Update: Homeless Hostel Plan Compromise

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UPDATE  MARCH 3, 2010

Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito has brokered a compromise with the Department of Homeless Services regarding the use of a West 107th Street hostel as emergency homeless housing.

In order to accommodate a growing homeless population and quell community opposition, the West Side Inn Hostel, at 237 W. 107th St., will continue to offer bed space to 80 women until November. But the department has scrapped plans for a full, transitional homeless shelter for 135 women after investigating concerns about the landlord and building.

“[Department of Homeless Services] conducted an investigation into the landlord of the building and decided not to move forward with a contract for a long-term women’s shelter at this site,” Commissioner Hess wrote to Mark-Viverito in a March 2 letter. “We would welcome the opportunity to establish a community advisory group to work directly with DHS to deal with concerns about the site, provided the community would like to participate.”

West Side Spirit reported Feb. 23 that Mark Hersh, the hostel’s owner, had open violations at this property and a history of tenant harassment allegations. The department recently began paying him an undisclosed amount of money to house homeless clients at the West 107th Street hostel, which offers single room occupancy (SRO) rooms for low-income tenants and accommodations for tourists (that use is considered illegal by the city). The department took heat for not giving the community notice about the homeless plan, which was described as an emergency situation.

The hostel had been housing approximately 40 homeless women, a number that grew to more than 50, according to community members involved in the matter.

But some civic groups and community leaders are not happy about the deal. Kurt Pohmer, a member of the West 107th Street Block Association, is organizing neighbors to oppose the plan. Originally, he says the group was told that only 40 to 58 women would be housed at the site.

“How do we know it’s not going to be more than 80? We thought it was 40,” Pohmer said. “Numbers jumping around, extended. Nothing concrete. I feel we have to keep the pressure on, and we will.”

Rev. John Duffell, pastor at the neighboring Church of the Ascension, at 221 W. 107th St., says the matter is far from settled. Duffel criticized the department for leaving the building under Hersh’s responsibility.

“There needs to be a credible agency not just for services, but maintenance and security of the building,” Duffell said.

And because the number of homeless women has changed over the last two weeks, Duffell said he wants further proof that the emergency shelter will only house up to 80 women.

“It’s not adequate enough, as far as I’m concerned,” Duffell said of the commissioner’s letter.

Mark-Viverito defended the compromise, arguing the deal is a balance between helping those in need while addressing community concerns.

“The community seemed pleased when I presented it,” Mark-Viverito said. “We are all doing our share. These individuals are going to need support.”

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REPORTED MARCH 2, 2010. APPEARS IN MARCH 4 ISSUE

EMERGENCY HOMELESS SHELTER PLAN ON HOLD

Plans for a transitional homeless shelter for 135 women at the West Side Inn Hostel are on hold while the city investigates building conditions and the landlord.

“We will be making a decision [about the homeless shelter] shortly, following an investigation,” Kristy Buller, deputy press secretary for the department, said in an email.

Larry Belinsky, president and CEO of Help USA, the non-profit that is providing services for women at the shelter, told the Columbia Spectator that his organization will continue to service clients already at the hostel, but it will not be a part of the contract to house 135 homeless women.

There are currently 40 to 50 women at the hostel, according to community groups.

The hostel, at 237 W. 107th St., offers single room occupancy (SRO) rooms for low-income tenants and accommodations for tourists, an arrangement the city says is illegal. But citing an urgent need for housing, the city recently moved several homeless women there, with plans to shelter even more. The arrangement drew heat from community groups, who complained about a lack of notification, open violations in the building and the reputation of hostel’s owner, Mark Hersh, who has been dogged by allegations of tenant harassment throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Help USA backed out of the arrangement after information surfaced about the ownership structure of the building, according to the Spectator.

“The person who purported to us to be the owner was not the owner. … The building is owned by a corporate entity,” Belinsky, a graduate of Columbia’s business school, told the paper.

West Side Spirit reported Feb. 23 that Hersh is the president of the corporate entity, G. M. Canmar Residence Corporation. Hours before this paper published that article about the emergency homeless housing plan, the department started investigating community allegations of landlord harassment.

According to the department, Help USA identified Hersh’s property as a potential space for department clients, as part of an open-ended request for proposal process. But Belinsky contradicted that account in his interview with the  Spectator. According to that publication, Belinsky said the reverse: that the department contacted Help USA several weeks earlier to ask if the non profit would offer its services at the hostel.

“They [DHS] had a building that a landlord had offered to them, and they were in a bit of a jam,” Belinsky told the  Spectator.

A spokesperson with Help USA declined to comment on the discrepancy, and Buller, the department’s deputy press secretary, did not respond to questions about the matter.

Community Board 7 hosted a Feb. 23 meeting about the homeless shelter. Board members and attendees were incensed that many groups were unaware of the proposal, and were angered at the loss of affordable, SRO housing, according to Mel Wymore, the board’s chair. Moving forward, she wants a plan in place that identifies properties and landlords who can handle an influx of homeless clients.

“We should be able to plan for it rather than look to emergency housing that doesn’t serve the community and doesn’t serve the homeless either,” Wymore said.

At press time, the full board was slated to evaluate the situation at its March 2 meeting.

The homeless shelter proposal also drew criticism from Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito. She met with department Commissioner Robert Hess to discuss the future of the shelter.

“I am opposed to the current proposal to open a transitional housing shelter at 237 and 239 W. 107th St.,” Mark-Viverito said in a statement, “based on the information I have learned about the history of this building and its owner.”

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