We’d rather not see you: The “poor door” revisited

A group of NYC Upper West Siders is raising money to keep homeless people out of their sight.

When 50 Riverside Boulevard opened on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 2015, it made headlines because not all its residents were allowed to use the front door. Extell, the building’s developers, had taken advantage of the opportunity to secure millions in tax benefits by including a number of designated low-income apartments in their 33-story building. The attention-getting wrinkle in the story was that Extell also built a separate entrance in the back of the building by which its low-income residents were required to enter, which local news covered as “the poor door.” The message conveyed by this innovation was a simple one: We’d rather not see you.

Today, the same affluent neighborhood is the scene of another fast-moving effort to put the poor people elsewhere. The people in question currently find themselves living on the Upper West Side as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. With the quarantine, two vectors converged as 1) hotels were forced to shutter and 2) the poorest people faced increased risk of getting and spreading the virus because they could not maintain social distance at home — they have no home. A pragmatic short-term solution emerged: homeless people could quarantine in hotel rooms that were not otherwise being occupied, and the hotels could benefit from the income that the city and FEMA would pay them for this service.

Many financially pressed hotel owners were grateful for the chance to serve as temporary shelters, said Vijay Dandapani, the Hotel Association’s president and chief executive. “There are zero tourists,’’ he said.

The new residents were grateful, too. Geoffrey Smith, a 28-year-old housekeeper who cleans hospitals, described it as an important “stepping stone,” telling a reporter that he was “trying to qualify for affordable housing through the city’s lottery so he would finally have a place where his one-year-old daughter could visit him.”

Who wasn’t grateful? A group of Upper West Siders living near the Belleclaire, the Belnord, and the Lucerne. They quickly took notice of the new guests at the boutique hotels, beginning with the observation that they carried luggage that consisted mostly of large garbage bags. Within weeks, local news stations were reporting on these neighbors’ misapprehensions regarding the presumed criminal and/or other undesirable qualities of the new residents. These neighbors informed us that some of the homeless people had come from shelters that offered treatment for substance abuse and mental illness, meaning that an unknown proportion of them had made use of those services. They warned us that a residency-restricted sex offender had been admitted to one of the hotels; it later turned out that this had not happened.

Nevertheless, by the end of July, a community organization with its own Facebook page had been founded in the name of public safety called Upper West Siders for Safer Streets. The UWSSS’s purpose is clear: the group’s landing page advises you that “if you are in support of our new 600–800 residents …please do not join.” Within days, the UWSSS had raised tens of thousands of dollars and hired a lawyer to help them force the homeless quarantiners out — all this despite the fact that no public safety emergency is in evidence:

Capt. Neil Zuber, commander of the 20th precinct, says he has not seen a spike in crime since the shelters came in. In fact, major crime in the precinct is down 10% this year.

“911 calls around the shelters have increased, but they are largely for things that didn’t merit a 911 call.”

Sound familiar? As we might expect in a society where racism and wealth creation are deeply intertwined¹, not only are all of the shelter residents poor, they are predominantly Black and Latinx. As we would also expect, the safety-minded UWSSS members express certainty that their reactions have nothing to do with the race of the shelter residents, and that they also believe that poor people deserve a chance to get on their feet. They should just be doing it somewhere else:

Please get these men out of our neighborhood,” [an Upper West Sider] wrote in an email to Gothamist, adding she feared being mugged and would no longer let her son walk to the playground alone. When asked about her email, she added, “I’m not saying these people don’t deserve a chance. I’m saying I’m sure there are neighborhoods where it would be less controversial.

Meanwhile, in the UWSSS Facebook group, the commentary is less guarded: “One described the men as ‘subhuman,’ while others called for ‘the National Guard’ or ‘animal control’ to clean up the neighborhood.”

It’s certainly possible that some of the complaints, which include observations of public drinking and drug use and related infractions, are accurate. The complaints related to people’s status as the recipient of mental health treatment are straight-up discriminatory, but as for people being intoxicated and urinating on the street, the shelter residents themselves are on the case. The residents have reported that they are on the lookout for undesirable or criminal behavior because they don’t want their opportunity to quarantine safely to be threatened. Meanwhile, I’ve seen intoxicated people misbehaving or passed out plenty of times throughout the city (ever been on the Upper East Side after the St. Patrick’s Day Parade?), but I have never seen a single example of these activities outside the hotels, and I pass by at least one of them every day. What I have seen is people walking down the sidewalk or sitting on street benches who look like they are poor.

Neuropsychological research tells us that, despite our conscious intentions to the contrary, homeless people represent a category of people who are so stigmatized¹ that onlookers’ brains don’t always register them as human.² People living in poverty are not only surviving material deprivations, they are surviving demeaning, rejecting looks and actions every day — and that harms them. Over and above every other challenge and obstacle that they face, our shaming attitudes and exclusionary behaviors are harming people.

Another way of saying this is that, first and foremost, structural racism and poverty (as well as the other -isms) catalyze human destruction and suffering through the tangible barriers that they create in people’s lives with regard to resources, opportunities, and physical safety. Simultaneously, they also undermine and injure people at the deepest levels of their emotional well-being. Since at least the time of Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll studies in the 1930s, we have known that even very young children are painfully aware of negative social attitudes related to their group identities, and we also know that experiences of social rejection and exclusion cause lasting emotional injury and even physical illness.

Obviously, considerations such as these do not oblige my neighbors, if they do encounter an individual who is urinating in public, to feel only unmitigated saintly gentleness in that moment. That is not necessary. It is, however, necessary for us to know that it is wrong for us to act on our feelings, whatever they may be, by using our power to physically force entire groups of people out of our sight.

We need to better understand the damage that we do when we organize to push homeless people away from the town center, so to speak — a national phenomenon that has been documented by the organization Housing Not Handcuffs. Not only do we cut them off from material resources that could provide the stepping stone that Geoffrey Smith hopes for, we subject them to an ongoing experience of utter literal rejection, of being discussed and treated like garbage that needs taking out.

Even one of these experiences is devastatingly harmful for a human being. A lifetime of them is ruinous.

As for the shelter residents, they are much more generous toward us than we are toward them. Asked about the treatment that he has received in my neighborhood, shelter resident William Lewis said, “I wouldn’t consider that the neighbors are hateful. I would say that they just don’t understand.”

A counterpetition to UWSSS actions was recently created by Upper West Siders for a Compassionate, Safe and Equitable Community; photo from their Change.org page.

¹Lui, Meizhu et al. (2006). The color of wealth. New Press.

²De Souza, R. T. (2019). Feeding the other: Whiteness, privilege, and neoliberal stigma in food pantries. MIT Press.

³ Fiske, S. T. (2007). On prejudice and the brain. Daedalus (winter), 156–159.