A person experiencing homelessness in New York City | Getty Images

A person experiencing homelessness sits with their belongings on the street during the coronavirus pandemic in New York City. | Cindy Ord/Getty Images

The Legal Aid Society is preparing to sue the de Blasio administration over its plan to move homeless New Yorkers with disabilities out of an accessible shelter in Midtown so it can make room for the homeless men the mayor kicked out of the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side, the group said Thursday.

The Harmonia shelter on 31st street is a family facility where 80 percent of the people it serves have disabilities. In order to accommodate those moved out of the Lucerne, residents at the Harmonia will be scattered to other shelters around the city, the legal advocacy group said.


Legal Aid is alleging the city has not properly evaluated the needs of residents at the shelter to ensure the new locations can accommodate their specific needs. The organization additionally said staff members at the shelter may be laid off once it is turned into a single men’s facility.

“Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pathetic and shortsighted surrender to Upper West Side NIMBYism has unsurprisingly disrupted the lives of other vulnerable New Yorkers at various shelters around New York City,” Judith Goldiner, a leading attorney at the organization, said in a statement. “If the City continues to fail at its job of ensuring that these families have the proper accommodations, as prescribed by law, we will file an Article 78 seeking a temporary restraining order in New York State Supreme Court.”

One family at Harmonia — a husband and wife in their 50s — need to be placed where their doctors are located, but the city has plans to move them to Brooklyn, Legal Aid said. As part of the city’s plan, the 150 adult families at this location will be moved to other shelters. Along with the men from the Lucerne, the administration is moving the women staying at a hotel in Long Island City into family facilities, citing excess capacity in the family shelter system.

The move by Legal Aid comes amid sustained outcry over the mayor’s decision at the Lucerne, which sources tell POLITICO was opposed by Steven Banks, his social services commissioner.

De Blasio denied there was internal opposition Thursday.

“I’ve talked to Commissioner Banks about our bigger policy approach here for now over three years has been to get out of hotels, to get folks into shelter facilities,” the mayor said during his daily press briefing. “As has been reported, there’s fewer and fewer people in shelter and more room to work with. It’s exactly the time to start getting out of hotels.”

Just an hour before de Blasio spoke, Banks suggested at a CityLaw event the city was extending its contract with city hotels to house the homeless.

The city signed a contract with the Hotel Association of New York City in April for hotels where single adults staying in dormitory-style homeless shelters could be moved to prevent the spread of the virus in those facilities. The contract goes through October, but the Department of Homeless Services confirmed Thursday that officials do not expect that health experts will give them the go-ahead by next month that it’s safe to return the entire population to congregate shelters, a department spokesperson said.

The agency is still planning to use excess capacity in the shelter system, specifically in shelters with individual apartments that are generally provided to homeless families, to reduce its overall hotel footprint.

Asked about the relocation of the temporary shelters at the event Thursday, Banks said, “this is not about returning to congregate shelter.”

“That is a larger policy question that we will be able to move forward with when we’ve got the guidance from the Department of Health to do so,” he said.

The decision to use the Lucerne and a handful of other Upper West Side hotels as shelters drew fierce opposition from residents of the largely white Manhattan neighborhood. They raised more than $100,000 to further their cause, hired former Giuliani administration Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro as their attorney and were threatening a lawsuit against the city.

De Blasio said Wednesday he visited the Upper West Side and was convinced residents’ complaints about quality of life problems were accurate.

The mayor denied he was caving to political pressure, insisting it was “the beginning of a larger effort to come back from those hotels” — a shift from just a month ago, when he suggested people experiencing homelessness could remain in hotels until there’s a Covid-19 vaccine.

City Hall did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

A scrum of local politicians and advocates dismissed the mayor’s characterization and insisted he was withering under pressure from affluent white residents.

“I don’t know of any public health expert who would be telling him that this is a good move,” said Charles King, CEO of Housing Works, this week.

The Daily News editorial board accused the mayor of “cowardice” and “folding to the NIMBY howl.”

“It’s outrageous for the mayor to uproot homeless New Yorkers at four different shelters in order to appease a vocal minority of wealthy people in one community,” said Joshua Goldfein, an attorney at Legal Aid. “Their message is racist, and the mayor is accommodating it.”

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