By Olivia Scheck
MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — Commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, Robert Hess, defended the opening of a new Morningside Heights shelter and promised to boost building security on Thursday, easing dissatisfaction among residents about the department’s handling of the situation.
DHS opened the shelter at 237 W. 107th St. in mid-February, only one week after informing the local community board of the decision, infuriating some members of the community, who feared that it would disturb the upscale neighborhood.
Zoila Marte, a 30-year resident of West 107th Street, said before the meeting that she was fearful because the project did not seem to have been thoroughly planned out, but reported afterwards that she felt “very comfortable about it.”
Hess defended the short notice at the meeting, which took place in the basement of the Church of Ascension down the street from the shelter, saying that the department had been frantically attempting to accommodate demand for emergency housing.
“[The demand for housing] just kind of exploded on us,” Hess told the crowd of around 70 residents. “We’ve been opening facilities now in the last year at a rate of one-per-week, across the five boroughs of the city, just to keep up with demand.”
The department received a proposal from the owner of 237 W. 107 and began to assess whether it met the basic threshold for consideration, Hess said. However, the steps that followed were unusually rushed.
“We were so tight that…it passed threshold…at about five in the afternoon, [and] at about 6 p.m. I toured the building to see if it was in fact satisfactory,” the commissioner said. “It was, and within a very short period of time we started using it.”
While Hess said the department had originally intended to lease the space for nine years, he confirmed that they will now only be leasing it for nine months, meaning that the shelter will close in November.
“The community brought…concerns to us, we investigated, we found that they were valid concerns. As a result…I decided not to proceed with the contract,” Hess said, explaining the decision not to sign a standard nine-year contract with the building's owner.
“The ownership was misrepresented to us,” Hess told the crowd. “That’s all I’m gonna say about that.”
Still, some community members worried about what would happen to the block in the time between now and November.
“My concern is that there are people hanging out on the stoop now that we have nice weather,” Ellen Goodwin, whose sentiments were echoed by several other residents, told the commissioner. “I just want to make sure that everyone in this community…is well protected, that we’re safe, it’s secure and it’s clean.”
Hess reassured the audience by saying that he had taken what he called “the very unusual step” of supplementing the original budget for the shelter so that its operators could increase security and perform maintenance on the building.
The supplement, which will fund security cameras and 12 or 13 security staff to patrol the interior and exterior of the building, was approved on Wednesday, Hess said.
However, the commissioner warned the crowd that that this would not make the women living in the shelter invisible.
“For the 80 women that are currently staying a few doors down, this is their temporary home. So, like others that live in this area, they’re gonna be outside from time to time,” Hess explained.
Catherine Rothwell, a shelter resident, claimed the women were being falsely accused. Rothwell, 45, said the women who live at the shelter are never outside after 10 p.m.
“We have to be in our bed at 10, and they come to the doors, checking each bed," Rothwell claimed. "So there’s nobody out there. So that’s a lie.”