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Homeless Men Moved Into a Tourist Hotel. What Followed Was Unexpected.


An opera singer who also studied public relations is struggling to find work. His new roommate, released from prison a year ago, is trying to find his footing, too. A neighbor is focused on his sobriety.

All three men live at the Lucerne Hotel, which used to offer spa services and valet parking to tourists on the Upper West Side.

The Lucerne is now one of 63 hotels the city has turned into homeless shelters since the beginning of the pandemic to help prevent the spread of coronavirus inside dormitory-style shelters where single men and women cannot safely distance.

The conversion of hotels into shelters has sparked the threat of lawsuits, an actual lawsuit, a dozen protests, news conferences and the formation of several neighborhood groups — some opposed to shelters and others in favor. But caught in the middle of the political push-and-pull are displaced men and women, a group whose lives have often been upended by evictions, unemployment and other traumatic events.

“I don’t want to leave because of the love that we experienced,” said a resident of the Lucerne who goes by Shams DaBaron.

For some men living at the Lucerne, the debate has had an unexpected effect: a sense of belonging that eluded them at other shelters. Hundreds of people banded together to pressure Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration to move the men. But other residents, community activists and advocacy groups rallied around the men, and in October a judge delayed a plan to relocate them.

That pause could end on Monday if a Manhattan Supreme Court justice decides to move the men to a Radisson Hotel in the Financial District instead of allowing them to stay for now.

Mr. DaBaron, 51, has become the de facto representative of the men at the hotel, a role that has kept him busy as he clings to sobriety.

He and some of the other men were flabbergasted when people welcomed them with kind messages in sidewalk chalk and donated clothes.

Putting their babies in our arms, their babies, I don’t know these women!” said Mr. DaBaron. “Bringing their dogs and saying, ‘Hey, hold my dog,’ and ‘Hey, he loves you,’ and I’m saying, ‘This is crazy, I’ve never experienced this in my life.’”

The Lucerne became the focus for the debate on homeless hotels this summer after more than 200 men moved there in July. Some residents complained about increased loitering, drug use and public urination. A private Facebook group that now has more than 15,000 members became a forum that sometimes veered into racist, degrading language. A group of residents hired Randy Mastro, a powerful lawyer and former deputy mayor for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani who has represented Mr. de Blasio in the past, to threaten a lawsuit against the city.

Supporters of the men saw the complaints and efforts to move them as pure NIMBYism.

The debate has been so volatile that people on both sides said they have been doxxed. Mr. Mastro’s townhouse on the Upper East Side was vandalized with graffiti that included the phrase, “Randy Mastro you can’t displace us.”

Mr. Mastro and Megan Martin, the president of West Side Community Organization, the nonprofit group that hired him, both said their effort to move the men was motivated primarily by concern for their well-being.

Before the pandemic, Mr. de Blasio had vowed to end the city’s dependence on hotels as a stopgap to house the homeless. But the city greatly expanded the use of hotels in the wake of the deadly virus, placing about 9,500 homeless people in them so far.

The Department of Homeless Services regards the pandemic hotel program as a success, noting that 104 people in their care have died from the coronavirus, even though the prospects for the nearly 60,000 people in the main shelter system looked dire this spring.

Still, after a visit to the Upper West Side in September, the mayor described the situation as “not acceptable.” The city began moving forward with a plan to relocate the men.

After protests, the city abandoned an original idea to move families out of a shelter near the Empire State Building to make room for the men. The city then settled on moving the men to the Radisson, but a group of residents in the Financial District filed a lawsuit, charging that the site was unsuitable for a shelter, even though it has been used as an emergency hotel for some time and will eventually be turned into a permanent shelter for families, the homeless agency said.

Some of the men at the Lucerne, including Mr. DaBaron, got a lawyer and filed affidavits stating that the move would be traumatic for them and others at the hotel.

On Oct. 19, Justice Debra James granted a temporary restraining order that allowed the men to stay at the Lucerne, a decision that came as a bus idled outside the hotel to take them downtown.

Now the men await the judge’s decision, which could let them stay for the time being.

Leaving the Lucerne now would be painful because they connected with an outreach group called the Upper West Side Open Hearts Initiative, which initially formed in response to neighborhood opposition, some men said.

On a recent chilly, rainy Sunday afternoon, a few dozen men came out of the hotel to browse a store the group had set up, many walking away with new jeans, socks or sweaters that had been donated.

Steven Hackett III, the opera singer, found a few ties and a sweater that he liked. He planned to wear the new clothes for job interviews, he said.

Before the Lucerne, Mr. Hackett, 35, spent some time in a nursing home in Queens to recover from a seizure he had at a shelter. In the nursing home, he caught the coronavirus and suffered a dangerously high fever for two weeks, he said, recalling other patients dying.

He said he had been approved for housing in nearby Harlem and wanted that apartment to be his next and last move.

Mr. Hackett’s roommate, Jerry Lugo, said he went straight into the shelter system after he was released from prison in August 2019. He said one shelter “was like jail.”

“You got to sleep with one eye open, otherwise anything that’s not nailed down, they take it from you,” he said.

The Lucerne was a relief, but he had mixed feelings about the possible move. While Mr. Lugo, 38, appreciated the services there, he said he thought he could have a single room at the Radisson.

And while the Open Hearts group has been welcoming, the neighborhood remains hostile, he said. “I experienced walking down the block and I feel the bad energy. ‘There goes one of those guys from the shelter,’” he said. “We shouldn’t be treated differently.”

Mr. DaBaron, though, seems to have found his calling. In a matter of months, he has become a community activist, a turn of events for a man who thought he was going to die earlier this year.

He was staying at the Third Street Men’s Shelter in the Bowery where he said he slept in an open room with more than 30 men. He contracted coronavirus and was moved to a quarantine facility in Queens, where he said that he was given oxygen after his levels dropped dangerously low.

“I started calling on every god in the book, just so I didn’t get it wrong,” Mr. DaBaron said.

After he recovered he was sent back to a shelter downtown, then to the Washington Jefferson Hotel in Hell’s Kitchen, and finally to the Lucerne in July.

Mr. DaBaron, a former rapper, grew up in the Bronx in the foster care system, and started living on the streets periodically as a teenager. He said speaking out about the Lucerne has helped his sobriety and reminded him of how he would speak up for himself and other foster children.

He said that he hoped he and the other men would be allowed to stay at the Lucerne, at least through the pandemic.

“We have this unique opportunity,” Mr. DaBaron said. “I just hope that the mayor has the compassion to say, ‘Maybe I made a mistake.’”


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