The political winds are shifting in New York City’s most progressive neighborhoods. On a freezing Sunday in November 1992, a community activist named Joe Brown electrified a crowd of protesters gathered at West End Avenue and 106th Street with the declaration: “Something died recently on the Upper West Side. We are today announcing the passing of brain-dead liberalism.” Across the city another community activist, Howard Hemsley, declares that “you have to be a masochist to be a liberal on the Lower East Side.” Each of these heresies was occasioned by one of the biggest crises facing New York City’s neighborhoods: the battle over the siting of social-service facilities.
For years, the city and state have sited homeless shelters, drug-treatment centers, and programs for the mentally ill in residential communities, on the questionable theory that being “in the community” is therapeutic for the seriously disturbed. The practice certainly was not therapeutic for the communities involved. Along with thousands of dysfunctional people came mounting levels of crime and disorder. Progressive New Yorkers accepted in silence the growing anarchy in their neighborhoods, for fear of “blaming the victim.” But the old taboos are weakening; what has been unspeakable is now being said without apology: that tolerance for the breakdown of public order under the banner of compassion and civil liberties is threatening the very survival of some New York communities. Brown and Hemsley are among a new wave of community rebels who represent a revolution in the making. Citizens are rising to demand that the government stop dumping social problems onto their streets and start demonstrating a commonsense concern with the quality of life in the city’s neighborhoods.
An empty lot on East 7th Street between avenues B and C is at the epicenter of the Lower East Side’s battle over social-service facilities. Most of the residents of this block are low-income families who struggle for a decent life. Drug dealers operate openly out of one building on the block; nearby bodegas also cater to the trade. The surrounding streets are already lined with social-service facilities.
On this beleaguered block sits St. Brigid’s School, a parochial elementary school that has been, teaching the children of the Lower East Side for 140 years. In the late 1980s the adjacent Tompkins Square Park was taken over by vagrants and anarchists, and the Reverend George Kuhn, pastor of St. Brigid’s Church, opened a homeless shelter on weekends in the school’s lunchroom. As a result, enrollment dropped from 230 to 175, prompting a warning from the archdiocese that it would close the school if enrollment did not improve within two years.
Yet a strange sort of equilibrium has been reached that allows parents to feel secure about sending their children to St. Brigid’s. The anarchists and squatters were cleared from the park in 1991, and, more important, drug dealing on the block does not begin until 5 P.M., after school is over. Today the school has 191 pupils, almost all Hispanic.
But on the empty lot at 186-194 East 7th Street—across the street from St. Brigid’s, less than a hundred feet from two playgrounds within Tompkins Square Park, and a block away from a public elementary school—an organization called Housing Works wants to build a new shelter. It would serve one of the most troubled populations imaginable: mentally ill, drug-addicted AIDS patients, most of whom have been homeless, many of whom suffer from tuberculosis.
Housing Works, an offshoot of the self-described “radical queer” organization ACT UP, plans to operate a 36-bed residence and an outpatient program offering health care and social services to somewhere between 60 and 85 people daily. Founded only in 1990, Housing Works has no experience running a residential program on this scale. The organization’s proposal describes its clients in the following terms:
[They] are not able to function within the structure of residential treatment programs and their multiplicity of needs are often disruptive to the programs’ functioning. These clients have experienced chronic substance abuse and mental illness, and the chronicity of need may manifest itself to a greater or lesser extent throughout their participation in the day program.
In other words, these patients have already been discharged from other treatment programs for being violent and disruptive—or, as the proposal soothingly puts it, because of their “multiplicity of needs.” And Housing Works fully expects such behavior to continue: “It will be understood that any client, at any time, is at risk of an acute crisis.”
