By Carol Van Deusen
Many of our members are aware that a few hotels on the Upper West Side are temporarily housing people who had been living in over-crowded homeless shelters. The reason for moving them was to prevent the spread of COVID. There was an immediate response in the community to the move, some strongly against it, some welcoming and supportive. A number of those against, primarily concerned with their safety, protested and took measures to have these people removed. And many who were empathetic to needs and welfare of the otherwise homeless came together and started an organization called the Upper West Side Open Hearts Initiative (OHI).
Among the actions of the OHI were that parents and their children were gathering in Riverside Park to make stars to hang as a sort of welcome canopy in front of the Lucerne Hotel, one of the otherwise vacant hotels being used for temporary housing. Learning of this, my husband Dick and I went to watch these young artists. We met Candice Braun a lovely, high-spirited woman who greeted us. With the Presidential election always on my mind, I asked Candice if OH had considered holding a voter registration at the Lucerne. She thought it was a great idea, and, with that response, I suddenly had a mission. I immediately turned to the League of Women Voters NYC, one of Ethical NYC’s affinity groups.
OHI was holding “free stores” at the Lucerne and Belleclaire hotels on Sundays, looking like the urban version of a rural yard sale. Members of the community brought clothes, blankets, books, and more for the homeless to choose from. Dick and I set up our table there, registering not only the homeless, but other passersby. One Sunday we were joined by three enthusiastic members from the NYC chapter of Help USA, a new non-profit that provides information and resources for youth and families facing homelessness and vulnerability to the coronavirus. We registered about 20 voters that day. The following Sunday we expanded to registering voters among the homeless people at the Harmonia Hotel in Kips Bay, many of whom are disabled.
Finally, to ensure that all who filled out the forms would be enrolled to vote, we personally delivered the registration forms to the NYC Board of Elections on Varick Street.
“How can a homeless person register to vote when, by definition, he does not have a home address?” one might ask. The men from the Lucerne, who are staying at the hotel only temporarily used their downtown shelter residences as their address, but the voting sites for those addresses were downtown. Project Renewal, their service provider, took on the task of bringing them to the sites. For those at the Belleclaire, the Election Day voting site was just a block away, and an OHI member escorted them there.
Homelessness and joblessness are not always paired. Many of the homeless residents do have jobs. And some are gaining homes. It’s nice to report that, since living at the Lucerne, a dozen of those residents have been moved to permanent housing — which is the real goal.
In August 2020, there were 57,660 homeless people, including 12,866 homeless families with 19,006 homeless children, sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system.
As we know, homelessness is the most critical problem facing our city. It grew dramatically in the late 1970s (when the New York Society for Ethical Culture opened its Maria Fridman Shelter for Homeless Women, which has operated since) and has only gotten worse since. In August 2020, there were 57,660 homeless people, including 12,866 homeless families with 19,006 homeless children, sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system. Desperately needed are group homes, affordable homes, mental health care and other social services.
Just and humane treatment of our homeless population is only right. Voter registration one way of empowering these individuals to recognize that they, too, are valuable members of our community. Let us do this and more to help remedy the crisis.