When news broke just before Sunset Park’s final community board meeting of last year that the New York City Department of Homeless Services was moving homeless people into a neighborhood hotel, locals spoke out, with the outgoing chair of the board, Daniel Murphy, saying the city was using Sunset Park as a “dumping ground” for the homeless.
A few weeks later, tempers remained high. A woman standing on a stoop across from the shelter on a recent morning said she was “disgusted” with the way the city had handled the situation.
“All of us have put in complaints, everyone on this block,” said the woman, who asked to be identified only as Jennifer. “We’ve told the community board, the councilman, because the city is pushing this down our throats.
“This hotel used to be a part of this block,” she continued. “The owner used to help us throw the block party every year. Now late at night they’re crowding around, smoking, drinking, throwing garbage,” she said, gesturing at trash strewn next to the hotel. “Everyone on this block, they all feel the same way. We’re scared, we’re tired, we’ve had enough of it.”
Sunset Park is often seen as the next target of Brooklyn’s ongoing gentrification wave, with new luxury developments, along with the proposed expansion of Industry City, stoking fears that longtime residents will be priced out of a diverse working-class neighborhood. But it has also been a focal point for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to open more shelters to house the city’s soaring homeless population: The Brooklyn Way Hotel, formerly the Best Western Prospect Park, on Fourth Avenue and 26th Street, is the sixth such hotel shelter DHS has opened in Sunset Park over the past two years, stirring confusion and outrage among community members.
“We protested, we wrote letters, we did everything, nothing happened,” said a local resident named Kazimira who was interviewed outside one of the shelters. “All the people coming in, and they open one after another, and there was no notice. If it’s cold, they stay inside, but when it’s warm, they hang around outside all night, making noise — you’re afraid when you come in.”
In pursuing a dramatic expansion of shelter capacity, DHS is also undertaking a de facto public-relations campaign in every new neighborhood. The test run for that campaign under de Blasio has been the city’s experiment with hotel shelters, and thus far it has not gone well.
The highest-profile conflicts over hotel shelters have taken place in communities like Maspeth, Queens, where longtime resident Bob Holden scored an upset City Council victory in November by staking his campaign on his stalwart opposition to homeless services in the neighborhood, including a controversial Holiday Inn Express homeless shelter. The turmoil in Sunset Park did not bring down Councilman Carlos Menchaca in November — he was re-elected in a landslide — but it has had subtler effects that may foreshadow future backlash to the de Blasio administration’s homeless policy.
The first shelter conversion in Sunset Park arrived in November 2015, when the city converted a Sleep Inn on 49th Street into a full-service shelter for homeless men, operated by the nonprofit Samaritan Village. Since then, DHS has converted more hotels into “emergency” use facilities: The agency confirmed to the Voice that there are currently six such facilities in Sunset Park, housing approximately 340 individuals total, or five percent of all hotel shelter beds in the city. The buildings are mostly clustered on Fourth Avenue, sandwiched between factories or apartment buildings, with one every few blocks from 22nd Street down through 39th.
Why Sunset Park has been targeted for so many new hotel shelters is anyone’s guess — DHS declined to provide the Voice with details about how locations are chosen — but it may have something to do with the neighborhood’s many new hotels. These were part of a rash of construction that accompanied the opening of Industry City and the first signs of Sunset Park’s gentrification, but locals say that one by one each hotel’s owner has caved in to the city’s outreach efforts, accepting an average of $175 per room per night to house the homeless, per numbers from DHS. At least two more hotels are under construction along Fourth Avenue right now, including one across the street from an operational hotel shelter, and locals fear those, too, could become shelters once they are completed.
In response to Voice questions about how many hotel shelter locations are open in Sunset Park and how these locations were chosen, a DHS spokesperson replied: “We are currently using rooms in this commercial hotel to shelter New Yorkers experiencing homelessness who would otherwise be turned out onto the street. Our use of this location ensures that our homeless neighbors are supported as they get back on their feet while we implement our plan to expand ongoing high-quality borough-based shelter capacity and finally end the use of ineffective stop-gap measures, like commercial hotels, that date back decades.”
Although hotels have been used as temporary emergency shelters since the Lindsay administration, their use has swelled under de Blasio as homelessness numbers have skyrocketed. De Blasio’s Turning the Tide plan, which calls for the construction or renovation of at least 120 permanent shelters over seven years, is supposed to help eliminate both hotel shelters and the controversial “cluster sites” — which house the homeless in private apartment buildings — by 2023. In the meantime, Sunset Parkers have seen the city’s one-off “emergency” locations congeal into a network of de facto shelters, with more than 300 beds between them.
Delvis Valdes, an attorney and Sunset Park resident, pins the blame for this buildup on Menchaca, and his coziness with the mayor.
“I think the city’s putting hotels here because it’s easy to step all over this neighborhood when you don’t have a councilperson that’ll scream and yell and do what they have to do to protect the community,” Valdes says.
Valdes, who helps lead a small community organization called Village of Sunset Park that has led opposition to the shelters, ran against Menchaca for City Council last year to try to “bring the issue” of shelters “to the forefront of the conversation.” (Valdes also owns multiple rental properties and day cares in the neighborhood; his properties have been cited for hundreds of violations between them, landing them on a city list of worst-maintained buildings.) Along with Valdes, the other founding members of Village of Sunset Park include four attorneys, a retired NYPD officer, and other concerned locals, all of whom have lived in the neighborhood for decades.
