On May 3, 2020, without warning or public comment, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio began dumping into luxury hotels near a Upper West Side residential neighborhood what would ultimately become a 730-man army of broken, derelict, homeless adult men in various stages of disintegration and crisis. On July 27, the mayor sent the most aggressive of these men—283 in total—to the Lucerne Hotel for quarter.
In response to Covid-19, the mayor moved the men from downtown homeless shelters, where they had access to critical social services, to the hotels, where services are illusory. The Department of Homeless Services claims the hotels have on-site case management, whatever that means, and housing placement assistance, but the services these men actually need—mental health, substance abuse, medical care, life skills, and residential services and support—are provided “off-site.” Translation: no services at the hotels.
Since these men arrived, Upper West Siders within a ten-block radius, from West 77th Street to West 87th Street, have been treated to street theater comprised of unmasked heroin addicts nodding off next to non-socially distancing crack heads; registered sex offenders arguing with the violently and untreated mentally ill; and idle men publicly drinking and using drugs alongside menacing beggars.
If this blight were limited to the spectacle of public nuisance, then it might be a deeply unpleasant but ultimately bearable temporary fact of life for conscientious New Yorkers already suffering from pandemic-related sacrifice fatigue. After all, the Upper West Side is a family-oriented neighborhood defined not only by its proximity to high culture and Central and Riverside Park, but by its “reputation as one of the most liberal enclaves in New York and in the entire country,” according to The New York Times.
Out of 55 community districts in New York City, Community District 7, which encompasses the Upper West Side, ranks the ninth highest in available shelter beds for homeless people. This neighborhood goes beyond its so-called “fair share” of societal burden and has earned its liberal reputation.
Good Neighbors Don’t Attack People with Knives
But even good liberals have children and an instinct for self-preservation. The vagrants have not comported themselves as “neighbors,” as de Blasio’s functionaries and one particularly noxious neighborhood City Council member, Helen Rosenthal, have euphemistically taken to saying. Rather, they have preyed on unsuspecting residents. The brief history of vagrant colonization is one of repeat terrors and usurpations, as a handful of incidents immediately following the latest arrival demonstrate:
- On August 5, a 56-year old man dining al fresco with his wife on West 75th Street in a restaurant’s make-shift public dining facility was punched in the face by a man.
- On August 6, a woman buying a MetroCard in the iconic 72nd Street subway station was stabbed with a “long knife” in the back by a man. In the same station, on August 9, a woman waiting for the subway was punched in the back by a man.
- On August 18, a man dressed in military fatigues accosted a woman walking her dog on the corner on West 78th Street and demanded her money. After she fled into moving traffic, the man chased her and screamed, “I’m going to f-ck you up,” until another pedestrian intervened and the man ran off.
- On August 23, a husband and wife, with their 13-month-old child, went on a morning run down West 70th Street and a man threatened the young family with a hand truck.
- On the same date, in a nail salon on West 73rd Street, a young man entered, asked the owner a pricing question, then grabbed and ran off with a young woman’s MacBook that she had just purchased from the Apple store blocks away.
In each of these cases, the attacks were unprovoked, and the attackers exhibited the characteristics of unstable vagrants. This brazen criminality is a predictable byproduct of the habits of social and physical disorder the vagrants have brought with them.
Pooping in the Street A-Okay with De Blasio
These “neighbors” openly defecate, urinate, masturbate, and engage in sexual relations on the street, catcall and harass women and children on Broadway, openly use and sell drugs, aggressively beg passersby for money, and leave empty beer cans and miscellaneous junk all over the street, while failing to wear masks or social distance—showing no compunction about endangering the health of their new “neighbors.”
These conditions signify the collapse of social order, and unchecked disorder invariably results in more serious crime, as the prophets of smart policing and public order, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, taught us almost 40 years ago in their groundbreaking essay in The Atlantic, “Broken Windows.”
Disorder also destabilizes the neighborhoods in which it takes root, resulting in urban decline. Upper West Siders are not immune from the impulse to escape such degrading and soul-crushing surroundings. The New York Post reported that, because of the “increasingly squalid conditions on the Upper West Side, including two new homeless shelters packed with junkies and registered sex offenders, longtime dwellers are departing the Big Apple with no plans to ever return.” The last thing the city needs after an economy-destroying lockdown is more flight from industrious and respectable New Yorkers.
Legislative changes to New York’s bail law and arrest procedure, which make it legally impossible to detain vagrants on quality-of-life offenses for an extended period, a leftist mayor who sides with the lawless as an ideological article of faith, and a demoralized and defunded New York Police Department have conspired to radically downgrade the civilized quality of life that Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg spent 20 years constructing and maintaining.
Doing For Themselves What Public Officials Won’t
Upper West Siders, however, are a resilient bunch. Failed by their local government, they took matters into their own hands. Using social media, residents share intelligence on the latest crimes committed by their “guests” and emails they send to elected officials for the redress of these grievances.