What Housing Works intends to do with these violent drug addicts is essentially to let them be. “The program will allow for an extremely high level of client autonomy,” says Housing Works’ proposal to the state. The organization will not require so much as a promise to remain drug-free; its proposal proudly distinguishes the program from the “overwhelming majority of programs, [which] attempt to maintain a drug-free environment, deliberately excluding chemically dependent applicants who do not give clear and convincing evidence of a commitment to remaining clean and sober.”
In most of these programs, drug use is grounds for discharge. Not at Housing Works, which champions a novel method of treatment known as “harm reduction.” Harm reduction posits that a nonjudgmental approach to drug addiction can ease those who would otherwise be incorrigible into treatment. Residents who are caught using drugs will merely be told “to leave the common areas” (that is, go to their rooms), while participants in the day program, Housing Works spokesman Jay Blotcher told Newsday, will be “escorted off the premises”—cold comfort for the parents who send their children to school nearby. Housing Works director Charles King explains that the shelter’s employees will help clients budget their federal disability checks: $100, say, for drugs, another $100 for rent, if applicable, and $25 for food, “The program is successful if the client sticks to his budget,” King says. Mothers in the program will be advised to put their young children in a safe place before embarking on a crack binge.
Neighbors are outraged; in their view, Housing Works might as well hang out a sign proclaiming, “Dealers: here are your new customers.” “The rights of the neighborhood residents must be given as much consideration and weight as those of individuals who have chosen to live an antisocial existence,” declares a manifesto of the East Village Association, a grassroots group that represents two block associations on 7th Street and the Tompkins Square Park Neighborhood Coalition. In April 1993, residents prevailed upon Community Board 3 to rescind its December 1991 approval of the project. The community board’s powers are only advisory, however, and the project is sailing through the state review process.
The neighbors who oppose Housing Works are bucking a long political tradition on the Lower East Side—a tradition that champions radical individualism and even anarchism, disparages middleclass values, and reserves particular contempt for “gentrification.” In an addendum to its initial, successful proposal to Community Board 3, Housing Works declared: “We believe that our proposed residence will have a positive impact on the neighborhood. We are taking over private property that would undoubtedly otherwise be slated for upscale development.” That the group could, without irony, seek credit for helping stave off “upscale development” in a community desperate for social and economic stability speaks volumes about the Lower East Side’s traditional political climate.
Supporters of the proposed shelter even argue that placing it near a school is a good idea. “They talk about being near a-quote—school,” former city councilwoman Miriam Friedlander told me. (Apparently Friedlander does not count parochial schools as real schools.) “But many kids have parents with AIDS, so the project will be a wonderful morale builder.” King told residents in 1991 that the facility would “give the children a dose of reality.”
But the signs of change are palpable on the Lower East Side. Though she remains active in local politics, Friedlander lost her 1991 reelection bid to community activist Antonio Pagan, a supporter of economically mixed development who is outspoken in the view that the Lower East Side already has far more than its share of treatment facilities. Pagan’s victory, the culmination of several years of political activity by local residents and merchants, puts the Lower East Side in the vanguard of the new community activism.
New Yorkers have long resigned themselves to the notion that public disorder is an inevitable part of urban life. But a combination of factors has made New York’s homeless and otherwise dysfunctional population far larger and more dangerous than it once was. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing to this day, thousands of patients with serious mental illnesses have been released from New York State hospitals to be cared for in community-based outpatient programs. Their treatment, however, is often ill-supervised; patients fail to take their medication and their condition deteriorates. Crack cocaine has made many of these patients, as well as other marginal individuals, aggressive and violent. And drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis are rampant among the city’s homeless, many of whom are particularly vulnerable to TB because they suffer from AIDS.
As social problems have mounted, a certain desperation seems to have set in throughout New York’s mammoth social-service bureaucracy. The pace of sitings has quickened, and bureaucrats are busily devising new categories of facilities and new means of financing them that circumvent the already weak provisions for public review. Increasingly, the government is giving money to nonprofit organizations to buy land, so as to avoid land-use restrictions that govern city-owned and -operated facilities. Housing Works, for example, will receive half a million dollars in public funds to purchase a private lot, in an area filled with city-owned land, thus circumventing the lengthy Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. And because the project is classified as permanent housing rather than as a drug-treatment facility, it is exempt from state regulations requiring such facilities to be drug-free.
