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‘A Joke’ — Bronx Community Boards in Poor Neighborhoods Say They’re Already Saturated With Shelters

The pushback came at a community meeting that the Department of Homeless Services did not even attend.

SHARE ‘A Joke’ — Bronx Community Boards in Poor Neighborhoods Say They’re Already Saturated With Shelters

Bronx Community Board 6 members oppose making this building at 2248 Webster Ave. into a homeless shelter, June 13, 2023.

Jonathan Custodio/THE CITY

Two community boards representing some of the lowest-income areas in the city’s lowest-income borough have taken the rare step of coming together to tell the city: We have enough shelters, and we can’t host any more.

At an uncommon joint town hall attended by more than two dozen people this week at the P.S. X137 School Campus in Fordham Heights, Bronx Community Boards 5 and 6 protested what they say is the inequitable placement of homeless shelters in their districts.

They called on the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to start opening shelters around the city — particularly in districts that have few such facilities, or none at all. 

“This is a citywide crisis and we need to make sure that every community is helping to solve it,” said City Councilmember Oswald Feliz at the town hall. His district covers CB6, and both he and the board have opposed a shelter proposed earlier this year at 2248 Webster Ave. behind the Fordham Heights school complex. 

“We need to make sure that DHS plays a more proactive role, rather than just sitting back and watching our fair principles be ignored,” Feliz said. 

By the numbers, both community boards host more than their population-proportionate share of shelter facilities, even as the city itself has long recognized that “[e]xcessive concentrations of institutional uses can impede community revitalization efforts or jeopardize the quality of life of neighborhood residents,” according to a Fair Share report.

There is no quantifiable definition of what an area’s ‘fair share’ of shelters means, and no consequences — legal or otherwise — if the city locates shelters in a lopsided way.

Despite having nearly one million fewer residents than Queens — which is the city’s second most populous borough after Brooklyn — the Bronx has 41% more shelters: 129 compared to 75 in its neighbor to the east, according to a 2021 map produced by DHS under a project to track homeless facilities. Manhattan, with 1.6 million residents, has fewer shelters — 114 — than The Bronx, which has 1.4 million residents. Staten Island has just one shelter, with three more in the works.

In The Bronx, 84 of the 129 shelters in the borough — or 65% of the total — are located in just four of the borough’s 12 community districts, including the two that hosted Monday’s town hall. 

There are 20 shelters in CB5 and 21 shelters in CB6, according to that same DHS map

CB6 District Manager Rafael Moure-Punnett said at the town hall that another shelter is scheduled to open up this summer, for a total of 22 — not counting seven hotels now being used to temporarily house migrants.

DHS did not have a representative present at Monday’s town hall. 

People walk along a commercial stretch of Jerome Avenue in The Bronx’s Community Board 5, June 12, 2023.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The city has opened several sites in areas previously without shelters or with very few, including one on “Billionaires’ Row,” at the former Park Savoy Hotel on West 58th Street. 

CB6 Chair Evonne Capers said at the town hall the board got “no results” from a meeting with DHS earlier this month and suggested that they should protest the proposed shelters in their district “like every other community that don’t get any shelters.” 

CB5 Chair Angel Caraballo echoed that frustration. 

“DHS should be ashamed of itself for not being here. … Ladies and gentlemen, they make decisions and then we have to follow and we are the last ones to know,” Caraballo said. 

“Board 5 is not gonna take it anymore and we’re done with shelters. Give us more programs. Build more housing for them.”

The city administration addressed these issues in a statement sent to THE CITY on Tuesday afternoon. “As part of our equitable shelter siting approach, we continue to open shelters in communities that have never had any shelters, while ensuring that every community has adequate social safety net resources to support their neighbors in need,” said Neha Sharma, spokesperson for the Department of Social Services, which includes DHS. Those resources offer “those who fall on hard times in the community the opportunity to stabilize their lives.”

Sharma did not offer further details on which communities without shelters have recently opened sites, or provide the number of shelters per community district. 

More Wealth Means Fewer Shelters

Despite promises from Mayor Eric Adams and his predecessor Bill de Blasio to establish homeless shelters in districts without them, the facilities are still disproportionately located in low-income and heavily Black and nonwhite neighborhoods, according to an analysis by THE CITY in 2022 using data from DHS, the city Department of Buildings and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Wealthier and less diverse districts are often left entirely without shelters, or with very few, after locals organize to successfully shut or slow down homeless shelter proposals.

