It started two years ago with cheerful chalk messages scrawled on the sidewalk of West 79th Street in Manhattan, welcoming homeless men who had moved to the Lucerne Hotel.

The shelter residents there had previously, at first, been greeted by the Upper West Side with insults, fear and threats.

Fed up with the flood of anti-homeless rhetoric, neighborhood volunteers banded together to try to counter it. They called themselves the Open Hearts Initiative, and organized donation drives, volunteer-led services like counseling and political rallies in support of the shelter. 

They also got to know those living in the hotel, including Shams DaBaron, famously known as “Da Homeless Hero,” who has since become a full-time housing rights activist.

The focus of the group’s original purpose, the Lucerne, has now returned to being a hotel for tourists; the men staying there left last summer. But the Open Hearts brand struck a chord elsewhere.

“We were having people reach out to us and say, like, ‘Oh, we really need Open Hearts in Midtown, or ‘We really need Open Hearts in the Upper East Side,’” said Corinne Low, a co-founder of the group now serving as its executive director. “There was a niche that we were filling.”

As new fights erupt over how to deal with homelessness — with Mayor Eric Adams continuing controversial homeless encampment sweeps and canceling at least three yet-to-open shelters in the face of neighborhood opposition — Open Hearts is ramping up efforts to help other New Yorkers who want to welcome struggling people rather than shoo them away.

Today, Open Hearts has chapters in at least four other neighborhoods: Midtown, Lower Manhattan, Douglaston in Queens, and Riverdale in The Bronx. The group has a nonprofit sponsor, the Revson Foundation, and hired a full-time staffer, Sara Newman, last year. (The Revson Foundation is a funder of THE CITY, which we disclose per our ethics policy. Open Hearts is also supported by Trinity Church Wall Street, which is a funder of THE CITY.)

Newman previously worked as legislative director for mid-Manhattan Councilmember Keith Powers and said she was drawn to the work partly because she saw firsthand the power of organized, politicized opponents of new shelters — but rarely saw vocal support working in the other direction.

“I had seen how helpful it would have been, in particular cases that I had dealt with, if there had been 40 people calling the office and saying, ‘Actually, we’re really excited about this stabilization bed site’ or ‘Really looking forward to welcoming people,’ in addition to the 40 people who are calling and being angry about it,” she said.

‘Being a Good Neighbor’

Shifting the narrative around what neighbors think of new shelters, and the people who live there, is a big part of what the new Open Hearts outposts have in common.

In the Lower Manhattan branch, volunteers have spoken up to support more beds for homeless New Yorkers at virtual community board meetings, or countered misconceptions about unhoused people in Zoom chat boxes or on social media.

In Riverdale, at the newly created Northwest Bronx Open Hearts chapter, co-founder Sasha Kesler speaks with her neighbors and members of her synagogue to “understand and dispel stereotypes.”

“There’s a lot of fear that comes from the unknown,” she said.

A former Department of Homeless Services administrator, now working in the private sector, Kesler helped launch that chapter in response to intense backlash to a planned 130-bed shelter facility for men, as the Riverdale Press previously reported.

Sara Newman, left, and Corinne Low, center, of the Open Hearts Initiative help pack up welcome kits to send to new shelters in Manhattan, May 22, 2022. Credit: Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

In Douglaston, a shelter for 75 homeless women is slated to open, the first ever in the Queens neighborhood. It has been met with intense backlash and a lawsuit from a local civic association.

The building is directly adjacent to the Zion Episcopal Church where Rev. Lindsay Lunnum serves as rector. She reached out to the Upper West Side Open Hearts team for guidance on how to create a chapter of the group last year as the debate over the shelter reached a fever pitch, she said. She tries to combat it in her congregation and elsewhere.

“A lot of what being a good neighbor is — at least from my perspective, as a church leader, and a neighborhood leader — is to dispel myths about our new neighbors,” she said. “They’re human beings and they’re fellow New Yorkers, so they have every right to live in our great neighborhood.”

Welcome Kits

The Open Hearts method is not just talk. Newman and Low say many volunteers in new chapters come not for heated debates, but to offer material support for homeless people.

