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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.”

On the Zoom call, Dana Lobell shares the story of her husband’s assault.

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.

Outreach services to New York homeless. Photo: Richard Moore.

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.

Kirk Gostkowski from the Chain Theatre.

“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.

There’s no sense in me getting the shot because then I’ll have to move back

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?'”

The Hotel Central Times Square on W36th Street has ben renamed and is now accepting bookings. Photo: Phil O’Brien.

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.”

We can’t continue. And I am scared shitless as the summer arrives

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.”

Join the Conversation

6 Comments

  1. I’m a longtime resident of Hell’s Kitchen and witnessed the transformation of this neighborhood from when I moved here back in 1984.

    Back then in the 80″s, I would go nowhere near the Hudson River past 9th Avenue.
    Having said that, I’m one that always like grit and grime of NYC.
    We are becoming too sterilized.

    I see one more goddamn ugly glass and steel Hotel go up in this neighborhood I’m going to lose my mind.
    Every 5 blocks and all directions is another cheap hotel.

    I understand that we are in a crisis mode right now, but it just hurts that all this is being blamed on the homeless.
    Not everyone that’s homeless, is a criminal and or mentally ill. I really want people to stop disparaging the homeless.

    We all know that they wouldn’t put a homeless shelter on the Eastside and as usual, all temporary shelters and transportation hubs are put here on the Westside.

    It’s mental illness, mental illness, mental illness.

    The pandemic has only made things worse. It made the already disadvantaged, desperate.

  2. We can all have sympathy for the homeless and yes, the majority of people in the homeless hotels are likely good, upstanding people. However, it would be naive not to acknowledge that the increase in violence and crime (including all the high-profile, anti-Asian, racist attacks) in our neighborhood has been driven in large part by these individuals and the collatoral dammage that accompanied their arrival. By concentrating them here, we have made them targets for drug dealers and bad people who pray on them.

    It is hard to understate how ill-prepared the neighborhood was for the large influx. There seems to have been no plan. There still is no stated timeline.
    There is insufficient security. There are no services. It was not fair to the homeless and it certainly was not fair to those of us who live here.

    While some may like the grit, most of us have benefited from the clean-up. How sad that we have turned back so much of 40 years of progress in a matter of 14 months.

  3. Ok- since the DHS is basically just placating residents by having a zoom call and “listening”, who is really going to help us? I’ve lived in HK for 18 years and this is by far the worst it has been and it is 100% due to the mentally ill homeless places in hotels all over our neighborhood. I’m so over not being able to take my kid to the park, because I’m worried someone will do something harmful on our walk over- or once we get there, we’ll see someone publicly defecating, shooting up or masturbating. I’m worried because I’ve legitimately seen it all!!! I’m outraged. I’m fed up. I want the mentally ill homeless to go back to their normalized shelters where they can get the treatment they need. It has 100% got out of hand in HK. Who will listen? And who will actually take action to help the community?

  4. The mentally ill have to get help debozo that crook and his wife had 850 million dollars and ran with the money shame on nyc did not pushing on him with that bs thrive program . Hotels sorry are not the answer . Shelters should be run way better then they are period . They need to also build mental institutions for people that never will get better that’s facts .

  5. The only solution is the next election, the Mayor but also the Comptroller who can decide to keep paying for these hotels and the DA who can decide, or not, to prosecute offenders. Below is a “safe streets” Facebook group focused on these issues, though I don’t think they have endorsed anyone — Our neighborhood also needs to create a similar group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/nyufc/about

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