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Residents unsettled by recent violence worry that two new shelters, one that would open near the site of a brutal murder, will lead to more disorder.
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By Andy Newman and Jeffrey E. Singer
Two new homeless shelters that the city is planning in Lower Manhattan will offer private rooms, health care and drug counseling. They will do away with curfews and many other restrictions as a way to coax homeless people off the streets.
And in a possible first, one shelter has proposed not banning drugs, recognition that homeless drug users are a constant presence in Sara D. Roosevelt Park, at the heart of the neighborhood where the shelters will open.
But the neighborhood is Chinatown, where the usual not-in-my-backyard objection to shelters found across the city has gained urgency from a terrifying wave of anti-Asian attacks, many of them linked to homeless people. Resistance escalated after the brutal February murder of a 35-year-old woman, Christina Yuna Lee, in her apartment near the park, for which a homeless man has been charged.
The shelter that has proposed allowing drugs would be around the corner from where Ms. Lee was slain. And on Tuesday night, after hearing more than three hours of testimony, the community board that covers nearly half of Chinatown voted to oppose the shelter.
The 37-7 vote is merely advisory. But it adds to the pressure on Mayor Eric Adams, who has made less restrictive shelters like these a centerpiece of his plan to expand housing options for the city’s homeless population. Mr. Adams announced on Sunday a proposal to open over 900 more beds in these kinds of shelters, known as safe havens and stabilization hotels, by mid-2023.
While the city seldom backs down in the face of resistance to a shelter, in March, it dropped plans for a shelter in the Bronx that had been opposed by the community and the community board, giving protesters in Chinatown hope.
City officials did not respond on Wednesday to a request for comment on Tuesday’s vote against the Chinatown shelter by Community Board 2.
As opposition grew against the second shelter, which would be on the East Broadway shopping strip, activists in Chinatown have raised $120,000 toward a lawsuit to try to block it, on the grounds that Chinatown already has too many.
“The city is trying to destroy our families, our homes and our neighborhood,” Janet Lau Sampieri, who lives and works in Chinatown, said at a rally this month near City Hall — one of at least 10 against the shelters since December. “We need to tell them ‘No.’”
One protest, folded into the Lunar New Year parade, featured signs begging Mr. Adams to “Please save Chinatown.”
While the shelters were in the pipeline before Mr. Adams took office, the battle touches on some of his fledgling administration’s signature initiatives: stopping homeless people from sheltering in streets and subways; reversing rises in violent crime and drug overdoses; and helping Manhattan neighborhoods dependent on tourists and office workers recover from the pandemic.
The two shelters in Chinatown, and a third in a more isolated part of the neighborhood that has drawn less opposition, would add 260 beds, mostly for men. The so-called harm reduction shelter that the community board voted to oppose on Tuesday, in a shuttered hotel at the bustling intersection of Grand Street and Bowery, is scheduled to open this spring. The others will open in 2023 and 2024.
The Department of Homeless Services said in a statement that the shelters “are tailored to support the unique needs of individuals who’ve lived unsheltered, and build on our commitment to expanding these specialized resources.”
There are already six shelters in Chinatown, though the city plans to close two.
Even before the shelters were announced, Chinatown residents had complained of a pandemic-long surge in menacing behavior, thefts and random violence that they attributed to homeless men.
Dozens of older residents have signed up for self-defense classes at a local community center. A preschool on the Bowery says it no longer takes students to play in Sara D. Roosevelt Park, a half-mile strip of playgrounds, ball fields and gardens where in some areas drug sales are brisk and drug use is open. The Bowery subway station had more 311 reports about homelessness than any other in the city for the six months ending in March, according to a New York Times analysis, though it is one of the least used stations.
There are also complex racial dynamics at play, in a neighborhood whose core is about two-thirds Asian American, while most street-homeless people in the city are Black or Hispanic, according to city statistics.
At a February community board hearing on the Grand Street shelter, one resident, Michael Mui, said putting a shelter there would be “a racist act on the community.”
“What about our rights?” Mr. Mui, 52, asked, adding, “We do so much for this country and the city and our human rights — my son and daughter’s human rights — are being taken away.”
The city says the shelters are partly a response to the killing of a homeless Asian man: Chuen Kwok, 83, one of four men fatally beaten while sleeping outdoors in Chinatown in 2019. The attacks prompted concern about a hidden problem of homelessness and housing insecurity among Chinese New Yorkers. Plans to name one of the new shelters after Mr. Kwok, though, were labeled “insulting” by opponents.
