Protestors Rally Against 59th Street Women’s Shelter: VIDEO

protest homeless shelter 59th street

Protestors rally against the women’s shelter expected to open next year on West 59th Street

In May, a petition was started by the “Friends of Ederle Playground” opposing the forthcoming women’s shelter at 537 West 59th Street (between West End and Amsterdam avenues), and on Tuesday, a rally was held at the site.

The shelter, which is expected to open in 2024, will be managed by Project Renewal, a New York City nonprofit organization established in 1967 that provides housing, health care services and workforce development programs to individuals struggling with drug addiction and mental health. The Department of Homeless Services will oversee the operation, which will have more than 70 multidisciplinary staff members including a director, supervisors, intake coordinator, social workers, nurses, psychiatrists, recreation specialist, occupational therapist, entitlements specialist, housing specialists, and residential aides. There will also be staff members present 24/7 for safety purposes.

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The petition states, “While we support a compassionate solution for individuals experiencing homelessness in New York City, we strongly oppose the proposed location of this large-scale temporary shelter given that it would be located directly next to the Gertrude Ederle Playground and its closeness and proximity to several schools.”

The petition highlights the presence of seven schools within a two-block radius of the incoming shelter. These schools run the gamut from pre-k to college, including graduate studies. Additionally, Ederle Playground is located right beside it. “In a city where it’s illegal to sell wine next door to a playground, Project Renewal wants you to believe it’s safe to bring in drug-addicted people from all over the city and to build their smoking courtyard next to the playground. Imagine that, trying to convince us that selling a bottle of Merlot is more dangerous to our children than chronic secondhand smoke and a steady stream of drug addicts,” said Rachel Nazarian, M.D., co-creator of the online petition. Dr. Nazarian called out Eric Rosenbaum, President & CEO of Project Renewal, stating that they’re blinded by the $500 million they’re getting from the city for this project. “They don’t care if the Ederle Playground turns into a cloud of secondhand smoke. They don’t care if our most vulnerable community members, our children, are side by side with drug addicts.”

The West 59th Street shelter is currently under construction, and the work was audible during the press conference.

59th street women's shelter construction

Dozens of attendees showed up to the rally, with the vast majority holding signs opposing the project.

west 59th street shelter petition

While we didn’t notice any counter-protestors, there was signage and chalk art expressing support for the project.

homeless neighbors welcome 59th street

chalk art supporting 59th street shelter

Once completed, the facility will have 200 beds for single women in dorm-style rooms. It will also include an 800-square-foot commercial kitchen to serve shelter residents three meals a day, plus snacks. Another feature of the forthcoming space is a 1,500 square-foot-medical clinic, a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), that will be open to the community. A security company will be contracted and trained to provide security within and around the building, which will have an 11 p.m. curfew and a no-visitor policy for its residents.

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The petition goes on to state that the shelter “will provide Suboxone (an alternative to Methadone) openly to the general public.” In an interview with ILTUWS On June 1, Dr. Nazarian, a board-certified dermatologist and a resident living nearby, expressed doubts about the effectiveness of Suboxone, stating, “I’m just curious to know if anybody gets weaned off of these drugs because that’s how you’re supposed to do it.”

ILTUWS reached out to the Project Renewal team and discovered that the shelter’s onsite doctor will be writing prescriptions for Suboxone (a prescription medicine used to treat opioid addiction in adults), however, it will not be dispensed at the primary care clinic or anywhere else in the women’s shelter. Patients would need to pick up their prescription drugs from a pharmacy.

Protestors rally against the West 59th Street women’s shelter on Tuesday

Dr. Russell Berg, a physician at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Washington, was also interviewed by ILTUWS. Berg is embedded in the Mary Pilgrim Inn, a converted hotel that provides housing for homeless men and women who struggle with addiction and mental illness. “Suboxone is the sharpest tool we have to fight the opioid epidemic,” Berg stated. “The data shows that approximately  50% of those treated with Suboxone eventually achieve long-term recovery from opioid use disorder, which is actually very good – especially when compared to treatments for other diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure.”

Dr. Berg further explained that Suboxone is not a perfect fit for everyone. “It works for a lot of people. The specific advantages of Suboxone include its ease of access as many doctors can prescribe it and most pharmacies can fill the medication. This is because it’s a very safe medication and the risk of overdose on Suboxone is extremely low. Suboxone treats opioid withdrawal and cravings, which helps people stay away from drugs like fentanyl, and also using Suboxone protects from opioid overdose if someone does use fentanyl while taking the medication.”

At the press conference, ILTUWS shared its findings regarding Project Renewal’s plan to fill prescriptions without actually distributing pharmaceuticals onsite, asking Dr. Nazarian if that changed her opinion about anything. “No, not at all,” she noted without losing a beat. “You know, if you look at their plans, they have a smoking courtyard that’s being built right next to where the playground is. How can they say they care about anything if they’re going to allow chronic secondhand smoke to just waft into where all children are playing? This is about money, it’s always been about money, it’s a $500 million deal. They’re still billing [for the prescriptions]. I mean, they’re acting as if writing a prescription doesn’t mean they’re not making money off of this. You make a lot of money writing prescriptions. That’s actually the quickest way to make money because you can bill and it takes no time. So, if anything, it actually makes me feel a little bit worse. Because if somebody is getting medication for opioid addiction, they should also be getting consistent counseling along with it.”

