents in the chat during the meeting said that when the address was used as a COVID hotel it was a quality-of-life disaster. One of them cited “trash, people following people, cursing, urinating and defecating [on the street].” One person said a nearby bank ATM became too sketchy to use. They fear a repeat of those problems.
Opponents noted that P.S. 130, two daycare centers and a Head Start are all near the location. One resident protested that his 82-year-old father couldn’t exercise in S.D.R. Park during the pandemic “because he felt he was harassed by shelter residents.” Another said the elderly vendors who sell mushrooms, ginger and daikon along the curb in front of the hotel would no longer be safe.
“Yea, we need the Triads to fight back,” someone posted in the chat, referring to Chinese organized crime syndicates. “Or bring back community protection patrols, such as Ghost Shadows, BTK or Flying Dragons.”
However, King offered the example of a Housing Works site at Ninth Street and Avenue D that has 32 apartments, which also sees “hundreds of day visits. You won’t find people hanging out on the streets or drug dealers [there],” he noted.
“I appreciate people’s concerns that they can’t take their children to the park because of syringes on the ground,” the Housing Works C.E.O. empathized. “That is exactly what this facility is for. … Get them into the facility and out of the park.”
Similar to Paul’s Place, the 231 Grand St. drop-in center would have lounge chairs that people could sleep in overnight if they wanted to. But, unlike Paul’s Place, in addition to outreach to fill the stabilization beds, walk-ins could also get them.
Ian Wang, Councilmember Christopher Marte’s legislative director, was on the Zoom but basically listened to what was being said.
“This is the first presentation,” he noted. “We are collecting information, like everyone else.”
Marte later told The Village Sun he was on the Zoom call, too, but was also busy dealing that night with a water main break that had knocked out water to Confucius Plaza. He said he would write a letter to the administration about the shelter that would pose the question, “Why don’t they do the Fair Share analysis before they choose the site?”
Basically, as others point out, Marte said that while the homeless shelters may be spread out between several community boards, within those boards, many of them are concentrated in Chinatown.
“Chinatown has three community boards,” Marte said. “But there’s a cluster [of shelters] in this area. They’re not looking at Chinatown as one community.”
Technically, as C.B. 2’s Aaron noted, the community board “has no role” in approving the homeless shelter since it doesn’t fall under the city’s ULURP land-use review process.
“They don’t need us to approve it,” she said.
In addition to all of their fired-up comments in the chat, residents were also allowed to testify later on in the meeting. One of them said the number of homeless in the area has grown alarmingly.
“In the space of two or three years, the population has exploded very quickly,” she said, adding there has been no explanation as to why from the city or state.
However, Drinkwater of D.S.S. chalked it up to “the pandemic and lots of destabilization.” But locals said that methadone clinics and other facilities were what was drawing homeless to the area.
Helen Qiu, a Christian pastor and candidate for Assembly in Lower Manhattan’s 65th District, blasted the idea that the shelter is already a fait accompli.
“This is not communication,” she said of the presentation. “This is an announcement. … We cannot have 10 shelters. The real issue is our community cannot take anymore homeless shelters.”
In a follow-up interview with The Village Sun, King reiterated that the combination homeless shelter and drop-in site ultimately would help, not hurt the community, by serving those who need it.
“If you’ve ever strolled Sara D. Roosevelt Park, you would see it full of homeless people, as well as people using injection drugs,” he said. “That would be a prime target group.”
As for complaints that Chinatown is already oversaturated with homeless shelters, King said, “I think the community needs to take that up with the Mayor’s Office.”
However, he added, “I certainly agree — I don’t see a lot of shelters being opened up on the Upper East Side.”
Reiterating the benefit of the harm-reduction model, he said, “So what I’m doing is depopulating the park of homeless, so that people, kids can use the park. If you have a nice, cozy room of your own, are you going into the park? You don’t have to be nodding off in the park. Try, come to the facility, inject in a bathroom, sit in a lounge chair, get comfortable…enjoy your ride.”