Upper West Siders for Safer Streets, a Facebook group founded by concerned residents, allows members to post photos of vagrants desecrating the streets with bodily fluids or comments about a member’s husband being assaulted near the lake at Central Park by a raving lunatic with a wooden stick. The group has grown to more than 15,000 members in a little over a month (the author is a member).
From this virtual association came the West Side Community Organization, a 501(c)(4) not-for-profit social-welfare outfit, which was formed “to advocate for a restored quality of life for residents, visitors, and the small business community and to advance safer and more compassionate policies regarding New Yorkers who are struggling with homelessness, mental illness, and drug addiction.”
In its first two weeks, the non-profit raised more than $130,000 on its GoFundMe page (the author donated). The funds were earmarked for, among other efforts, retaining legal powerhouse and veteran of Giuliani’s administration Randy Mastro to pressure—and sue, if necessary—the city to remove these troubled souls from the hotels and ensure they are housed in appropriate facilities, where they can get the services they desperately need.
On September 8, after touring the neighborhood personally, de Blasio finally agreed to remove the 283 vagrants from the Lucerne Hotel, although he resisted removing the rest. Predictably, the Legal Aid Society unliterally inserted itself into the discussion and threatened to sue the city if the men were moved.
Despite the mayor’s view that the conditions were “not acceptable,” he put a “pause” on the move to appease the legal services provider. Invariably, what isn’t acceptable becomes so depending on whose ox is being gored. Thus, the residents’ maximum-pressure campaign will continue until all of these men are placed in more humane accommodations.
The Upper West Side’s energetic response to the present danger exemplifies the spirit of republican morality that the Founding Fathers believed to be a prerequisite to self-government. The lifeblood of the American experiment is civil society and the mediating institutions that comprise it and create a healthy space between the individual and the state. In this respect, there is hope for New York City.
Wanting Safe Streets Is—Wait for It—Racist
In another, the moral decay of its political class is so firmly rooted that reports of the city’s irreversible demise seem warranted. The vagrant nightmare has shown the toxic combination of entrenched leftism and woke sensibilities.
Boomer social justice warrior Councilwoman Rosenthal has shown nothing but disdain for her constituents. Rather than debate in good faith the inhumanity of abandoning 730 sick and dangerous men in a half-mile residential radius with no real services or supervision, she has accused her neighbors of racism (a laughable claim—if not a projection—made all the more dishonest given the abundance of white vagrants) and NIMBYism.
Yes, you read that correctly. An elected politician has aimed the preferred weapon of cancel culture mobs at her own constituents: accuse them of racism, impugn their motives, and refuse to engage. That would normally be inadvisable for an elected official; but, when the politician has supplanted democratic principles with social justice ones, it makes unfortunate sense. For the contemporary left, this is statesmanship.
Mayor de Blasio didn’t need to vocalize his contempt for his middle-and upper-middle-class constituents—he’s the one who unleashed the vagrant tsunami. He suspended his plan to remove the 283 vagrants from the Lucerne Hotel and has no plan to remove the remaining 447 vagrants any time soon, despite the manifest danger to local children, the unmistakable opposition of the residents, and the dramatic reduction of new Covid-19 infections in the city.
Thus, this debacle is not merely a matter of misguided and ham-fisted administered public health policy but an expression of ideological hostility. Shortly after a contentious virtual Community Board 7 meeting on August 24 to discuss the issue, Erin Drinkwater, the mayor’s deputy commissioner who spoke on behalf of the city and defended its conduct, tweeted: “Comfort the afflicted; afflict the comfortable.” What happened to an administration devoted to diversity, inclusion, and the dreams and hopes of all New Yorkers?
The city is hostage to de Blasio until the end of 2021. Rosenthal, who is also term-limited out in 2021, has no real power. Her capital is largely precatory and exercised through special pleading.
On the upside, the vagrant crisis and the antidemocratic resistance to addressing it responsibly reveals a great challenge to New York’s reactionary liberalism. Upper West Siders for Safer Streets appears to have a sizable contingent of traditionally Democratic voters who intend to vote Republican for the foreseeable future—at least in local elections.
Who Gets Priority: Children or Vagrants?
New Yorkers are compassionate people and care deeply for the most vulnerable among them, and empathy and kindness are cultivated first in the home. When crime rises dramatically, their neighborhood becomes strewn with trash, and their children have to walk by masturbating creeps lying in the gutter in the middle of the day, their local attachments weaken and the community feels less a home and more a place they live—until they can reserve a moving truck to take them to more agreeable conditions out of state.
The vagrant eruption has eaten away at the vitals of this vibrant Manhattan community and affirmed in short order a harsh observation made by the Washington Supreme Court in 1933: “Society recognizes that vagrancy is a parasitic disease, which, if allowed to spread, will sap the life of that upon which it feeds.”
If de Blasio is the concerned progressive he claims to be, he will immediately move all of these men to appropriate facilities, where they can get the assistance they need, without inflicting grievous damage upon the communities that subsidize it. The mayor should appreciate, as Charles Krauthammer explained 35 years ago, the unintended consequences of his latest act of compassion: “To permit those who flounder even in the slowest lane to fend for themselves . . . is an act not of social liberality but of neglect bordering on cruelty.”