Often, that looks like creating welcome kits for new residents — filled with things like toiletries, snacks and socks — and organizing “free stores” of donated items, or creating handwritten cards to welcome people moving into a new shelter, often with flyers on how to access services and help.

Doing that work is how Dudley “Smitty” Smith began volunteering with the group’s Midtown Manhattan chapter. The retired engineer, originally from Michigan, moved to the neighborhood a year and a half ago and soon after sought out volunteer opportunities as his wife began a study program at the Bard Graduate Center.

Some of the goods in the welcome bags for people moving into homeless shelters, May 22, 2022. Credit: Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

In his first months in New York, he worked briefly with Meals on Wheels, then with a mutual aid group doing food relief in Hell’s Kitchen, he said. Then he discovered Open Hearts and learned about a shelter for men that opened last fall on West 58th Street in the shadow of Billionaires’ Row — just a few blocks from the couple’s dorm apartment — following a years-long legal battle.

He was shocked by comments and petitions he found online from those who hadn’t wanted the shelter to open.

“‘They’re drug addicts, they’re pedophiles, they smell bad, they’re going to, you know, spit on the street and kick your dog.’ It was just horrible,” he recalled reading. “The idea of countering that appeals to me…just countering all the bad crap that people throw out there.”

Smith coordinated with the shelter’s staff, run through the provider group Westhab, to find out what the residents may need.

“I’m pretty privileged and have always had a place to live. So I tend to think of, you know, microwaves and toaster ovens when I’ve moved to a new place,” he said. “They gave me a couple of tweaks to the list.”

What ended up in the order: Bottles of shampoo, backpacks and “two huge boxes” of waterproof shower shoes, he said.

Next Chapters

Where, exactly, Open Hearts may be needed next is hard to predict, group members say.

The next steps from City Hall on shelters are somewhat unclear. Under the de Blasio administration, DHS moved forward for years with plans to open at least one shelter in every community district in the city. At the end of 2021, those locations had been chosen, with plans in the works for 99 new shelters.

But whether the new mayor now will follow through on that plan is up in the air, and Adams’ recent backtracking on shelter plans in Chinatown and The Bronx further clouds the picture.

A spokesperson for DHS, Julia Savel said “we are absolutely committed to equitable siting of shelters across the City” and that the agency is “committed to moving the shelter pipeline forward and seeing those sited shelters through to completion.”

Regarding the recent changes to the Chinatown shelters, she said “we have decided to re-evaluate this shelter capacity to an area with fewer services and shelter for those experiencing unsheltered homelessness.”

Back on Oct., 12 2020, Shams DaBaron, then a resident of the Lucerne Hotel, and advocate Corinne Low discuss organizing support for homeless New Yorkers. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“Our goal is always to work with communities to understand their needs and equitably distribute shelters across all five boroughs to serve our most vulnerable New Yorkers,” Savel said.

Open Hearts leaders say they are working on proactively expanding in Midtown and Lower Manhattan. Elsewhere in the city, the group is looking to help any neighborhood that needs guidance on how to help existing or future shelters.

“We have a lot of resources that we’ve pulled together over the past couple of years,” said Newman, including guides on attending a first community board meeting, connecting with shelter residents and “how to find other like-minded people in the neighborhood.”

Low added: “If somebody comes to us with that energy, kind of ready to go, we can do that all day.”

The group joins a long list of long-running homeless services organizations in the city, and its leaders know they are just a part of that network of much more veteran organizers. But when it comes to organizing “housed neighbors on behalf of people directly impacted by homelessness,” the group feels it has found a novel calling, Low said.

“I think people don’t think of ‘I’m happy to welcome homeless New Yorkers and happy to have a diverse community’ — they don’t think of that as a political issue in the same way that people who say ‘Oh, I don’t want that here’ think of it as a political issue,” Low said.

For Lunnum in Douglaston, mobilizing around that idea seems the only way forward absent “permanent housing solutions” from City Hall, she said.

“I don’t think shelters are the solution to the housing crisis. However, it’s all we have right now,” she said. “I don’t want to deny women who are currently without housing.”