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Last weekend, W42ST asked Hell’s Kitchen’s Council Member Corey Johnson to share with readers a summary of what he’s heard are the key challenges in the neighborhood — and the actions he’s taken, actions he’s planning to take… and the things that will take time to solve. Today, we publish an Op-Ed from Speaker Johnson.
There’s no question Hell’s Kitchen has been facing some real challenges these past 15 months.
Theaters are closed. Office workers and tourists that we count on to patronize local stores and restaurants have not returned. And a large number of the neighborhood hotels that once accommodated those tourists and business people have been remade into homeless shelters, a temporary solution to a long-standing problem.
In this difficult landscape, we have also seen a dramatic increase in certain crimes, including assaults, robberies, and hate crimes.
As we begin reopening, we must address the challenges the community is facing, some of which stem from complicated issues like lack of mental health treatment, addiction, and homelessness.
These issues have been with us for a long time, but they’ve been exacerbated by the pandemic. Residents and business owners deserve to feel safe and secure in their neighborhood. The newly launched NYPD Business District Recovery Task Force is being guided by feedback from members of the community to focus on “hot spot” areas in Hell’s Kitchen that need attention. But in order to make lasting change, we’re going to need to take a multi-pronged approach that seeks to address the root causes of crime, homelessness, and the inequities in our city.
I recently brought city officials from a wide range of agencies – the Department of Homeless Services, the New York City Health Department, the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, the NYPD – around the district to meet residents and business owners and hear their concerns.
Homeless Services Commissioner Steve Banks attended, as well as Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi. I routinely talk to them about the issues facing my district, and they are invested in helping the community to recover and thrive.
The Council also recently passed a groundbreaking bill to increase the rates the city pays towards its rental assistance vouchers for those experiencing homelessness. This increase will help move people out of shelters and into permanent housing.
The more people we get out of the shelter system, the more we can focus our resources on some of the neediest individuals, like the chronically street homeless and those with mental health and addiction issues.
Many of you have asked how you can assist members of our community who are living on the streets. I encourage you to reach out to the DHS Joint Command Center, by calling 212-607-6040. This is a direct service line that assists street homeless individuals and has a significantly faster response time than 311 as it is built for one social services department.
In addition to DHS, the non-profit Breaking Ground is also doing a lot of work with chronically street homeless in Hell’s Kitchen. They try to convince people to get services that they need and are entitled to, as well as trying to find housing for individuals. I know they are doing incredible work.
Prior to the pandemic, I released “Our Homelessness Crisis: The Case for Change”, a report with nearly 90 recommendations aimed at preventing and supporting those experiencing homelessness. Much of what we need going forward remains the same — stop the short-term solutions, increase access to permanent and supportive housing, and prevent homelessness from happening in the first place.
I am proud to say that in addition to the groundbreaking voucher bill that just passed — which was a top recommendation in the report — the Council in March secured nearly $19 million in funding for mental health programs. That includes funding for mobile case management services for those who are homeless.
Clearly there are no easy solutions to the problem of homelessness, and street homelessness in particular is a complicated issue, often exacerbated by addiction and lack of access to mental health treatment. As discussed in depth in the report, one of the driving factors of homelessness is the deinstitutionalization of state psychiatric centers over the past several years.
To really tackle these issues, the City will need more state funding, as well as more outreach tools like mental health teams specifically dedicated to street homelessness (currently there are none). We also need a more robust safe haven system, which has a lower entry barrier than traditional shelters.
In my conversations with members of the community, I know that many residents and business owners don’t feel safe right now. I hear those concerns, and will continue working to help the neighborhood move past this difficult time.
I’m committed to continuing this work, and I’m confident Hell’s Kitchen will come back from this pandemic better than ever. Not because I am blindly optimistic, but because I know that the people of Hell’s Kitchen love their community, and will continue looking out for one another and fighting every day for a better future. It’s an honor to serve this community, and the city we all love.