Village of Sunset Park has organized against the shelters on and off since 2016, leading marches to the hotel shelters’ doorsteps and to the Windsor Terrace home of Department of Social Services commissioner Steven Banks, who oversees DHS. At one march in October 2016, protesters were photographed holding signs that asked “Where is Carlos Menchaca?” and decried Bill de Blasio as a “Communist” and “the dope from Park Slope.”
Also present at the October 2016 protest were protesters from Maspeth and other neighborhoods, who Valdes says were brought to Brooklyn by Bob Holden himself after Valdes got in touch when he saw news reports about the Holiday Inn shelter. Valdes was impressed by the “tremendous” turnout at an anti–Holiday Inn protest in Middle Village, he says, so he connected with Holden as well as anti-hotel-shelter groups from Elmhurst and the Bronx. (Holden did not respond to Voice requests for comment.)
“Some people said it was bringing in outside agitators,” says Valdes. “They’re not from Sunset Park, but we’re facing the same issues, so we created a coalition, because this is a citywide problem.”
Valdes says his main issue is that the neighborhood is housing more homeless individuals than it sends to the shelter system — “this neighborhood is doing more than its fair share of housing the homeless,” he notes several times, adding that many Sunset Parkers who have become homeless have been sheltered in the Bronx or other faraway neighborhoods. Residents around the neighborhood agree: Numerous people interviewed near the shelters said the people staying in them are mostly from other parts of the city, and argued Sunset Park shouldn’t be burdened with sheltering them.
Jeremy Laufer, who has been the district manager of Community Board 7 since 2000, also says his quarrel is not with the homeless populations in the shelters, but with the shelters themselves. “It’s important to separate the people from the city’s policy,” says Laufer. He calls hotel shelters an “inhumane” way to shelter people, since they don’t provide their residents with crucial services like mental health care and substance abuse treatment.
In this respect, the shelter opponents are of one mind with both homeless advocates and the homeless people currently staying in the hotels. Officials from the Coalition for the Homeless and Uprose, a Sunset Park–based social justice organization, both expressed concern about makeshift and substandard living situations for the homeless at hotel shelters, with a representative from Uprose saying the city “needs to prioritize permanent affordable and climate-resilient housing solutions that work for both the homeless and low-income community residents.”
Shelter residents interviewed outside the facilities agreed, saying the conditions in the hotels are substandard and that the operations staff are either unhelpful or hostile. The residents said staying in the hotels makes it harder for them to get to work, get the care they need, and get back on their feet.
“They put us out here when they don’t have anywhere else to put us,” said one woman interviewed outside a shelter on 33rd Street, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from the hotel staff. “It’s not convenient, the staff is unfriendly, they don’t have the services we need. It’s a last resort, that’s all it is.”
But Valdes and Laufer are also opposed to DHS building a new, full-service shelter in the neighborhood, even one that would provide the kinds of services the hotel shelters lack. Valdes says that if the city tries to put one of the ninety new shelters it plans to build as part of its Turning the Tide plan in Sunset Park, his organization will be “up in arms, because we’re already overloaded.”
“It’s enough, already,” said Derick Canarte, a Sunset Parker who was interviewed sitting in his car near one of the shelters. “They’re going to dump, what, five of these hotels on us, and then turn around and say we need an even bigger shelter?”
But although Valdes expresses sympathy for the folks living in the shelters, he also claims that the homeless people staying in the shelters are a threat to neighboring residents’ safety and quality of life. He says the hotels house “outsiders” and “transients,” and accuses the hotel residents of being responsible for an increase in panhandling, public intoxication, and vagrancy.
“There are decent people that [live and] work in those shelters, but there are others that aren’t,” he says. “People who go out and protest this stuff sound like doomsayers at first, but the reality is, things do happen, there are consequences, so I have no problem saying this is an issue. The city has a record of waiting for a tragedy to occur and then reacting.”
Residents who live near the shelters agreed, saying they’re “afraid for their children’s safety” and accusing the hotel residents of trying to sell them drugs. Nearly every person polled on the street within a few blocks of the shelter said they were incensed that the city had dropped the shelters on the neighborhood with no notice, and that the shelter residents had been a blight on their block.
Police statistics don’t show a significant increase in arrests for larceny, loitering, or public intoxication, but Laufer says he’s been inundated by complaints about the shelters, mostly having to do with people loitering on stoops. He says he usually responds to such complaints by notifying DHS, which in turn steps up police presence at the shelters, but he notes that “nothing untoward” has happened as a result of the new hotels.
As pressure from constituents has ratcheted up, Menchaca’s responses have become sterner. When the Brooklyn Way shelter emerged in December, he said that “establishing shelters in the dark of night breaks any possibility of trust between neighborhoods and an administration,” and called on de Blasio to account for DHS’s secrecy. But for Valdes and others opposing the shelter, the statement was too little, too late. Now that the councilman is term-limited (and the mayor is as well), Valdes says he expects him to be less responsive than ever, even if he presses the issue further in community meetings and protests.
(Menchaca’s office did not respond to Voice requests for comment by press time.)
Homelessness in New York is not going away anytime soon, and individuals from every neighborhood will continue to enter the shelter system: The city admits Turning the Tide will only decrease the sheltered population by an expected 2,500, out of 60,000.
Meanwhile, if Sunset Park and Maspeth are any indication, the city’s handling of the hotel shelters is souring neighborhoods’ relationship with DHS. And while Menchaca did not face much heat for the shelter buildup in November, the addition of Sunset Park to a growing chorus of anti-shelter community groups does suggest that at some point, someone will.