Last year, Morris Park residents successfully thwarted DHS plans for a 140-bed men’s homeless shelter after fierce pushback. The neighborhood is part of Community Board 11, the only one in The Bronx without a shelter. The median household income in Morris Park is $60,900, according to the NYU Furman Center. While that’s below the city’s median of $72,150, it’s well above the $45,640 median in The Bronx. 

Similar community opposition led to rejections of shelters in Bayside, Queens and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. Both neighborhoods don’t have any shelters and have median incomes of $92,020 and $78,130, respectively. 

Residents in Riverdale have staunchly opposed a homeless shelter, according to The Riverdale Press. Local elected officials have joined in the opposition, including state Senator Gustavo Rivera, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz and City Councilmember Eric Dinowitz, all Democrats.

The ‘Fair Share’ Joke

Under the “Fair Share” rule first adopted in 1990, the city must try to equitably place shelter locations.

Some of the purposes and goals of that agreement were to “site facilities equitably by balancing the considerations of community needs … and the social, economic, and environmental impacts of city facilities upon surrounding areas.”

But there is no quantifiable definition of what a “fair share” means, and no consequences — legal or otherwise — if the city locates shelters in a lopsided way.

“The fair share agreements that DHS produces, once it sites a shelter, are a joke,” said Moure-Punnett, noting that the most recent agreement he received deemed it fair to place a shelter within half a mile of multiple other shelters. 

He said developers will flock to low-income and largely Black and Latino districts like those in The Bronx because it is cheaper to buy properties there than in wealthier neighborhoods. 

According to two pages from that agreement shared with THE CITY, there are 10 shelters within a half-mile radius from the proposed Fordham Heights shelter site at 183rd Street and Webster Avenue.

“But according to the fair share rules, this is an equitable siting for a new shelter. And it’s because they’ve allowed the shelter provider and the real estate industry to decide – ‘Let’s build where it’s cheapest,’” Moure-Punnett added.

According to the agreement, because there aren’t any shelters within a 400-foot radius, DHS did not “anticipate any significant cumulative negative impact on neighborhood character by use of the Site, nor would such use contribute to a concentration of facilities that provide similar services.” 

DHS did not confirm if the two pages from the agreement were accurate.

At the meeting, Bronx resident Monique Williams said she spent years in the shelter system, and better support services are needed within it, June 13, 2023.

Jonathan Custodio/THE CITY

While most residents at the meeting were strongly against adding any more shelters in their districts, one attendee drew on her own experience living in shelters to help others understand exactly what it entails — and how existing shelters need to be improved. 

“We lived in a shelter but we said the shelter did not live in us,” said Monique Williams, 53, who said she grew up in the district and had to live in a shelter on Fordham Road with her family 26 years ago. “It was six of us living in a one-room with just a microwave. We had to eat basically fast food to heat it up because we didn’t have any money to go out to the restaurants.” 

Williams said that she did not oppose shelters in the district as long as those staying there have the necessary support, particularly with keeping their documents in order.  

“I don’t have a problem with the shelters being here, but if you’re gonna have a shelter here, help the people that’s in the shelter,” she said. 

Williams said she and her family had to move to four different shelters while they struggled with homelessness because the city lost their paperwork, forcing them to repeatedly complete intake forms. The last shelter they lived in was in Brooklyn, and her kids had to commute all the way to Kingsbridge in the northwest section of The Bronx to go to school. 

“We used to wake up early in the morning to take the train from Brooklyn, which was Sutter Avenue, and they used to go to school over here in Kingsbridge,” she said. These days, she owns a business in the same neighborhood she grew up in, she said.

Bronx Councilmember Pierina Sanchez added that there must be permanent solutions addressing inequities in housing and homelessness, citing legislation she co-sponsored in the City Council passed last month to extend the City FHEPs housing vouchers that aims to help tenants remain in their homes.

“We are coming out of one of the hardest periods in New York City. Inequities that existed beforehand became worse. The housing prices that existed beforehand became worse,” Sanchez said at the meeting. “And the way that we respond to that, it can’t be continued temporary solutions. We have to invest in permanence.”

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