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Michael Bonano helps Luz De Jesus load a moving van with her belongings from a Midtown shelter, Sept. 11, 2020.
Michael Bonano helps Luz De Jesus load a moving van with her belongings from a Midtown shelter, Sept. 11, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

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A Life in Limbo for Homeless Families at Mercy of City’s Moving Whims

Harmonia Hotel resident Mike Bonano has used a rented U-Haul to help neighbors cope with Mayor de Blasio’s whiplash decisions on shelters. Bonano and his wife have been forced to move three times in as many years.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decree reached Mike Bonano, he rented a U-Haul right away.

A part-time driver for a moving company, Bonano, 50, knows how to pack up. He’s also homeless.

So, when he heard on Wednesday that the shelter where he and his wife, Dawn, 47, live — the Harmonia Hotel on East 31st Street — would be emptied out to make room for single homeless men being kicked out of a hotel on the Upper West Side, he knew what to do.

“I moved all my stuff out this morning and put it into storage, except for two bags of clothes and my toiletries,” he told THE CITY Thursday evening. “We’re just waiting for them to let us know, alright, it’s your turn to leave.”

But now the couple and their neighbors at the Harmonia are in a holding pattern.

Late in the day Friday, after an outcry from attorneys, advocates and local elected officials, the city agreed to pause all moves at the Harmonia, according to a spokesperson for the Legal Aid Society.

Legal Aid had threatened to sue the city over the abrupt move-out order at the Midtown shelter — ordered by de Blasio to make room for homeless men who have been living at the Lucerne Hotel on West 79th Street. For weeks, some well-funded Upper West Siders have pressured the city to remove residents of the Lucerne from the area, and readied a lawsuit.

The reprieve for the Harmonia was “news to me,” Bonano told THE CITY by phone while he drove from one moving job to the next on Friday evening.

A Human ‘Ping-Pong Ball’

If he and his wife are made to move, it would be the fourth shelter they’ve been sent to in three years. Each relocation was announced with little warning, Bonano said.

But by now, they know the drill. Some of their neighbors at the Harmonia who are newer to the system, however, took the news hard.

“I seen other tenants basically in tears because they don’t know where they’re going, and they haven’t experienced this,” he said. “Unfortunately, I already went through this three times.”

Since the move-out order came down on Wednesday, Bonano has used his rented U-Haul to help others who were also getting booted.

He moved a couple to their newly assigned shelter in Long Island City, he said, and helped another move things to a storage facility. At least 34 people had been relocated from the Harmonia before the pause took effect Friday, according to news reports.

On Friday, Bonano got Luz De Jesus, 25, and her two-year-old Mackenley Zamilus, 2, from one shelter on West 39th Street to another near the Manhattan Bridge. “I’m being played like a ping-pong ball,” De Jesus said.

Luz De Jesus, 25, kisses her son, Mackenley Zamilus, 2, ahead of a move to a shelter near the Manhattan Bridge, Sept. 11, 2020.
Luz De Jesus, 25, kisses her son, Mackenley Zamilus, 2, ahead of a move to a shelter near the Manhattan Bridge, Sept. 11, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Bonano has a storage unit, something many homeless New Yorkers rely on as they try to get back on their feet. As THE CITY has previously reported, property left in storage by homeless people is often sold off at auction or gets lost, despite a city program that covers the cost.

At the shelters where Bonano has lived, the rules are strict, he said: You’re only allowed to take two bags of things per household.

“If you have more than two bags, they’re very nasty and they tell you, ‘Well, that’s not our responsibility.’ Either you get rid of them, put them into storage — whether you have the money or not — or just throw them away,” he said. “It’s bad enough you’re homeless as it is, and then you’re throwing away what little property you have left.”

An ‘Unnecessary Dislocation’

Sources working in social services, both in and outside of the administration, said de Blasio’s call to empty out the Upper West Side hotel — a direct order from City Hall to the Department of Homeless Services — was an anomaly. Mayors rarely weigh in directly on the locations of shelters.

But the shuffling of people between shelters is hardly a new phenomenon.

New York court decrees dictate that every single adult and many families have a right to shelter, and changes are made quickly to accommodate those who need to be housed. Some shelters have time limits. Domestic violence shelters, for example, have a maximum stay of 180 days.

During the pandemic, the population in the city’s shelters has seen big changes.

Daily shelter population for families has dropped to 13,275 as of June, a 9% decrease since the same point last year, according to data compiled by the Coalition for the Homeless. At the same time, the number of single adults has increased by 8.5%, from 17,887 in June 2019 to 19,412 in June of this year.

“The pandemic has necessitated a massive amount of upheaval,” said Catherine Trapani, executive director at Homeless Services United, an advocacy group representing shelter service providers, including those at both the Harmonia and the Lucerne hotels.

That movement, however, has been necessary in many cases, she stressed — including moving people into hotels to avoid shelters where it’s impossible to maintain social distance.

But the decisions made about moving people out of the Lucerne and the Harmonia, she said, were an “unnecessary dislocation.”

“Every time somebody who is already experiencing homelessness becomes unmoored again and again, is a traumatic event,” said Trapani.

‘They Keep You Blind’

The first time the Bonanos were kicked out of a shelter, it was a bewildering and “very emotional” experience, Mike Bonano said.

The couple and their teenage daughter became homeless three years ago when their landlord in Maspeth, Queens, sold the building where the family had lived and operated a pet grooming business, he said.

They moved to another apartment in the area, but the landlord refused to turn on the heat or hot water for six months. To pay for a portable boiler, space heaters and a hot plate, the family racked up a $3,000 electricity bill over those months. It wiped out their savings, and they ended up on the street.

They first arrived at a family shelter on 49th Street and 11th Avenue in Manhattan, but were moved to another shelter on West 110th Street called the Parkview with little warning.

“You don’t know where you’re going until that day when the buses pull up,” Bonano said. “They have the location where they’re sending you. Until then, they keep you blind.”

‘It Starts All Over’

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, the Parkview was converted from a family shelter to a shelter for single men, he said. That meant the Bonanos had to go.

“They’ve just been bouncing us around from one shelter to another shelter,” he said. “Every time you feel you’re getting somewhere, and you get a voucher to go find an apartment, it seems like it starts all over again.”

It’s unclear what will happen to them now. Inquiries to DHS and City Hall about the status of the Harmonia and the Lucerne were not immediately returned.

Bonano was readying to spend the weekend helping other homeless friends relocate. He charges just the cost of gas.

“I’m not making any money off this,” he said.

When and if the Bonanos get their new shelter assignment, they will make do. Mike is keeping his fingers crossed for a place in Manhattan, where Dawn has weekly appointments to treat panic attacks and anxiety. Riding the train alone is a struggle for her.

“We don’t know where we’re going to end up at,” he said.

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