On the Lower East Side and Upper West Side, the chaos in the streets has become so acute that many residents with impeccable liberal credentials have been forced to rethink their political views. The fight to preserve their communities finds them opposing the social-service providers that once seemed the very symbol of enlightenment and compassion.
Sheryl Harawitz, a 47-year-old resident of the Lower East Side, is typical. She works for the New York City Housing Authority, her husband is a social worker, and her daughter used to work for the Legal Aid Society. “I always thought of myself as a liberal, but no more,” Harawitz says. “They have overstepped their rights and gone beyond my tolerance.”
The battles Harawitz and her compatriots face will not be easily won. They must overcome the resistance of both government officials and the press, which usually dismiss their efforts with the facile epithet “NIMBYism.” Old habits die hard, and many New Yorkers remain committed to an ideology that leaves little room for communities to control deviant behavior.
Nor is misguided compassion the only obstacle faced by the new community activists. Despite its aura of altruism and sanctity, New York’s social-service sector is a multibillion-dollar industry with a powerful network of political connections. The Housing Works project is being championed by the state Department of Health, which is pushing it through the review process. The State Hospital Review and Planning Council told project opponents from the East Village Association not to bring their supporters to a May 1993 hearing on the project and to prepare no more than five minutes of testimony; the association dutifully sent only three representatives. But when a crowd of ACT UP protesters showed up, all were admitted, and a seemingly endless procession of left-wing priests, former Community Board members, and AIDS patients were allowed to testify windily in support of the project. The council eventually voted unanimously to approve it.
The Housing Works project also exemplifies the financial stake the social-service industry has in such programs. If it is approved, Housing Works will receive $2 million from the state’s Homeless Housing Assistance Program; it is seeking between $3 million and $5 million in other public funding. In addition, the city’s Department of Social Services will pay Housing Works $145 per patient per day for the residential program, and Medicaid will pay $80 to $90 per patient per day for outpatient treatment. Harawitz, recently appointed to Community Board 3 by Pagan, accepted the time-consuming assignment in the belief that by not acting, “we lose the neighborhood by default to people who gain money from the continued cycle of dependence.”
A look at recent events on the Lower East Side and Upper West Side illustrates the tenacity of the new community activists, the importance of their cause, and the difficulties they face in fighting for it.
The Lower East Side
In 1959, a fiery band of activists, led by Frances Goldin, joined forces to fight the urban-renewal efforts of Robert Moses, who wanted to “tear everything down from 9th Street to Delancey Street,” as Goldin put it. They were the first community group to battle Moses successfully and have set the ideological tone for the Lower East Side ever since.
Today, Goldin is a leader of the Joint Planning Council (JPC), an umbrella organization for leftwing community groups. In the 1970s, when the economy of the Lower East Side collapsed, the nonprofits represented by the JPC became the preeminent political force in the neighborhood. By the mid-1980s, the Lower East Side was largely run by Friedlander, who had been elected to the City Council in 1973; Goldin; Carol Watson, a board member of the left-wing Lower East Side Catholic Area Conference; and Lisa Kaplan, a political appointee in the Housing Authority who formerly worked for the Consumer-Farmer Foundation, an organization that provides bridge loans (in which money is borrowed against a promised government grant) to social-service organizations.
JPC embodies an ideological zeal that often takes extreme forms. Friedlander once opposed the placement of streetlights on 14th Street because she thought they would encourage gentrification. And when the Gap opened a store at Second Avenue and 8th Street in 1988, Goldin said, “We feel like putting a big painted ’X’ on the Gap.... Every day some new atrocity hits us.”
