The hearing room at 125 Worth Street in downtown Manhattan was packed with petitioners on the morning of January 15, most of whom wanted to encourage DHS not to contract out management of its homeless shelter at the Westway to Women In Need, who they say has been mismanaging the shelter since it took over operations several months ago.
In July, DHS announced that the Westway Inn would be transformed into a 121-unit emergency shelter. The January 15th hearing was the first time that DHS fielded concerns and comments from the community since the process of permanent conversion began.
Many felt the meeting was too little too late.
Local resident Adrianna Lynch said she is concerned for the safety of her daughters, who attend P.S. 2, which many reported has become a common hangout for teenage loiterers and loafers – something that wasn’t a problem until the shelter was created.
“Safety is an issue in our community now,” Lynch said, telling the DHS representatives, “here is a picture of needles and drugs I found near the school.”
Maurine Duffy told a similar story.
“I have witnessed the needles near PS2, and now people are constantly being harassed at the bus stops for change or cigarettes,” Duffy said. “My 21-year-old son is 6'3" and a personal trainer. He gad some guy approach him and ask for money and when he said he didn’t have any, the man said, ‘I know you got something.’
“He would not leave my son alone, he stunk of whiskey,” she contineud. “If my dog had not gone after that man I don’t know what would’ve happened.”
WIN President and CEO Bonnie Stone was one of a very small number who disagreed with the majority of the community’s assessment of the Westway shelter, emphasizing the noble intent of her organization.
“We are deeply involved in helping the city resolve this issue of homelessness,” Stone said. “At our shelters what we attempt to achieve is the provision of a separate, private, clean and secure place to live on a temporary basis. We are there to make this period in these folks lives as viable and as constructive as possible.”
Stone said that one of WIN’s top priorities is making sure children are taken care of, reporting that currently there are 243 children in residence with their families at Westway.
But shelter neighbor Lisa Laticia said that Stone’s idyllic vision of the shelter is far from being realized.
“I live directly across the street,” Laticia said. “I’ve watched them come directly out of the shelter, cross the street, and ask my children if they know where they could get drugs.”
Another immediate neighbor, Antonia Papaduris, said that things have gotten so bad she’s afraid to let her teenage daughter walk downstairs to her grandmother’s house alone.
“There are syringes in our driveway, we’ve had rocks thrown into my driveway at my sister, kids who play in the parking lot are throwing wood pieces into my driveway, there are people sneaking in and out of windows,” Papaduris said. “The maintenance workers, I'd like to add, are smoking pot in the parking lot.”
Papaduris said that while there has been a shelter in the neighborhood for several years, they never had any problems until WIN took over management.
“Before WIN took over we had clean sidewalks. Since WIN took over, we don't have that anymore,” she said. “We have cockroaches we never had for the 20 years I've lived there. And rats.”
Many residents say that they had no problem accommodating an overnight shelter for as many as 36 families at a time, but having several hundred families packed into the cramped quarters of the Westway Inn far from local services and recreation doesn’t sit well with them.
Jesse Laymon said he came to testify in support of the shelter, but after hearing accounts of immediate neighbors of the conditions on the ground, he has a hard time getting behind it now.
“I’m a bit torn. I came to speak in favor of the contract, because I care deeply about the homeless population. I have a personal family history with homelessness,” he said. “My father was homeless in the later years of his life, and I think we need to do more to house the homeless population.
“There are some very real concerns,” he added. “I hope WIN and DHS will address those concerns. If DHS decides to look the other way, that's a huge mistake.”
Local residents were joined at the hearing by several elected officials, including State Senator Jose Peralta, Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas and Councilman Costa Constantinides.
Peralta presented DHS a petition with over 1,000 signatures in support of returning to its previous overnight mission rather than retrofitting the rooms and allowing families to stay for up to a year.
CB1 District Manager Lucille Hartmann also spoke out at the hearing.
“The monies being spent by the city are unconscionable,” Hartmann said. “Return the use of Westway to an overnight shelter as mandated by the city.”