West 107th Street residents met with Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Robert Hess April 8 to discuss a temporary shelter on the block. Though Hess spent much of the meeting explaining how the shelter will affect the neighborhood until it closes Dec. 1, residents focused on converting the building into affordable housing after that date.
In the basement of Church of the Ascension, a few doors from the homeless shelter at 237 W. 107th St., residents expressed interest in seeing the building return to housing for low-income New Yorkers. The facility was previously used for single room occupancy (SRO) units, then as an illegal hostel.
“We really want a positive outcome beyond this particular annex being closed,” said Elizabeth Bergreen, who has lived on the block for five years. “There’s a real need in Manhattan Valley to provide low-income housing for seniors.”
Under the ownership of Mark Hersh, the building operated as the West Side Inn. Residents were angry when Hersh—who has a history of intimidating and harassing tenants in his SROs, located throughout the West Side—started receiving city money to house homeless women in need of transitional housing. In February, the Department of Homeless Services was set to turn the temporary situation into a full-time, 135-bed shelter with a nine-year contract when officials discovered that Hersh owned the facility. The department seemed to be unaware of his connection.
“It became clear in the original proposal we received that the owner of the building was misrepresented,” Hess told the crowd of several dozen who gathered at the church.
Hess would not elaborate on the details of how the owner was misrepresented.
The nine-year contract was scuttled, but the transitional housing for up to 80 homeless women will be in operation until December, with nonprofit Help USA providing services.
Neighborhood residents expressed concern about Hersh being held responsible for security and building maintenance because of his history. But Hess said the department took the “unusual step” of beefing up Help USA’s contract so that the nonprofit can take over security and maintenance.
“[Help USA] will not only provide services on site, but provide their own security on staff and do repairs on the building,” Hess said.
There will be 13 people on security staff responsible for the interior of the building, plus cameras. Security personnel will also walk the perimeter of the building and contact police if necessary.
Residents seemed pleased with the department’s plan for the shelter. John Duffell, pastor at Ascension, lauded Hess for addressing the community’s concerns prior to the meeting.
“What we’ve asked for we received, in terms of security and Help USA being a provider,” Duffell said. “We’ll make it through until November.”
But residents constantly returned to the question of what to do with the building after November.
Though the department has no jurisdiction over the building’s future, Hess said that he would set up a meeting with city officials and neighborhood leaders.
In a previous interview, Hersh told West Side Spirit that he is “disgusted” with the SRO business and plans to move to Florida.
Should Hersh in fact decide to leave the business, he could sell the SRO to a nonprofit, which could receive help from the city to turn the building into low-income housing, according to Stephan Russo, executive director of Goddard Riverside community Center.
“It’s difficult,” Russo told the crowd, “but not impossible to wrest an SRO from an owner and turn it into affordable housing.”
A call to Hersh for comment was not returned by press time.
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