Many years ago, my mother chaperoned a field trip to a bakery in downtown Los Angeles. Downtown L.A. was, at least in the 1980s, a pretty rough part of the city. A little boy, gazing out the bus window, suddenly screamed–he had seen a man urinating. Another kid saw a woman going through the garbage. In response, my teacher said only this: “We don’t look at things like that, children.”
That was it for my mother. “Oh, yes, we certainly do,” she said to me, loudly enough for everyone to hear. We do not look away from other people’s misfortune because it makes us uncomfortable. Instead, we listen to that discomfort–it is telling us to do something. This was my mother’s strong belief, repeated frequently and soon internalized by her two daughters.
I am now a grown-up with my own grade school child. I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where lately I have had occasion to reflect on that long-ago bus ride. Something more contagious and pernicious than COVID-19 has been spreading across my beloved neighborhood at an alarming rate. Its spread cannot be slowed by masks. Social distance, alas, increases its potency. What is this terrible communicable disease? Fear. Grown in a petri dish of anxiety, prejudice, and misconception.
Recently, three Upper West Side hotels, The Belleclaire, the Lucerne, and the Belnord, have been–by contract with the city–converted into temporary homeless shelters for the duration of the pandemic. Congregant shelters put its members and the general population at great risk in COVID times, and these hotels offer a solution–keeping a safe distance is possible with the use of individual rooms. And so, a few weeks ago, busloads of homeless men from shelters downtown arrived to fill these hotels, which were empty–and going under–before this agreement was reached.
It seems like a tidy solution, doesn’t it? Empty hotels can be used to keep people safely apart. The contract allows the hotels to stay in business without their usual tourist traffic, which is nonexistent at present. Everyone wins. What’s the problem? For a percentage of the Upper West Side’s population, the problem is that they don’t want homeless people in their part of town.
“Have you heard about the hotels? Have you heard about the registered sex offenders at the Belleclaire? Have you heard about that video someone took of a man masturbating on the museum stairs? Have you heard about the encampments of barefoot people selling drugs on the sidewalk? I heard they were panhandling from cafe customers! Why weren’t we told? I own my apartment and now my property value is shot to hell! Have you heard about all the needles on the playground? And the spitting? Men spitting right on the children in the playground–in a pandemic! What am I supposed to tell my child about a man passed out in the middle of the sidewalk, surrounded by EMS?”
Well, I know what my mother would tell me.
It is difficult to respond to the tidal wave of gossip, the rapid-fire transmission of these bits of information, in an environment where no one seems concerned with fact-checking or taking a deep breath. So let me do that now: take a deep breath and tell you what I have seen in my neighborhood and what the facts are on the ground.
There are definitely more men in our neighborhood in working class clothes, some in rags. Many of those men are Black. I have seen a few people who look high, and are indeed barefoot, in the parks near my apartment. I have seen more people pushing grocery carts heaped with, one would guess, their few worldly possessions. Yesterday, I saw a man sitting outside the hardware store. My dog rushed up to him in greeting and I said, “Hi, how are you?” He had a dazed, sad look on his face, his clothes looked less than fresh. He looked up at me. “Better, now that you asked,” he replied. It did not take any great leap of imagination to realize he was one of our newest residents, and that the media hailstorm caused by the shelters was not exactly contributing to his sense of wellbeing.
What I have not seen–and the crime statistics from my neighborhood support this–is any threatening or violent behavior. Well, not from the homeless, or residents of the shelters, at any rate. I have observed both subtle and not subtle aggression from neighbors I have known for years, directed without any hesitation at the idea of shelters, the idea of recovering drug addicts, the idea of the poor or downtrodden getting a “free ride” on their tax dollars in their cheery boutique hotels. I have not seen any needles on our local playground, which my child still frequents. I have not seen any spitting. I am not suggesting there hasn’t been any of that behavior, only that I walk many hours a day in this part of town and I have yet to see it.
Much has been made of the 20 or so registered sex offenders at the Hotel Belleclaire. I have heard many a soap-box mounted individual announce that they would be fine with homeless mothers and children, but why single men? And why sex offenders? So close to a school! How could the city cut such a shady deal? Don’t you have kids? Aren’t you worried? Let’s put aside the conflation of “single men” and “sex offenders” for a moment, and focus on the latter.
