City to open Soho homeless shelter

Shelter landlord David Levitan in talks to convert Wooster Street parking garage

DHS Commissioner Steven Banks. (Getty, Google Maps)
DHS Commissioner Steven Banks. (Getty, Google Maps)

The city plans to open a homeless shelter in Soho, which is already atwitter over the de Blasio administration’s proposal to upzone the ritzy neighborhood.

The Department of Social Services would house 200 men in a converted garage at 349 Canal Street. It would be the first permanent shelter in Manhattan’s Community Board 2, which covers Soho, Greenwich Village, the West Village, Noho and Little Italy.

“This high-quality facility will be the first shelter of its kind in this community district, offering 200 New Yorkers experiencing homelessness the opportunity to get back on their feet safely and closer to their anchors of life in these unprecedented times,” a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services and the Department of Homeless Services wrote in an email.

The agency has for three years been pushing the notion that every area should have a homeless shelter because every area has homeless people, and that keeping them near their jobs, support networks and schools helps keep their lives from spiraling out of control.

But it routinely encounters intense opposition from locals, especially to shelters for single men.

Still, the spokesperson added optimistically, “Working together with neighbors and not-for-profit service provider Westhab, we’re confident that these New Yorkers will be warmly welcomed — and through collaborative support and compassion, we will make this the best experience it can be for all.”

The community board has just one shelter — a commercial hotel — that will be closed as the city phases out its use of hotels in favor of permanent facilities. A city representative made a presentation to the community board last week.

“These men will not come in directly off the street, as is the case with some homeless shelters,” Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance neighborhood group, emailed community members over the weekend. “Instead, they will be vetted at a transitional homeless center and must qualify to be admitted to this facility. The goal is to move them into permanent housing.”

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The targeted building is a four-story parking garage that would be gut-renovated and converted, a process that would take about 18 months.

The garage’s owner, Park-It Management, said it is in talks with the city to lease the property to David Levitan’s Liberty One Group, one of the largest private-shelter landlords in the city.

“It would probably be a long-term lease, because it’s going to take a lot of work to convert it,” Park-It Management owner Gary Spindler said.

Spindler added that city taxes on parking facilities have squeezed the business, making alternative uses for his properties more attractive.

“Tell the city to call me. I have other garages,” he said.

The de Blasio administration in 2017 launched a campaign dubbed “Turning the Tide.” It aimed to reduce the city’s reliance on commercial hotels and cluster sites and to open 90 shelters with better social services throughout the city. Part of the rationale for spreading shelters around was to ease the burden on disadvantaged communities, which tend to have a disproportionate number of them.

But the campaign and other efforts to shelter the homeless have faced pushback. Residents on the Upper West Side, for example, launched an effort last year to pressure the city to relocate homeless men who were staying in the Lucerne Hotel. The men are still there as the case is tied up in court.

In Soho, meanwhile, the city’s plan to rezone has pitted advocates who feel the neighborhood should provide more affordable housing against locals who call the proposed scale out-of-context and a give-away to real estate interests.