On March 12, a homeless man was killed on the edge of Chinatown, a short walk from the Grand Street site — part of a series of shootings of homeless men in New York and Washington. Advocates for the homeless said the shooting underscored the need for the Grand Street shelter.
The new Chinatown safe havens are aimed primarily at the people who already live unsheltered in the neighborhood — of which the city says there are about 250 — unlike typical shelters, which house people from all over the city.
In February, Charles King, the chief executive of Housing Works, the nonprofit that would operate the Grand Street shelter, said during a Zoom presentation that the facility would reduce nuisance behavior at Sara D. Roosevelt Park.
“If we can move people out of the park and into our care,” he said, “we free up the park for the community.”
He said the shelter’s amenities — including overdose prevention and needle exchange; a smoking deck; a 24-hour drop-in center where anyone can get a shower or meal or use the bathroom; and assistance finding permanent housing — would draw people in to turn their lives around.
The audience was not swayed.
A neighborhood resident, Jay Lok, said that when the hotel was a temporary pandemic shelter, its residents harassed neighbors and shopkeepers, used the street as a bathroom and scared people from using the A.T.M.s next door.
“You sound very confident,” he told Mr. King, “but that doesn’t mesh with what I lived the past two years.”
A disagreement appears to have developed between the city and Housing Works about the lenient drug policy planned for the shelter.
On Wednesday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeless Services said that drugs and alcohol are not allowed in any shelter. Mr. King was adamant when told of the city’s stance. “We’re prepared for the likelihood that people will use drugs,” he said, “and we’re not acting to prevent that because we meet people where they are.”
The other heavily opposed shelter, on East Broadway, would also be in another former hotel. In November, Thomas Yu, co-executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, a social-service and affordable-housing nonprofit with deep Chinatown roots, pledged support for it and said his group would provide Chinese-language assistance there.
Soon after, protesters carrying “A.A.F.E. sold out Chinatown” signs picketed the group’s office.
The day after Ms. Lee’s murder, protesters pounded on the office’s doors and windows and tried to force their way in, A.A.F.E. officials said.
A.A.F.E. has now backed out of its role at the shelter.
“I would love if they would put their pitchforks down and help us,” Mr. Yu said, “because we’re all in it together.”
Opponents say the Chinatown shelters will violate the city’s Fair Share law, which mandates spreading social service programs around equitably. But the law’s requirements are vague, and the question of whether Chinatown is already overburdened is tricky.
Manhattan Community District 2, which includes western Chinatown, has no shelters; Grand Street’s would be the first.
But shelters in Community District 3, which covers the eastern half of Chinatown, including East Broadway, house more than 1,000 people. Shelter opponents note that this number is far more than the number of homeless people who come from the district and argue that the city is placing an unfairly heavy burden on the district.
To shelter opponents, the city’s rationale for locating safe havens seems infuriatingly circular: They say their existence attracts both drug dealers and other homeless people, whose presence the city then uses to justify opening more shelters.
The city says that someone living in the street is more likely to accept a shelter placement in a familiar neighborhood. But several homeless people in Sara D. Roosevelt Park expressed hesitation when told about the Grand Street shelter.
Near a pop-up soup line by the park run by a nonprofit, City Relief, one recent morning, Robert Clark, 56, a former construction worker who now spends his nights riding the subway, was frank about what drew him to the area: “This park is known to sell the best quality K2” — the powerful synthetic cannabinoid — he said.
Mr. Clark said he was looking to get clean: “You’ve got to know when to call a timeout.”
But the idea of starting his journey to sobriety in a shelter that allows drugs did not appeal to him. “I don’t want to be around a bunch of people using a lot of drugs,” he said. “Take me very far away and let me deal with it myself.”
Another soup-line customer, Michael Torres, who described himself as “residentially challenged,” said he was trying to get into a safe haven shelter and that stable housing would enable him to go back to work as an auto-body repairman. But a safe haven near the park did not interest him, either. “There’s too much access to drugs in this neighborhood,” he said.
As Chen Xun, a Chinatown resident, picked up a couple of rolls from the soup line, he said the charity was “good for the homeless” of the neighborhood. But he questioned the wisdom of new shelters.
“Of course, everyone should have a place to live,” said Mr. Chen, 75, “but so many are living next to us.” His voice trailed off. “It’s just hard to say.”
Alex Lemonides contributed reporting.
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