Cities across the United States are confronting this country’s original sin of slavery, with white liberals everywhere suddenly activated against police violence and systematic racism. But here in supposedly progressive New York City—where Mayor Bill de Blasio personally helped paint the words “Black Lives Matter” on Fifth Avenue outside Trump Tower—wealthy Manhattanites on the Upper West Side are fighting to show homeless Black and brown New Yorkers the door.
One of the writers of this piece, Corinne, is an Upper West Side mom and a professor at the Wharton School who studies the economics of discrimination. The other, Shams, is a Black man experiencing homelessness and a screenwriter and hip-hop pioneer, in recovery from alcoholism. We met when Shams—and other homeless New Yorkers—were moved out of congregate shelters and into private rooms at hotels throughout the city, including the Upper West Side’s Lucerne Hotel, to slow the spread of Covid-19. It was sound public health policy, driven by the need for social distancing and the recognition that since tourists weren’t returning to New York anytime soon, vacant hotels could be used to save lives. Almost immediately, shelter residents and supporters found ourselves fighting against a 15,000-member Facebook group and a 501(c)(4) calling itself the West Side Community Organization. Rather than welcome their new neighbors, the group raised nearly $150,000 to hire Randy Mastro, a top litigator and former deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration, to drive homeless men from the neighborhood.
De Blasio immediately surrendered. Claiming he’d visited the Upper West Side himself and found the situation “not acceptable,” he announced that the men at the Lucerne would be shipped off to a soon-to-be-vacant Covid isolation hotel in the Financial District. We don’t know what Mayor de Blasio saw on the Upper West Side as he passed in his motorcade, but we know that he never set foot inside the Lucerne. He never spoke to shelter residents like Shams, who could have told him their stories. Instead, he made a choice: to prioritize the voices of an overwhelmingly white community over the impacted people of color—who make up 90 percent of shelter residents.
Of course, hardly any of the white residents who agitated furiously to displace the shelter would call themselves racists, and certainly not segregationists. And yet that will be the result. One of Nobel Prize–winning economist Thomas Schelling’s most famous works was a study of how very small preferences to be with others like ourselves could lead to a fully segregated society. We can see these preferences for sameness turning the engine of the shelter outcry and the mayor’s decision today. We see it in the fact that some of the supposed evidence of danger amounted to nothing more than pictures of Black men standing at street corners or sitting on public benches.
We see it in the fact that every single substantive objection had been addressed—from concerns about sex offenders (there were none), to mobilizing substantial resources to create an offsite recreation program—and yet the demands to transfer Lucerne residents persisted unabated. And we see it in the fact that even though the West Side Community Organization publicly packaged its message as being about access to services (when in fact Project Renewal, the nonprofit shelter operator at the Lucerne, provides all standard shelter services at the temporary location), its president told the Today show in a segment that aired on September 7 that “there is no level of staff and services that they would find suitable; they want a date for this program to end.”
The “nice white parents” agitating to displace the shelter may tell themselves they’re only thinking about protecting their kids, and that there are win-win solutions, but that’s not how segregation works. Neighborhoods are resources. They are jobs, community support, networks, and engines of economic opportunity. When you exclude a group of people from a neighborhood to keep it for yourself and people who look like you, you ensure that resources stay in the hands of only those people. You win, and those who don’t look like you—those with black and brown skin—lose. That is why neighborhood segregation is one of the largest contributors to the racial wealth gap, which then expands the chasm in political and economic power that upholds a system of white supremacy. While, of course, one temporary homeless shelter on the Upper West Side would do little to undo 400 years of systemic racism and oppression, standing against it only further cements that system in place.
The racism has been more explicit on the Facebook group that formed to oppose the temporary hotel shelters. Shelter residents have been called “thugs and repulsive trash lowlifes,” epithets accompanied by the demand to “spray them with chemicals and throw them in jail.” There have even been suggestions to kick homeless men in front of buses and spread dog feces on public benches so they could not sit there.
In this light, the mayor’s claim that what he saw was “not acceptable” became a code word—a dog whistle to those who vilified the shelter residents; the mayor, too, saw Black men occupying public space as a threat to public safety. Further, the mayor’s capitulation has created a playbook to be followed by other neighborhoods if they also want to say “not in my backyard.” An angry downtown Facebook group has already emerged to oppose the transfer of the Lucerne shelter residents into the Financial District community.
And then there are the actual human beings caught in the middle. Substance-abuse recovery requires stability. Individuals experiencing trauma and mental illness need to know they are accepted as they are. Our joint work—recognized by the Coalition for the Homeless—was providing just that: a model for how communities and shelters can work together, providing vital material, moral, and spiritual support to shelter residents. The mayor seeks to undo all of this, not caring about the human toll his callousness will take, and completely abandoning his campaign promises to build a city that works for all New Yorkers. Forcing the displacement of traumatized Black men (the third—and for some, a fourth—such move since the pandemic began) to preserve white comfort is not just an abdication of the city’s responsibility to care for those in need; it is a re-victimization of these most vulnerable New Yorkers.
Processing the news that Lucerne residents would be transferred, after we had built such strong friendships in our shared fight against the move, Shams sent Corinne a text saying, “Moving around is normal, but being cut off from a lifeline of love is like a death sentence. The Mayor has sentenced us to a spiritual and moral, if not physical, death.”
RIP to de Blasio’s “progressive” legacy.