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City Opens 'Surprise Shelter' in Williamsburg Hotel, Angering Neighbors

By Gwynne Hogan | October 5, 2017 7:41am
 The city began renting rooms in the Union Avenue hotel in July, according to the city.
The city began renting rooms in the Union Avenue hotel in July, according to the city.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

WILLIAMSBURG — A "surprise shelter" opened over the summer in a former Union Avenue hotel without notification to the community, an indication that the city has quietly backpedaled on a pledge to warn neighbors at least seven days in an advance before moving in homeless people.

All 54 rooms at The Metropolitan at 437 Union Ave. are being rented out by the Department of Homeless Services, the agency confirmed, and will be used by the department for a minimum of two years, according to Jen Gutierrez, the chief of staff at Local Councilman's Antonio Reynoso's Office, who got wind of the shelter had opened from concerned constituents.

“There was no heads-up," said Gutierrez. “They didn't speak to Antonio directly."

DHS, which moved homeless residents into The Metropolitan in July, also didn't warn the local community board, Gutierrez said. The agency left a message with a part-time staffer in Reynoso's office on July 20, though the word "shelter" wasn't mentioned, she said.

Reynoso and his top staff members are in constant communication with DHS about other shelters in the district, so the fact that they wouldn't mention the new shelter to any of them directly further frustrated the councilman, Gutierrez said.

DHS spokesman Isaac McGinn refuted Gutierrez' claims by mentioning the July 20 call to Reynoso's part-time staffer.

When asked how long DHS planned to use The Metropolitan for homeless New Yorkers, McGinn declined to give a date, citing the mayor's plan to build 90 new shelters and stop using commercial hotels to house homeless New Yorkers by 2023

If the city is able to phase out its use of the Metropolitan or any other hotel before that, it will, McGinn added.

"While we are phasing out cluster units as first priority and increasing high-quality borough-based shelter capacity citywide, we are using commercial hotels like this location as a bridge to provide shelter to homeless New Yorkers, including families with children, who would otherwise be turned out into the street," he said.

'Surprise Shelter'

Reynoso's staffers are meeting with the nonprofit Acacia Network, which is operating the shelter, later this week to discuss a host of concerns from residents living near the hotel, some of whom have rallied against its opening under an anonymous Facebook page and mailing list dubbed "Surprise Shelter."

"The city has been putting up 'surprise shelters' in many other areas, and communities HAVE been successful in getting them removed," the page said. "If you want to stop SURPRISE SHELTERS in New York City, feel free to join our list no matter where you live."

The neighbor behind the group declined to comment on the record, though she said about 150 people were on its mailing list.

Jim Peet, one of the residents on the mailing list, said he took issue with the secrecy of the shelter's opening and the impact it's had on the neighborhood since it opened in July.

“It’s very different than it was even four months ago," he said, adding he'd lived in the area for a year after moving from Manhattan.

Before the shelter opened, "I was never accosted. I was never harassed. I never saw the evidence, like an empty bag of what looks a crack bag which I saw right outside my house. These things just did not happen," he said.

A man outside the shelter had also asked him for money repeatedly, he said.

"It's not the experience that I want to be dealing with when I’m with my children," he said.

Peter Chang, a manager at the supermarket Sunac Natural Food across the street from the hotel, said he'd gotten in several arguments with people trying to buy prepared food with food stamps, which isn't covered by the program.

"We lost customers," he said. "Before when it was a hotel, the hotel customers came in for breakfast, lunch."

Residents of the Metropolitan don't have access to kitchens, but they're given three meals a day, according to DHS.

The 90th Precinct and Reynoso's office have been fielding concerned and confused calls throughout the summer from neighbors wondering what happened at the hotel, as well as calls about drug paraphernalia being found nearby.

And while a group of neighbors are mobilizing against it, at least one resident said she welcomed the shelter residents to her block.

Rosita Avineri, a 61-year-old immigrant from Colombia, wagged an enthusiastic finger in the air with excitement when she found about the shelter a few paces away from her Devoe Street home. 

"Bingo," she said. "I can go and help. I can volunteer. Who am I to judge that?"