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In less than 30 minutes, public safety issues in Hell’s Kitchen were starkly laid out by neighbors in fear. One small theater owner asked, “how many people need to be hurt before something’s done about this?” A woman told of an assault on her husband, a doctor, on his way home from work: “My husband’s face was broken. He was already a traumatic brain injury survivor.”
The public session of the Manhattan Community Board 4 Housing Health & Human Services Committee gave the opportunity for residents to tell their stories and ask questions of representatives of the Department of Homeless Services (DHS).
Dana Lobell emotionally asked the DHS what were the “next step starts to help the people who need mental health support.” She shared how her husband was physically assaulted on his way back from work. The police told them the attacker was a man from a homeless shelter who clearly was not getting the mental health support he needed. “They acted as if this was a normal thing. It was not a normal day for us. My husband’s face was broken. He was already a traumatic brain injury survivor. And thank God he’s doing okay right now, but it is not acceptable that we have to go through this,” she said.
“I am a member of the community in Hell’s Kitchen. I absolutely love living here. Now, when I take my dog for a walk I have to look behind me — in my own neighborhood,” Dana added.
At the start of summer 2020, over 800 homeless men were moved from congregate shelters to homeless hotels centered around W36th Street. DHS had been asked to attend the meeting to respond to questions on when residents at the hotels (which DHS term “Density Reduction Hubs”) return to shelters and how vaccination is progressing.
The DHS executives who attended the committee were not senior, so had a very limited mandate to deal with questions raised. The consistent response was that “our responsibility is to our staff and clients’ safety”, “we cannot enforce anyone to accept mental health services” and “we are not an enforcement agency.”
Kirk Gostkowski, Artistic Director of Chain Theatre on W36th Street near 8th Avenue, asked “how many people need to be hurt before something’s done about this?” He described activities on the street as being like an episode of The Wire, with drugs being run between hotels, and dealers with lookouts in case the police come.
“I feel unsafe here on a daily basis. My colleague was followed leaving here and shoved repeatedly. Luckily, I was there and the woman ran into the shelter that’s on 37th Street,” Kirk said. “We are trying to rebuild and reopen here. We are spit at on the street. We have to chain the front doors of our building shut to make sure people don’t come in and defecate on the floor in the lobby — which happens anytime that the building is open in the late night.
“Getting people together is our business and we haven’t been able to do that,” he continued. “I’m fighting here to survive with this little dream. We started 10 years ago and I can’t go through a summer of this. People will not come to my business if this is what they have to see every day and step over people and be harassed and shoved and threatened. I’m very scared for my personal safety.”
The DHS representatives shared that currently around 18,000 vaccination shots had been administered to their clients and staff — with around 12,000 now fully vaccinated. This was up from the figure last reported at the end of March of 11,600 doses administered.
They pointed to vaccination hesitancy as a major factor in the low numbers. Community members offered solutions of trips to the Javits and incentives.
John Beck, General Manager of the Crowne Plaza and Even Hotel has been in the neighborhood throughout the pandemic, even when the hotels were closed. “I have been at the hotel every day for over a year and have made friends with some of the residents in the shelters. As I speak to them over the last month, I continually ask, ‘when will you guys be moved back?’. They tell me ‘there’s no sense in me getting the shot because then I’ll have to move back’.” John said he had heard this “from the five or six people that I speak to at least once or twice a week.”
Physician Allen Marchetti, who has lived in the area for more than 20 years, confirmed the story of vaccination reluctance — and shared his own experiences. “I’ve been attacked twice in the past year, both by homeless people. I was very embarrassed as a doctor to be talking about this, because the homeless have their own issues,” he shared.
“I understand how horrible it is to be a doctor in this area, when you are caring for these people,” Allen added. “And when they attack you, it’s like ‘how did these people become my enemy and not my patients?'”
He said the DHS had “destroyed this neighborhood,” adding that he’d been in New York since the late 1980s. “I’ve never felt so unsafe. I’ve never been assaulted in my entire time in New York City.”
Allen had also heard from two temporary hotel residents about their reluctance for vaccination. “I couldn’t believe it. Neither one of them wanted to get the vaccine because they would have to leave the area. Something is wrong with what DHS is doing. How many people have to be hurt? DHS, please just help us. Quit the metrics, quit all the BS and just help us. And at the same time you could be helping these other people,” he said.
The DHS representative responded to the issue of vaccine reluctance amongst the hotel population by saying it was the “first time I’ve heard that narrative.”
Joe Restuccia, the co-chair of the committee, said: “There is a monumental failure by DHS on how this process was managed. This is my 43rd year in this neighborhood and you have shredded our neighborhood fabric. No one feels safe. The folks who have severe mental illness are not getting the services they need.”
Joe shared an experience that he had witnessed the day before the meeting. ” I never thought I would believe the man in a wheelchair with a recent amputation being fed beer while someone else shot him up on my walk home. I know the man in the wheelchair as a street homeless person. The other folks were residents of shelters.
“Public safety has gone. People are scared, and we need you to hear us,” he appealed to the DHS representative. “We can’t continue. And I am scared shitless as the summer arrives.”