Homeless Men Lose Court Battle to Stay in Upper West Side Hotel 1

The city said the men at the Lucerne could stay there until a larger move of homeless people out of hotels amid the reopening.

New York City was cleared to move dozens of homeless men out of an Upper West Side hotel called the Lucerne, after a state appeals court on Thursday rejected an effort to stop the city from relocating them to another hotel downtown.

The decision resolved a nearly yearlong battle that had become a flash point for questions about race, class and tolerance in an affluent liberal enclave.

But it comes at a time when the city is reopening for tourism and already making plans to move over 9,000 homeless people out of hotels and back into barrackslike group shelters. Hotels have been used as emergency shelters since early in the pandemic to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The city said it would allow the men at the Lucerne to remain there until the larger move takes place, rather than relocating them twice.

The city had moved nearly 300 men to the hotel last July. Many of the men said they had found stability there, and some of their neighbors welcomed them. But others who lived near the building, an imposingly elegant 117-year-old brick structure at 79th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, complained that the men — some of whom suffer from mental illness and substance abuse problems — loitered outside, used drugs, urinated in public and menaced them.

A neighborhood group pressured the city to relocate the men, and in September, the city announced plans to move them to a hotel in another affluent area, the Financial District downtown, where another group of residents filed suit to stop the move.

Thursday’s terse ruling from the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court held that the attempt to stop the relocation was moot because the three Lucerne residents on whose behalf the suit was filed had all moved out and secured permanent housing. A lower court had treated the suit as a class action covering all of the Lucerne residents, but the appellate court did not see it that way.

As the court proceedings dragged out for months, most of the Lucerne residents moved out. Only 68 men still live there.

The city’s Department of Homeless Services welcomed the ruling.

“We appreciate the courts affirming our decision-making and strategic planning, especially with regards to shelter capacity and protecting the health and safety of the New Yorkers we serve during this emergency period,” the department said in a statement.

The number of single adults living in the main shelter system had risen to nearly 21,000 as of March from about 19,000 before the pandemic, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. Part of this is because the hotel shelters have drawn many homeless people who had typically chosen the street over the congregate shelters, which are often overcrowded and crime-ridden.

A lawyer for the Lucerne residents, Michael Hiller, said that the ruling would cause about 50 present and former Lucerne residents to lose their jobs. The men had been working for a neighborhood cleanup organization, the West Side Greenskeepers, through a grant that was administered by a social services agency, Goddard Riverside Community Center, and the grant was conditioned on the Lucerne continuing to be used as a hotel for the homeless, he said.

Mr. Hiller declined to comment on whether his clients would appeal the case to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

The end result — a ruling in favor of the city that comes too late to make much difference — allowed legal combatants on both sides to claim various degrees of victory.

Theresa Vitug, the president of Downtown New Yorkers, the neighborhood nonprofit that had sued to stop the move, said she was “disappointed” by the ruling but relieved to hear that the Lucerne residents were not being moved to a hotel in her neighborhood.

Corinne Low, the head of UWS Open Hearts, an Upper West Side group that had supported the Lucerne shelter residents, said that all in all, she didn’t see the court ruling as a loss.

“The only reason the case is getting dismissed is that something really awesome happened: People moved into permanent housing,” she said.

A lawyer for the West Side Community Organization, the group that pressured the city to move the men out of the Lucerne, said that the entire undertaking of housing homeless people in hotels was misguided. “Hotels are not shelters,” the lawyer, Melinda Thaler, said in a statement. “We can find appropriate housing for those in need without putting neighborhoods at risk.”

One of the former Lucerne residents who had fought to stay in the hotel, who goes by the name Shams DaBaron, noted that late last summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio had visited the area around the Lucerne and declared, “What I saw was not acceptable.”

“He said in September of 2020 he was going to move us like cattle,” Mr. DaBaron said, “and here we are in June of 2021, 10 months later, with the men of the Lucerne still at the Lucerne.”

Mr. DaBaron, who had acted as a de facto spokesman for the Lucerne residents, used his platform to call attention to the larger problem of the city shifting homeless people from shelter to shelter, which has become an important issue in the mayoral race. Mr. DaBaron moderated a candidate forum on homelessness in February.

“We have changed the game forever on the issue of homelessness in N.Y.C.,” Mr. DaBaron said.