Only a few steps away from the horse-drawn carriages that transport tourists through New York’s Central Park, the grandeur of the Plaza Hotel is a modest building in a quiet building in midtown Manhattan.
The building features a canopy that reads “The Savoy Park Hotel”. Located between a 24-hour parking lot and an apartment block on a predominantly residential street, the Park Savoy blends in with other hotels in the neighborhood.
A sign on the front window of the building that says “Welcome to the Park Savoy Rapid Rehousing Program” is the only sign indicating that it is a homeless shelter, built in one of New York’s most expensive neighborhoods. A war that wealthy locals fought for years, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on campaigns against crime and “irreparable injuries” they said would inflict – seemingly unfounded fears.
The shelter quietly opened its doors in early November. It is designed to house up to 80 men and is known as an “employment shelter” for those looking for work or actively working, especially in midtown Manhattan. The shelter has received about five new passengers per week since it opened on November 8, according to a city spokesperson.
The men will be neighbors to some of Manhattan’s richest residents: the bunker abuts billionaire Rowe, a moniker given to the group of stately, ultra-high “pen towers” constructed over the past decade. Billionaire Michael Dell bought the One57 penthouse, the tower right behind the shelter, in 2014 for $100 million—the most expensive piece of real estate sold in the city at the time.
New York City has the highest number of homeless people in the United States, with more than 122,000 adults and homeless families — including more than 39,000 children — living in the city’s shelter system in 2020.
In 2017, a year before the shelter was supposed to open, de Blasio announced a new initiative to tackle homelessness in the city that included plans to build about 90 new shelters. They’ll be in every kind of neighborhood,” de Blasio said.
The Savoy Park shelter was scheduled to open in the spring of 2018, but the city got into a protracted legal battle with residents and business owners in the area who vehemently opposed the shelter and formed a group called the West 58th Street Coalition to shut it down.
An online petition was filed in 2018 against the hotel, calling it a threat having “a tremendous impact on our densely populated, narrow, high pedestrian street,” garnering nearly 3,500 signatures. Alliance members argued that the city did not receive community input when plans to open the shelter began and described the building as a “dangerous fire trap.”
Susan Silverstein, the leader of the coalition, told the New York Times that residents believed the city was trying to make a statement at their expense.
“[Mayor Bill de Blasio] It doesn’t stick to billionaires, it sticks to people like me who work 100 hours a week. We are not bad. “We’re just trying to move on,” she said.
Determined to stop the shelter, the West 58th Street Coalition filed a lawsuit in 2018 alleging that the building was too “unsafe” for its occupant and that “crime and loitering” caused by the shelter would result in “irreparable injuries.” The coalition has also spent at least $287,000 on advocacy lobbies against the shelter, according to nonprofit news site The City. They spent another $100,000 on billboards in Iowa with the goal of prodding de Blasio during his short campaign for president in 2020.
Despite the coalition’s efforts, the state appeals court gave the city the last green light in May to open the shelter. The group did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.
Steve Banks, the city’s homeless services commissioner, told The City that the campaign against the shelter has been the “longest and most litigation funded” against opening any shelter.
Battles against homeless shelters have erupted across the city in recent years. Manhattan’s Upper West Side has been engaged in a discussion about a luxury hotel that has temporarily become an emergency shelter for the homeless during the pandemic as the city tries to turn away passengers in shelters. Recently, residents of a neighborhood in Queens expressed concerns about several homeless shelters that have opened within a few blocks of each other.
Homeless advocates say concerns about homeless shelters are often exaggerated, creating a hostile environment for those who need a place to live.
“There are usually a lot of fears and anxieties that don’t really materialize once the shelters are open,” said Jacqueline Simon, director of policy at homeless advocacy group Alliance for the Homeless. Simon noted that the court’s ruling in favor of the city shows that the city can prevail in lawsuits against homeless shelters.
“One must ask who would have benefited from the Savoy Park Shelter if it had not been inoperative for all these many years,” she said.
While many of the new homeless shelters face opposition, some have been met with indifference and even community support. Despite vocal opposition against shelters on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Kensington in Brooklyn, residents of both neighborhoods organized donation drives for local shelters.
On a Tuesday morning about a month after the Park Savoy shelter opened, the building looked like any other street in midtown Manhattan, filled with briskly walking office workers and groups of tourists heading to Times Square.
Despite the legal battle over Savoy Park, residents of the neighborhood told the Guardian that the opening of the shelter has not caused any problems so far.
“I was very worried about that for various reasons,” said John, who lives in a nearby building and wants to be referred to only by his first name. “I had a feeling there would be these real tramps moving around, but I didn’t see any problems at all.”
“I see one or two people walking in, but they look harmless.”
A woman walking her dog, who moved into the neighborhood a few months ago, said she didn’t realize that a homeless shelter had opened.
John Sheehan, who lives in the neighborhood and works on advocacy for the homeless who live on the street, said he hopes the community will eventually adopt the shelter once people realize it won’t affect the quality of the neighborhood.
“I think the shelter is a statement that says we are willing to give people a chance to move forward, improve their lives, and have a safe place to live,” Sheehan said. “This should be something we should be proud of.”