New Bronx Homeless Shelter Upheld Despite Lack of Community Hearings

Sandi LuskEXPAND
Sandi Lusk

A Bronx neighborhood lost the latest round in a legal fight against the city's Department of Homeless Services for quietly putting a homeless shelter in a new apartment building.

Bronx State Supreme Court Justice Geoffrey D. Wright dismissed a lawsuit against the city agency lodged by the Westchester Square Merchants Association and local residents who wanted to shut down the homeless shelter. The lawsuit argued that the city had skirted the city charter by not notifying the community board about its plans for the shelter, and that other social service facilities already saturated the area.

The judge based his decision on past challenges to the law that questioned whether the city could legally provide and pay for homeless housing in the absence of a concrete lease -- as is the situation in the Bronx building where the agency pays a $90 per diem rate for each occupied apartment.

The arrangement drew scorn from community board members, residents and elected officials when the building at 1564 St. Peter's Avenue debuted as a shelter in late August. They also criticized the lack of notification from the city agency.

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Angry residents led raucous rallies each week in front of one of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Bronx campaign offices, lambasting him for allowing the shelter to be placed without hearings in a community that already has more than 20 social service facilities.

They viewed it as a blatant violation of the City Charter.

The judge disagreed. "Even though the city admittedly was tardy in informing the community board, such information was a courtesy only, and not a must," he wrote in his opinion.

City Attorney Amanda Goad praised the judgment. "We are pleased that the judge agreed with the city's arguments that the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure and Fair Share did not apply under these circumstances," she said.

The outcome alarmed John Bonizio, president of the Westchester Square Merchants Association, and a plaintiff in the suit, who believed today's decision would have citywide implications.

The community leader worried that the court paved the way for the agency to furtively place shelters in neighborhoods throughout the city as it confronts a swell in the homeless population. "This is what goes on in King Michael's fiefdom," Bonizio said.

"It's unfortunate that the court was not able to see past the rhetoric proffered by city agencies whose agendas are not consistent with the needs of the City of New York," he added.

He was uncertain if the merchants' organization, which funded the legal challenge, would appeal.

The judge did not address an intervention claim made by then-New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson in his decision, said a disappointed Sandi Lusk, a longtime community advocate, who organized the pre-election protests against the shelter in front of the Mayor's Pelham Bay office.

"The city wants to be free to basically do what they want to do," she said.

Despite the loss in court some viewed a recently revised DHS policy, which now requires potential homeless service providers to notify community boards of their proposals and submit proof of that communication to the agency, as a small victory. But, Lusk said sending a letter was not enough.

"The idea [should] not be just a ready-or-not-here-I-come kind of thing," she said. "The idea is to open up a dialogue with the community leaders, groups, the community boards, the elected officials and to see what kind of context you're putting these facilities into such as Westchester Square, for example, which is ridiculously oversaturated."


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