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As an FQHC, Project Renewal informs us they’re legally obligated to be accessible to non-resident community members. Their services will include primary care, women’s health, gender-affirming care, HIV treatment, behavioral health services, and care management offered in-person and via telehealth. According to their experience, they anticipate that fewer than 5% of individuals they serve at the 59th Street Shelter will require Suboxone prescriptions. Once they ramp up, Project Renewal plans to expand their healthcare access to include low-income neighbors as well.

The petition calls Project Renewal “infamous for the numerous murders and deaths from negligence in many of their other shelters.” One specific incident took place a week before Christmas in 2022 at Project Renewal’s New Providence Women’s Shelter on East 45th Street near Third Avenue in Midtown, when 27-year-old Victoria Goode was stabbed to death by her roommate, according to sources within the organization. Yemani Vasquez, a resident of the shelter, told CBS News, “I personally don’t feel safe in the facility. I’m misplaced, but that’s what happens when you’re in the system.” The perpetrator, Charmaine Crossman, 42, fled the scene after the attack but was caught four days later by the police.

The Project Renewal team says there have been two murders in their 55-year-plus history. The second occurred in April 2015 when West Spruill, a former Project Renewal resident, abducted and murdered Ana Charle, the 36-year-old director of Project Renewal, outside the Bronx facility at 4380 Bronx Boulevard. According to The New York Times, Spruill “forced her to undress in her car, chased her as she tried to flee and then shot her in the street, killing her.” A former colleague of the departed, Wanda L. Rio, described Charle as “A wonderful person. An excellent mother, a hard worker. She was a great leader. She was the director of the program and very caring about the population that we work with.”

The petition also refers to the Lucerne Hotel on West 79th Street – which became an emergency pandemic shelter operated by Project Renewal – as “controversial.” The city transferred approximately 283 homeless men to The Lucerne hotel in July 2020 as a response to overcrowding at shelters during COVID-19. With numerous New York City hotels vacant at the time, they were seen as opportunities to assist the homeless population during a difficult time in world history. While some community members welcomed the new residents with open arms, others expressed concerns about trouble that seemed to loom around the building and surrounding area.

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In August 2020, seven Lucerne residents were relocated due to violating the organization’s “Good Neighbor Policy.” In November 2020, a judge ruled to move the remaining men from The Lucerne to the Radisson Hotel in the Financial District, following some improvement in the pandemic situation. During its operation, the Project Renewal team says they successfully placed 127 people in permanent housing from The Lucerne.

Regarding the petition’s “allegations concerning Project Renewal employees engaging in unethical and sexually inappropriate behavior with shelter residents,” a Project Renewal representative told us that in 2017, a client made allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior by one of their employees. They added that investigations were conducted by both outside council and the Department of Homeless Services, but they were unable to substantiate or corroborate the claims. Project Renewal also stated that no similar allegations were made about the employee during their 11-year tenure, and that they’re unaware of any similar allegations made about other employees.

ILTUWS also reached out to the NYPD, but they declined to comment on their experience with and knowledge of Project Renewal, referring us instead to the Department of Homeless Services, whose comments were positive.

Many local parents attended Monday’s protest to voice their concerns. Amjad Pervez, who lives at a nearby condo with his kids, told us his apartment faces directly into Ederle Playground and the incoming shelter. “For the last six, seven years. They grew up playing in this playground and they still play in this playground. So basically, that’s what my concern is. I’m obviously not against homeless shelters, homeless people need to be housed somewhere. I have total sympathy for that. But I think there has to be a place for everything. And I think the politicians should have thought a little bit more about this.”

The Friends of Ederle Playground are working in collaboration with Gerstman PLLC, a government relations law firm, on their campaign against the women’s shelter. During the protest, managing director Brad Gertman outlined their next steps, which include engaging elected officials, with “Gale Brewer being the first and foremost,” Gertman said. “And you know, Brad Lander as the City Comptroller and Mark Levine as the Borough President. I mean, they all have levers that they can pull to have checks and balances on the development of a shelter adjacent to a playground.” Gertman also said they plan on introducing legislation to prevent shelters from being adjacent to playgrounds or schoolyards, describing these as “common sense kinds of things, you know. Initiatives to try to protect our children in New York City. There’s clearly going to be an influx of people, homeless, deranged, mentally ill, sick. And yeah, we have to take care of them. We have to look at all areas of the city and we have to exclude children. Most importantly, we must exclude children.”

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Project Renewal tells us they’ve met with most of the institutions in the immediate neighborhood over the last two years, having met with Community Board 7 twice. “We’re excited to work with Hudson Companies to construct this modern, purpose-built women’s shelter, with robust health and social services to help our clients on their paths to permanent housing. Our work here will build on our 55 years of experience providing health care, shelter, and wraparound support to our fellow New Yorkers.”

Everyone who attended Tuesday’s rally seemed to be on the same page, except this guy.


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