Is it necessary to assert that I am not a fan of sexual predation or violence? I am not. But I am still unclear as to their precise concern. Do these parents believe that sex offenders routinely walk up to accompanied minors –I say “accompanied” because I have rarely seen an unaccompanied minor in this part of town in the last two decades–and snatch them in broad daylight? As for the proximity to schools, do they think that sex offenders leap over metal gates and break down classroom doors? Do they assume there is some magical part of town where there is no proximity to children? Or is it just their children they are worried about? Finally, do they presume that there are no sex offenders in the upper financial echelons of society, among the academically and socially elite? Have they not heard of Horace Mann? Do they presume that there are no pedophiles living in the shiny glass towers and magnificent brownstones that line the blocks and avenues of the Upper West Side? If so, statistically, they are wrong. Not only that, in whichever apartments they reside, they surely are not registered.
Last Sunday, a group organized by Sara Lind, who is running for City Council (Go, Sara, go!) met in front of the Lucerne to draw chalk messages of support and welcome. We felt that not only was this the decent thing to do, but that it was important to respond to the fear and distaste expressed by other members of our community toward people who have not had as much good fortune as they have. Our children set to work drawing hearts and flowers, scrawling “YIMBY,” and handing our donation bags to the security guards at the front door.
I saw a man leaving the shelter begin to shake his head and sigh when he saw the congregation of people outside. “No, no, these people are supporting you!” the security guard told him. His eyes grew wide. He exhaled. “Wow,” he said. “I think I might cry.”
Let’s get some things straight. While there may be some registered sex offenders in one of the hotels, and while not every recovering addict has managed to stay sober in this or any other shelter–no doubt the rate of recidivism is about the same as in the average Beverly Hills A.A. meeting–the residents of these shelters are not any more dangerous to the general population than any other statistical sample. Overdosing is not a crime, and it hurts only the person it is happening to, not the people who live nearby. And if your child witnesses someone sick or unresponsive in the aisle of the drugstore or on the grass in Central Park, you say this: “That person is unwell, which is why someone called an ambulance. They will take him to the hospital for treatment. That is what humans do for other humans.” It’s actually one of the easier questions to answer, as far as parenting goes.
The Upper West Side does indeed look different from how it looked before COVID. There are far fewer well-heeled New Yorkers and tourists wandering the shops and sidewalks. The police precinct on 82nd street has barricaded itself in response to the recent BLM protests, feeling that they pose a threat to the safety of the police. (If that seems backward to you, you’re not the only one.) There is more garbage on the streets–surgical masks and gloves litter the sidewalks, rats scurry– less inhibited due to a decline in foot traffic– and bins are overflowing (evidently due to cuts in the sanitation budget since the onset of the COVID crisis.) I do wonder, at times, if the general look of disarray is easily conflated with the new residents of the shelters. It’s also true there are more homeless–not the residents of the shelters– on the sidewalks–according to Lind, they have specifically stated that they choose these streets because they are safer. Needless to say, they do not wear fine clothes; they, like many of us, look like they need a good barber.
On another walk with my dog, I saw three Black men sitting in Theodore Roosevelt Park, playing cards. I had no particular reason to think they were residents of the shelter; but certainly it was possible. My dog began to sniff, and fearing he was about to use the ground by their feet as a restroom, I said, “No! Not there!” One of the men looked up at me and said, “We aren’t going to hurt your dog!” I felt a world of pain in his response. How many times can you be put through the mill of micro and macro aggressions, how many times can you endure the disdain and assumption of superiority by the white middle class people who walk past you before you assume the worst of them, as so many of them do of you?
Owning a co-op on 79th Street does not afford you a guarantee of what “sort” of person will live next to you or across the way. Your property value is a gamble, and if it’s based on excluding certain people from the neighborhood, perhaps you are valuing the wrong things. I also want the neighborhood to be beautiful again. I would like to see resources diverted into social services, and flower beds, and gardens, perhaps created in honor of our new residents. I would like to see civic pride in the form of engagement.
I would like to think that for many people, it is hard to enjoy one’s luxuries when others nearby have so little. The solution is not to move away from them, or to avert your eyes, as my teacher commanded so long ago. The solution is to roll up your sleeves and spread the luxuries more evenly. I’d like the lobbies of all our homeless shelters to be as elegant as those of the Upper West Side co-ops. The more dedicated to the shelter’s aims we are, the more the shelters will blend with the landscape, in all its sculpted glory.
Many are decrying the loss of the Upper West Side’s elegance. But is having a high percentage of wealthy people in a neighborhood a measure of its elegance? True elegance has always been, to me, a mingling of character and etiquette. How you feel about other people is reflected in how you treat them. Your behavior is your calling card. So before you assume the Upper West Side is declining because of the homeless, look first to your own heart, and ask yourself if that is what is truly in need of repair.