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New Homeless Shelters Cause New York's Wealthy Residents Unease

Update Date: Oct 10, 2012 09:57 AM EDT

New York, Manhattan in particular, is home to many trendy neighborhoods and identities. You have the old money of Sutton Place, the young and hip Village and upper Westside and in recent years the families and residents of the Financial District, just to name a few.

New York has become the dream destination for young people to move after college or to start a new life. Not too many years ago, New Yorkers knew there was a price to pay for living here. Crime, indifference and attitudes went along with the high costs of living and the high wages.

But, something changed and no it was not Rudy Giuliani, but started under Mayor David Dinkins. TV shows like "Friends" and "Seinfeld" showed a New York that parents in the Midwest would not mind sending their kids to college in; a monochromatic New York where everyone had exciting jobs and social lives and only had to travel outside of Manhattan for Yankee games or weekends in the Hamptons.

But, the real New York is not all "Sex in the City" living. There are real world issues and real people succeeding and not succeeding, and, sometimes, the "haves" cannot be shielded from the "have-nots". You must suffer to see them on the subway, in the parks or in line at Starbucks.

This city, like this country, has never been good at spreading the wealth, but sometimes this city must spread the misery.

Since the demise of the rental subsidy program, a program which helped homeless families find and pay for apartments in New York, there has been a boom in the numbers of homeless people, and in a city which is mandated to find shelter for homeless people, the most vexing questions is where to put them.

To many New Yorkers, the answer is obvious...put them in the neighborhoods that they originally came from. But, is it that simple? This plan sounds good if you live on Fifth Avenue, not so good if you live in the South Bronx.

Faced with unprecedented overcrowding in New York City's homeless shelters, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has cut through the bureaucracy to open up new shelters across the city, pushing some into wealthy areas where residents fear their new neighbors will bring in crime and drugs.

"It sort of felt almost like a bomb landing," said Gwynne Rivers, a mother of three who lives near a new shelter for homeless adults on the city's Upper West Side. "We just have lots of concerns about safety. And no one really seemed to care about what we thought."

Bloomberg has opened 10 new homeless shelters in recent months in response to the escalating crisis. At last count, more than 46,000 people sought shelter every night in New York, the highest number ever recorded. A recent census report found the city harbors a disproportionate 14 percent of the nation's homeless, with Los Angeles a distant second at 3 percent.

The crisis stems from a lack of affordable housing and the city's ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor, one of the widest in the U.S. and comparable to that found in sub-Saharan Africa.

The question of where new homeless shelters ought to be placed throughout the city's five boroughs has always been a hot-button issue among New Yorkers. And Bloomberg's mini-shelter boom is increasingly bringing the controversy to the doorstep of traditionally wealthy neighborhoods where shelters aren't as prevalent - and where residents are much more vocal in airing their grievances.

A shelter that opened last year in the heart of trendy Chelsea has drawn complaints about mentally ill homeless people defecating and masturbating on the street. In gentrifying Greenpoint, an increasingly hipster-heavy Brooklyn neighborhood, a new shelter for homeless men was fought tooth and nail by residents before it opened in August.

Mayor Bloomberg says there are more people in the shelters because they like it and that they are so nice now that people from all over the country are flooding the shelters.

"We have made our shelter system so much better that, unfortunately, when people are in it - or fortunately, depending on what your objective is - it is a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before," Bloomberg told reporters in August.

Mr. Bloomberg, similar to Mr. Romney is clueless. To have such ideas about struggling people is ridiculous and dangerous for anyone in a governing position.

But on 95th street, at least, shelter residents have complaints of their own. They say some apartments are infested with bedbugs, roaches and mice. They say people knock on doors at night looking for drugs. There are screaming matches and regular visits from the police to break up altercations.

Upper West Siders say they were blindsided by the suddenness of the shelter's opening. Elected officials and angry residents voiced their frustrations at community board meetings and city council hearings scheduled just a few weeks before the shelter opened in August.

In a break from previous administrations, Bloomberg stopped putting homeless families at the top of the colossal waiting lists for public housing and federal rent subsidies.

"It's just once you're in the system, it's a struggle to get back on your feet," said Shawn Joell, a 49-year-old homeless, unemployed Army veteran who lives in the 95th street shelter. "A lot of people are in dire need of housing and help."

In a capitalist nation, there are always going to be those who need help. The measure of our greatness should not be how many millionaires we have, but how we take care of those who need help.

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