One might wonder how anyone could possibly consider a clothing store an “atrocity” and a facility for mentally ill drug addicts a benefit to the community. The answer, according to Steven Vincent, a reporter for Art & Auction and a Pagan appointee to Community Board 3, is that the social-service organizations that dominate the JPC need poverty and social problems to expand their power. The deterioration of the neighborhood was actually beneficial to those with political clout. If the city was seeking a site for, say, a methadone clinic, Friedlander’s appointees to the Community Board would solicit its placement in their neighborhood. According to Pagan, 80 percent of Friedlander’s appointees had conflicts of interest, sitting on the boards of social-service organizations and rubberstamping one another’s projects.
But in the late 1980s, local residents began organizing to fight the deterioration of their community. One galvanizing event was the ceding of Tompkins Square Park to anarchists, with the support of Friedlander and her allies. Another was a proposal by the city to build a shelter for homeless men on 1st Street near the Bowery.
That proposal spurred Howard Hemsley, a 55-year-old word processor and computer whiz, to found a group called Before Another Shelter Tears Us Apart, or BASTA (Spanish for “enough”). There were already two shelters within two blocks of the proposed site; the 3rd Street shelter, which was actually only a processing center for the homeless, had literally turned the neighborhood into a free-fire zone. Almost half of those arrested for drug violations between 14th and Houston streets cast of the Bowery gave the shelter as their address.
BASTA’s first meetings, Hemsley says, were like a “religious revival service.” People were practically in tears to learn that they were not alone in their frustrations and that “churchgoing, upstanding citizens could have such feelings without being closeted little bigots.” For years, Hemsley says, social-service advocates had raised the specter of racism to silence community opposition. “When I step into a puddle of [urine], I get mad,” Hemsley told BASTA members at an early meeting. “That does not make me a racist.”
Today Hemsley is regarded as a political genius on the Lower East Side. Not only did BASTA block the proposed 1st Street shelter, but it also forced the city to shut down the 3rd Street facility and transfer control of the building to the Manhattan Bowery Corporation for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. The program is one of the few unqualified successes in community treatment, but only because it imposes strict discipline on its clients and because BASTA fought the city relentlessly for enough money to ensure its success. Ironically, the city now trumpets the program as proof that community treatment is viable, though it is unwilling to commit comparable funding to other projects with a similar degree of regimentation.
During their struggle, Hemsley says, BASTA’s members realized that Miriam Friedlander and her allies were the “biggest cause of our problems.” In 1991, they formed the Democratic Action Club to recruit a challenger to Friedlander. The club’s statement of purpose declared that its members “refuse to glorify poverty: we reject the myth that poverty is somehow ’cool,’ ’politically correct,’ or a place to hide from adult responsibility. We favor programs whose aim is individual self-sufficiency.”
Their candidate was Pagan, who ran a nonprofit housing organization and had led the fight to restore Tompkins Square Park. Pagan set himself sharply apart from the old guard on the Lower East Side. As he told me, “People need to liberate themselves from guilt and reach the point where they can say, ’Enough is enough .’” The campaign against Pagan was unusually vicious. He and members of the Democratic Action Club received death threats. ACT UP picketed outside the home of Pagan’s mother; Pagan drew particular ire for opposing the group’s agenda since he himself is gay.
In the end, Pagan won by 121 votes, having split the anti-Friedlander vote with two other candidates. In office, he has taken a careful approach to the siting of new social-service facilities, opposing those he believes would further harm the community’s quality of life. This moderate stance has triggered charges of “gentrification” and worse. Friedlander, meanwhile, is gearing up to challenge Pagan in the September 1993 primary, in what promises to be an even uglier campaign. Pagan alleges that Housing Works has violated its nonprofit status by campaigning for Friedlander.
