By Robert Simko
October 15, 2020
Advocacy Group File Suit to Halt Plan for Homeless Shelter in FiDi
A group of Lower Manhattan residents opposed to the plan recently announced by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to relocate more than 200 homeless men to a vacant hotel in the Financial District filed suit on Wednesday to block the move.
The group, Downtown New Yorkers, Inc., which organized in recent weeks to mobilize against the plan, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire attorneys and bring legal actions. Some of those funds have been used to retain lawyer Ken Fisher, a former member of the New York City Council (where he represented a district in Brooklyn from 1991 through 2001), who later went on to found the New York City Chapter of the New York League of Conservation Voters, and serve as founding chair of the board of the Governors Island Alliance. He is also a past chair of the New York City Bar Association’s Land Use, Planning & Zoning Committee.
On Wednesday, Mr. Fisher filed in New York State Supreme Court an Article 78 petition, which is the legal mechanism via which private-sector parties can seek court-ordered relief from decisions by government agencies. At issue is whether the City has the legal authority to house homeless men at the Radisson New York Wall Street, located at 52 William Street. Sheltering homeless persons there is actually not a new development. The City’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has used the building since March as a temporary facility, aiming to limit the spread of the pandemic coronavirus among residents of the shelter system.
But DHS now plans to convert the facility into a longer-term shelter, for clients who are slated to be transferred from Lucerne Hotel, on the Upper West Side, after residents in that community organized, raised funds, and hired lawyers to stop the agency from housing approximately 240 homeless men there. After City officials agreed to vacate the Lucerne, they settled on the Radisson New York Wall Street as a replacement facility.
This aroused a chorus of condemnation from elected officials and Downtown community leaders, who have made a point of noting that they are not opposed in principle to homeless shelters in Lower Manhattan, but have instead decried the de Blasio administration’s apparent attempt to accomplish the move by stealth—notifying residents and their representatives late on a Friday evening, before a three-day weekend, and just days before the transfer was slated to begin. (The date has since been pushed back to the week of October 19.)
The suit filed on Wednesday argues that the City is using the public-health crisis associated with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to evade legal requirements for community notice and consultation. Specifically, the filings contend that while the de Blasio Administration is using emergency rules enacted for contracts related to COVID-19, the planned move to 52 William Street has no actual connection to the pandemic.
“The residents of Lower Manhattan fully support these homeless individuals and we recognize the homeless crisis facing our city,” said Christopher Brown of Downtown New Yorkers. “However, the City has reacted recklessly and erratically by repeatedly uprooting these individuals, based on political pressure.” He adds that even the non-profit hired by the City to manage the facility, “believes that the homeless men are better served by remaining on the Upper West Side, where they have access to extensive social programs—including a successful jobs program—that are not available in Lower Manhattan.”
The suit additionally alleges the City has no lawful authority to move the men, because its contract with the Hotel Association of New York City, through which it has been placing homeless individuals in hotels, has expired.
A spokesman for the City’s Law Department responded to the lawsuit by saying, “the entire City has a moral and legal obligation to provide safe shelter to all who need it. This shameful attempt to dodge that obligation through a technical procurement challenge will fail in court. Using this hotel to provide shelter during this unprecedented pandemic is not only a justified use of the Mayor’s emergency powers, it is absolutely the right thing to do.”
Patrick Kennell, president of the Financial District Neighborhood Association, reflects that, “it never should have come to this—a lawsuit.” He adds that, “Mayor de Blasio and his administration had plenty of opportunity to inform and engage the 235 men at the Lucerne and the FiDi community about the Mayor’s reported ‘review’ and political ‘decision’ to yet again uproot these men, who are heading for their fourth move in six months. Rather than use that ‘review’ time to work with all those affected, Mayor de Blasio chose to work in secret and only informed the communities involved—and even the shelter’s operator—after the fact and with next to no time to prepare. And even after announcing the decision, the administration has failed to listen or meaningfully engage the Lucerne residents, who don’t want to move, or the FiDi community. The administration’s handling of this move has built deep distrust among all those affected, and it has exacerbated an already stressful situation for the Lucerne men. This was largely avoidable, and the Financial District Neighborhood Association looks forward to the City’s response to our recent FOIL requests, so that we can figure out why this happened, and hopefully shine a light so that this kind of disengaged decision-making doesn’t happen again.”
Another perspective comes from Caitlyn Dooley, one of the founders of a similarly named (but separate) group, the Friends of FiDi, who says, “our focus is on the men.” She adds that, “we take issue with these men being subjected to trauma after trauma,” in a reference to the multiple relocations, from one facility to another, that the homeless men now destined for 52 William Street have faced in recent months. “Now the Mayor’s plan is re-traumatizing them. These men should not be moved, because they do not want to be.”
“But,” Ms. Dooley adds, “if the move does go through, our focus will be to work closely with the men, to make sure they feel welcome and supported as our new neighbors.”