Chelsea Now – DHS Ducks Capacity Crowd as CB5 Cuts Shelter Info Session Short

By Alex Ellefson, September 7

BY ALEX ELLEFSON | Plans to discuss the use of an infamous Flatiron hotel as a months-long refuge for homeless single men and women awaiting long-term housing stalled last week when a conference room was unable to accommodate scores of irate residents intent on voicing their objections.

Neighbors packed shoulder-to-shoulder — with a line of people out into the hall — to hear a presentation on the proposed shelter at the Community Board 5 (CB5) Budget, Education & City Services Committee meeting.

They came to protest a planned 47-bed facility in the former La Semana hotel at 25 W. 24th St. (btw. Fifth & Sixth Aves.), located in close proximity to a Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC) 12-story “vertical campus” facility that locals say has exacerbated problems with vagrancy in the neighborhood. The meeting quickly went off the rails — with residents shouting down representatives from Breaking Ground, the shelter operator, and the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) who tried to proceed with the meeting.

Residents packed a CB5 committee meeting to voice their objections to a proposed homeless shelter in the former La Semana hotel. Photo by Alex Ellefson.

Residents packed a CB5 committee meeting to voice their objections to a proposed homeless shelter in the former La Semana hotel. Photo by Alex Ellefson.

Amid the bedlam, Breaking Ground Vice President Claire Sheedy agreed to residents’ requests that the organization postpone signing an agreement with the property owner until the forum can be held in a larger venue.

“We are very committed to being transparent. We came here today to talk to you all about who we are and what we do, and what we plan to do,” she told the packed room.

Her announcement upstaged DHS Assistant Commissioner Matthew Borden, who defiantly told the room the public would not have a say in the project, and tried to get on with the presentation.

“Let me be very clear: This project, we are committed to it. It’s moving forward. Postponing this meeting is not going to delay the project, but it may delay your opportunity to get answers you want to hear,” he said.

Borden was later chased out of the building by a pack of outraged residents, as well as reporters, who pursued him to the elevators where he cowered against the wall while the crowd shouted questions at his back. They followed Borden when he scooted into an open elevator and followed him down to the lower floors.

Department of Homeless Services Assistant Commissioner Matthew Borden turns his back on the public. Photo by Alex Ellefson.

Department of Homeless Services Assistant Commissioner Matthew Borden turns his back on the public. Photo by Alex Ellefson.

Chelsea resident Maria Ferrari said she was disappointed by the assistant commissioner’s behavior.

“He’s a public official. He should stick around to answer questions. Instead he basically just said this is a done deal and then refused to listen to anything else,” she said.

Ferrari said vagrancy has become a hot topic in the neighborhood since the BRC opened their 328-bed homeless shelter at 127 W. 25th St. (btw. Sixth & Seventh Aves.) in 2011. Ferrari said she works across the street from the BRC shelter and has seen an increase in panhandling as well as other troubling behaviors since the facility opened.

“People are always hanging around in the street, in doorways, begging, doing drugs and smoking pot,” she said. “I feel threatened every time I leave work at night. I wait until I’m three or four blocks away before I take out my phone.”

Concerned locals spilled out into the hallway when the conference room became too crowded. Photo by Alex Ellefson.

Concerned locals spilled out into the hallway when the conference room became too crowded. Photo by Alex Ellefson.

When the BRC shelter was first introduced, locals balked at the facility’s scale and filed a lawsuit, supported by some elected officials, to block it from operating at full capacity. The BRC has tried to address residents concerns about street harassment, intimidation, and drug abuse by hiring additional security and having staff monitor activity on the block.

Last year, the BRC, CB4, the West 25th Street Project and the offices of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, State Senator Brad Hoylman and Councilmember Corey Johnson collaborated on a survey of residents, workers, and visitors. Among the results: 53% of respondents said that safety and/or quality of life in the area was “worse” or “much worse” since October 2014.

The proposed shelter at La Semana would be housed in a building whose notorious reputation was cemented when a 2012 Huffington Post article labeled it “New York’s Grossest ‘Sex’ Hotel.”

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Anthony Stanhope said his landlord tried to drive all the tenants out of the building. Photo by Alex Ellefson.

Anthony Stanhope said he is one of four residents who survived a purge of tenants last summer. During a tour of La Semana directly following the CB5 meeting, Stanhope told Chelsea Now that his landlord is trying to make a quick profit by filling the building with homeless after the hotel on the bottom two floors went under.

“He’s realized the city will pay a huge amount of money to take in the homeless,” Stanhope said, recalling how the hotel brought in sleazy clientele who were often involved in illicit activity, he said.

“You could hear sex going on in the hallways. There were always criminal-looking people in the building doing drugs and God-knows-what,” he said.

A spokesperson for Breaking Ground said the organization hopes to have a handful of people in shelter by the fall — and the facility would gradually expand while its operations are being assessed. The shelter would also have 24-hour security, the spokesperson said.

The organization did not offer a new date and location for the promised community forum, but highlighted a letter from Brooklyn Community Board 14’s district manager describing Breaking Ground’s “sincere efforts to be a good neighbor” to show they are committed to forging a relationship with locals.

“That’s kind of how we roll. We are an organization that is very committed to partnerships and to being a good neighbor,” Sheedy said after last week’s meeting.

Leopard print carpeting in the La Semana hotel, which was once labeled "New York's Grossest ‘Sex’ Hotel" by the Huffington Post. Photo by Alex Ellefson.

Leopard print carpeting in the La Semana hotel, which was once labeled “New York’s Grossest ‘Sex’ Hotel” by the Huffington Post. Photo by Alex Ellefson.

Robert Cerwinski, president of the West 24th Street Block Association, said he appreciated Breaking Ground putting the project on hold. The block association is currently exploring options for how to respond to the proposal and has floated several ideas, including trying to find a developer to buy the property.

“La Semana has always been something of a blight on our block,” he said. “Right now, the block association is disseminating ideas to whoever might be interested in buying the property and turning it into something that benefits the community.”

Despite Breaking Ground’s offer to accommodate the community, Cerwinski said the block association will still work to halt the plan.

“At this point, it’s pretty clear stakeholders are almost universally opposed to this,” he said. “We already have a large number of chronic homeless that is creating a very big burden on the community.”

For more information visit breakingground.org, cb5.org, and brc.org. To contact the West 24th Street Block Association, email Robert Cerwinski at ceruchan@gmail.com.