Despite the slim margin of Pagan’s 1991 victory, Elizabeth Shollenberger, a Democratic district leader, says the election was a watershed because it broke the taboo that “liberals can’t talk about these things.” Sheryl Harawitz adds: “Anyplace else, a gay Hispanic who believes in the poor having apartments and in mixed development would be considered a far liberal. Here, he’s a conservative.”
Nightmare on 13th Street
Harawitz’s experiences on her own block, East 13th Street between Second and Third avenues, are emblematic of the obstacles communities face in trying to restore order and safety to their streets. For five years, the single-room-occupancy building at 222 East 13th Street, the smaller of two SROs on the block, was a notorious crackhouse. Stabbings, car thefts, and burglaries occurred on a weekly basis, fires broke out daily, and neighbors who complained to the police were assaulted by the dealers. Harawitz owns a small apartment building next door to 222; because of the odors of trash and human waste from the SRO, it would take her three to four months to fill vacancies in her building. The apartment directly adjacent to 222 remained vacant for two-and-a-half years.
In 1991 the city took the building over as part of its 7A Anti-Abandonment program. But things did not improve. When Harawitz called the program to complain about smoke billowing from the SRO into her apartment, no one would take responsibility for the building. It had 150 code violations when the city assumed control; after the city spent $80,000 to repair the building, there were 250 violations. Meanwhile, the tenants—almost all prostitutes, drug dealers, and addicts—paid no rent.
For years the city had ignored the neighbors’ pleas for help. Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger told the community that the city needed every SRO it could get. Residents formed a block association, which met with representatives of ten city agencies, including the city’s homeless program, Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Human Resources Administration, drug programs, and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office; all claimed they could offer no relief.
In September 1992, however, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development evicted the tenants and padlocked the building, intending to make further repairs and reopen the building for legal tenants. But in October, Mobilization for Youth, a city-subsidized legal services group, filed suit to rescind the evictions, stop the repairs, and return seven tenants to the building. The suit also demanded $1 million in damages for each of the plaintiffs. Predictably, Philip Sturges, the lawyer representing the seven tenants, charged the city with racism: “It’s no accident that six of our seven clients are minority and all are poor, and the forces against us are mostly white.”
Harawitz presented Judge Joan Lobis, who was hearing the case, with some 120 letters from the community begging her not to reopen the building. Lobis refused to read the letters. At the time, HPD Commissioner Felice Michetti told Jack Newfield of the New York Post: “The judge is pressuring me to lift the vacate order and move tenants back in and reopen the crackhouse. She hadn’t even heard the city’s witnesses and evidence.”
Eventually six of the seven plaintiffs were placed in permanent housing. (The seventh is in jail.) Mobilization for Youth continues to pursue its $7 million damage suit, charging the city with violating the tenants’ constitutional rights. The city, for its part, continues to pay their legal bills through its subsidy to Mobilization for Youth. “We are paying taxes to defend the indefensible,” Harawitz says.
The crackhouse remains boarded up, but the modest victory Harawitz and her neighbors have won is overshadowed by what they view as an even greater assault on their fragile neighborhood: a planned 14-story apartment building for 96 homeless and low-income families, to be built on a city-owned parking lot at East 13th Street and Third Avenue. The project, to be constructed and operated by Andrew Cuomo’s Project HELP with state and city financing, will bring substantial numbers of homeless people—members of a population that Cuomo’s own commission found to have extraordinarily high levels of drug abuse and mental illness—into the struggling neighborhood.
Critics charge that the method for transferring the city-owned lot to Project HELP—condemnation by the state Urban Development Corporation and sale for $1.00—represents yet another dodge of zoning and land-use mechanisms. Neighborhood activists estimate the cost per unit at $250,000; at that price, they say, the city could buy all 96 families luxury condominiums in the nearby Zeckendorf Towers. Opponents further question the long-term financial viability of the project and note massive cost overruns in other HELP projects. But Project HELP is extremely well-connected. Cuomo, its founder, is the governor’s son and now a high-level official in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Small wonder, then, that the East 13th Street project easily won approval in the City Council—with Pagan casting the lone dissenting vote.
