Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Homeless Shelters and Neighborhoods

The Neighborhood Retail Alliance is concerned about all issues that affect the viability of communities especially when they have the potential to make the independent store owner’s job that much more difficult. We were presented with such an issue yesterday during a meeting with the folks from the Bronx-Manhattan office of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the nation's largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families.

The city wants to construct a 400 bed homeless shelter in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx that will be financed over 20 years with $205 million dollars of taxpayer money. The shelter, which will replace the Bellevue Shelter on Manhattan’s East Side, is not what this area needs, especially considering that it will be tenth such facility in the neighborhood. Increasing the number of homeless – some of whom are mentally ill – is not good for Mott Haven’s permanent residents or its retail businesses.

There are a number of specific reasons why this proposed development irks us:

1) Temporary Shelters versus Permanent Housing – Over $200 million dollars is being allocated to build and run this shelter which begs the question: why is all this public money being allocated to a shelter when these same funds could be dedicated to the creation of permanent, affordable housing? Unlike a homeless facility, new, reasonably priced housing units, which are desperately needed, will attract people who will pay taxes, send their kids to local schools, shop at local stores and, in general, stay in the neighborhood and strengthen its very foundation.

The smartest policy here becomes even more obvious when one considers the price of erecting a shelter versus the cost of creating affordable housing. The same money that is being used to build 400 shelter beds could be utilized to build 2000 units of permanent low to middle income housing. Instead of spending approximately $25,000 per bed for a temporary solution to homelessness, the city should be maximizing tax payer dollars by looking for lasting (and, per capita, cheaper) ways to combat this dire problem.

Despite the city’s actions in this case, Mayor Bloomberg seems to agree with the position of ACORN and the Neighborhood Retail Alliance. In a press release announcing his plan Uniting for Solutions Beyond Shelters, the mayor stresses the administration’s sweeping new dedication to creating permanent residences as a solution to the housing crisis: “At its heart, this new plan aims to replace the City’s over-reliance on shelters with innovative, cost-effective interventions that solve homelessness …” So why then continue this undesirable over-reliance by proceeding with the construction of this new shelter?

2) Homeless Shelters as a Threat to Neighborhood Economies and Quality of Life – The neighborhood retailers of Mott Haven certainly do not want to see yet another shelter built in their community. It does not help business to have homeless men and women loitering in front of stores, soliciting money and generally making people reluctant to enter these establishments. From the standpoint of the merchant, it makes much more sense to build housing that will be a magnet for new, permanent residents who will shop locally, thus fortifying the neighborhood’s economy.

Moreover, as business owners and neighborhood residents, local retailers are deeply concerned when a proposed development will threaten their community’s quality of life. Due to mental illnesses and drug addictions, certain homeless are a threat to the public safety, especially if the shelter isn’t properly supervised and these men and women are free to roam the streets. There are a number of schools around the proposed Mott Haven shelter and any businessperson who is also a parent certainly would not want their children walking home past an institution that houses the mentally unstable. And for those homeless who are able to function as productive members of society lets move them into permanent housing instead of subsidizing a stop-gap solution.

3) Fair Share: The Unjust Siting of Shelters in Minority Communities – Similar to the disproportionate placement of waste transfer stations, a great number of the city’s homeless shelters and treatment facilities are located in communities of color, especially in the Bronx. For example, in Maria del Carmen Arroyo’s district (which includes Mott Haven) there are 933 beds as compared to none in the mostly white districts of Council members deBlasio, Fidler and Lanza. While we recognize the need for these shelters, it is patently unjust to make certain poorer communities bear the brunt for the rest of the city. Specifically, we are appalled that this proposed Bronx shelter is being constructed to replace the beds currently located in the well-to-do East Side. The Bronx should not be the mat under which Manhattan sweeps away its homelessness problem.

4) Lack of Public Input – As we are argued elsewhere on this blog, the lack of community input when it comes to development is quite troubling and this instance is no exception. Despite the opposition of local Councilwoman Arroyo, Community Board 1, area churches and schools, and community residents, the city is going ahead with the contract. Just as with the construction of box stores or the closing of firehouses, the public’s voice cannot be ignored, particularly when a neighborhood’s economy, safety and quality of life are being threatened.