Richard Behar, a writer for Time magazine who in 1987 started a citizens’ patrol to combat drug dealers on East 13th Street, says Project HELP was the final straw for him. “I lost heart and moved—I couldn’t bear it any longer.” But rather than flee to the suburbs, Behar decided to stay in Manhattan. His new home, ironically enough, is on the Upper West Side, an area that faces an array of similar problems.
The Upper West Side
Liberal activism is a venerable tradition on the Upper West Side; even today, members of local political clubs are known to erupt spontaneously into chants of “Down with capitalism!” Yet the hottest issue in this neighborhood is an effort to persuade the city to declare a moratorium on new social-service facilities. Residents complain that such facilities, particularly centers for the mentally ill, have turned the northern part of the Upper West Side into an open-air asylum.
The area north of 90th Street and centered on Broadway is overrun with aggressive panhandlers, vagrants sleeping on doorsteps and park benches, dazed addicts lurching down the sidewalks, and a proliferation of trash and graffiti. Residents trace the neighborhood’s deterioration to some eighty social-service facilities between 90th and 110th streets, which serve more than 12,000 homeless, mentally ill, and addicted individuals.
The flagship of this network is the huge Regent Family Services Center, a city-run shelter for homeless families, mostly teenage mothers, at 104th Street and Broadway. The city pays $164,000 a month in rent for what has turned out to be a magnet for crime and drugs. Its residents’ problems inevitably spill onto the street, sometimes quite literally. Police advise people in the area to steer clear of the sidewalks around the building because bottles, lamps, and dresser drawers routinely come flying out the windows. The Regent generates five hundred to six hundred calls a year to the 24th Precinct. Jacqui Carter, a political activist who lives across the street from the Regent and is now running for Democratic district leader, was once beaten up by a pregnant Regent resident.
The elderly in the nearby Frederick Douglass Houses dare to venture out of their homes only in the morning when children are on their way to school. As a “solution,” the police intend to establish a “safe corridor” for senior citizens on Friday, the day Social Security checks arrive, so they can go to the supermarket without being mugged.
For local merchants, new social-service facilities mean not only increasing levels of theft and disorder but also higher rents. When the state or city takes over a building for a planned facility, it typically pays far above market rate in rent or purchase price. Hudson View Copy closed down because it faced a tripling of its rent after the state announced plans for a residence for the mentally ill, run by Volunteers of America, in the building at 100th Street and Broadway that housed the copy store.
Residents on block after block are organizing to take back their community. Ilena Lobet formed a block association on West 101st Street in January 1993 out of anger at having to kick crack vials from her doorstep every morning. Such associations are now represented by the West 90s/West 100s Neighborhood Coalition, an umbrella organization of nearly every block association between 90th and 110th streets. The coalition, with a potential constituency of 100,000, has focused on two main goals: winning a moratorium on the further placement of social-service facilities in the northern area of the Community Board 7 district, and stopping the Volunteers of America (VOA) facility planned for West 100th and Broadway. Another group, Neighborhood Survival, has joined the fight against the VOA facility.
That facility belongs to a new category, “SRO/Community Residence,” recently devised by the State Office of Mental Health. It has a much lower staffing requirement than other community facilities for the mentally ill. The state plans to site ninety SRO/Community Residences in New York City during the next year, but thus far only one, in Brooklyn, has opened.
The VOA facility on the Upper West Side will serve 72 mentally ill homeless people, at least half addicted to alcohol or drugs. This is three times as many patients as are in a normal psychiatric ward, but VOA will have only one psychiatrist on duty, for a mere ten hours a week, along with a substance-abuse counselor during normal business hours. At night and on weekends, the residence will be unstaffed except for a desk clerk. Patients will not be required to take medication, nor will any curfew or other rules be imposed.
The community is terrified at the prospect of a TB outbreak. Many of the clients will be referred from shelters run by VOA, including one on Ward’s Island where half the clients have the disease. VOA will neither screen for TB nor require that residents who have the disease be treated for it.
This laissez-faire approach is totally inappropriate for a severely disturbed population that needs strict supervision. “The Office of Mental Health is allowing not-for-profits to operate these facilities as if they were apartment houses. They are allowing the residents all the rights of rent-stabilized tenants,” says Toni Rachiele, a copy editor and founder of Neighborhood Survival who lives on West 100th Street.
Frustration on the Upper West Side is at a boiling point; citizens feel that no one is listening to them. As on the Lower East Side during Friedlander’s term, Community Board 7 is stacked with members who have a direct interest in the social-service industry. Eighty-seven percent of Borough President Messinger’s appointees make their living on SROs and shelters as architects, service providers, suppliers, or purchasing agents. Community activist Lisa Lehr says the board is “incestuous”; members who do not go along with the party line on siting facilities are not reappointed.
Though the local City Council members are generally sympathetic to the community’s concerns, none has emerged as a forceful champion like Pagan. And State Assemblyman Ed Sullivan has strongly opposed his constituents’ efforts to halt further sitings. “People have difficulties coming to grips with drug dealers and panhandlers, but there is an illusory connection to facilities,” he told me. He insists, for example, that there has been “not a single problem” associated with a methadone clinic on 104th Street, but neglects to mention that the police are not allowed to note in their records whether a suspect is a methadone user. Sullivan has welcomed virtually every social-service facility ever proposed for his district, arguing that he has to “vote his conscience.” Sullivan, however, lives in the gentrified neighborhood around Columbia University, a comfortable distance from most of the facilities he supports.
The Myth of Community Treatment
Many analysts and political leaders argue that communities are unfairly presenting government with a “dual challenge”: on the one hand, they want the homeless off the streets; on the other, they resist the facilities necessary to accomplish that goal. But communities have a different story to tell. Facilities for mental patients, drug addicts, and the homeless—except for those few that keep their clients under strict supervision—invariably bring drug dealing, disorder, and violent crime into their neighborhoods.
“There’s sometimes an assumption that those needing assistance are ’outsiders,’” Messinger wrote in a recent article defending the proliferation of social-service facilities in residential neighborhoods. That assumption turns out to be accurate. Because federal antidiscrimination laws prohibit programs from excluding clients on the basis of geography, every facility almost inevitably attracts additional dysfunctional people from outside the community. Participants in day programs rarely leave the area at night, and even the most successful drug-treatment programs produce a certain number of dropouts who will rejoin the streets. The rate of recovery from addiction is no more than 30 percent in the best programs. “One element underlying some communities’ reaction to facilities has less to do with government ineptitude than it does with fear,” Messinger wrote. But that fear is perfectly rational.
The proliferation of community-service facilities in residential neighborhoods is based on the notion that being “in the community” is therapeutic for mental patients or drug addicts-an idea that provided the impetus for the deinstitutionalization movement in the 1960s. But communities are filled with bad influences as well as good ones, and the few successful drug-treatment programs are those, like the Manhattan Bowery Corporation, that isolate their clients from the temptations of the streets. Nor does the theory of community treatment have much connection with the reality of less regimented facilities, whose clients lead a marginal existence, wholly cut off from the normal life of the neighborhood. Harawitz, who volunteers in a soup kitchen during the weekend, often brings leftover food to the remaining SRO on her block, which serves as a welfare hotel. She has no idea whether the food gets distributed, for she never gets beyond the guard at the door. The building is “totally isolated,” she says. “The only people we see are the ones selling crack.”
Local activists increasingly believe that when social-service advocates talk of “community,” they are using a code word that has absolutely no reference to the web of economic and social ties that make up real communities. Instead, the term is used to evoke a set of political values—a preemptive strike against would-be opponents who regard themselves as progressive—and, perhaps more important, to mask the self-interest of the social-service industry. New York City alone spends some $10 billion a year on social services, $3 billion of which is paid to nonprofits. The state pays a comparable amount to private social-service providers. As Charles Gans, a wire-service reporter who lives on Riverside Drive, points out, New York City’s social-services complex bears an uncanny resemblance to the military-industrial complex, with its revolving doors between government and suppliers, uncompetitive contracting, and vast waste.
“Those who want to site more and more facilities use ’community’ to make you think you must have the facility,” declared writer Herbert Gordon at a June 1993 meeting of Neighborhood Survival. “Ask them: Who is the ’community’? Maybe it’s time we stop accepting their definitions.” Real communities have been almost completely alienated from the process by which their fate is decided.
Although the “fair share” provision of the 1989 New York City charter was intended to involve citizens early on in the planning of new social-service facilities and to prevent new facilities from being sited in neighborhoods that are already overburdened, in practice it has done neither. Communities complain that they do not learn about a planned project until it is well under way and that they must then struggle to extract details about the facility from government agencies and social-service providers.
Residents’ efforts to prove that their neighborhoods are overburdened are also stymied by a dearth of information. The siting of facilities has proceeded at such a helter-skelter pace that no one, least of all the government, knows what is already out there. Information is scattered across agencies that maintain at best partial listings of particular types of facilities. The West 90s/West 100s Neighborhood Coalition is creating the first comprehensive map of Upper West Side social-service facilities to make its case under fair-share. To prepare the map, Elisabeth Martin had to spend two months walking each block north of 90th Street, entering buildings and talking to residents of each building to determine which ones house clients placed by government social-service agencies, since the information was not available from the agencies themselves.
The new charter’s stipulation that facilities be evenly distributed, moreover, has no real teeth; it is merely a guideline for decision-making and applies only to city facilities with certain types of leases. State and private facilities are not included at all. And even if fair-share could be made to work effectively, its goal of spreading social-service facilities evenly throughout the city is a dubious one. If a community is largely free of social problems, it is perverse for the city to demand that it accept, as the price of “fairness,” the disruption and decay that accompany such facilities. Nor will stable neighborhoods accept new facilities any more readily than troubled ones will—as the Dinkins administration discovered to its dismay when it tried to scatter 24 homeless shelters around the five boroughs, many in middle-class residential communities.
Rather than pit neighborhood against neighborhood, New York’s leaders should pursue policies aimed at relieving the burden on all communities. Placing seriously disturbed individuals in the heart of cities and allowing them maximum autonomy appears to do them little good and is devastating to the affected neighborhoods. The government, therefore, should declare a citywide moratorium on all new social-service facilities that do not impose strict controls on their clients’ behavior; existing facilities that lack such a disciplinary regime should eventually be shut down.
New York City and State must abandon their reflexive adherence to the notion of community treatment. Martin Begun, chairman of the Community Services Board of the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation, and Alcoholism Services, has recommended establishing “total treatment centers” for drug addicts and the mentally ill on the site of closed military facilities. And instead of closing upstate mental hospitals, the state should be transferring patients from the city to them. In many cases these well-supervised hospitals are the economic center of small upstate towns. They are welcome in their communities.
It is imperative that the government wake up to the anger and anguish of its citizens. If it fails to do so, middle-class flight will continue apace, further weakening New York City’s economy, tax base, and social stability. “Just because we live here today doesn’t mean we’ll be here tomorrow,” warns Upper West Side activist Philip Shelly. “People are moving out in droves,” adds Jane Startz, who lives on 102nd Street and Broadway. “However much you love New York, it’s not worth risking your child’s life.”
The hope for New York City rests in people like Sheryl Harawitz, who vows to stay in the city and continue her fight against those who threaten her neighborhood’s stability. “I’d prefer they leave,” she says. “I was born here. There are lots like me, and we are going to fight.”