Figuring out neighborhood obligations to the homeless


(re: “Outrage erupts over homeless shelter,” July 20)

Recently, news broke that a housing development in Kingsbridge that was originally proposed to residents of the Northwest Bronx as market-rate housing would be repurposed as a shelter for homeless families. 

The move was controversial — community boards promptly met to discuss fighting what they decried as a “bait-and-switch” by the developer, the Stagg Group, and were joined in their outcry by elected officials, including Councilman Andrew Cohen and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz.

Though it is true that Stagg reneged on a promise to community residents — and the process by which they did so circumvented democratic norms and public input — Riverdale’s opposition has stemmed from an aversion to the presence of a homeless shelter rather than from a commitment to transparency in politics. This aversion is nothing unusual — countless high-income neighborhoods across the city reacted in similar ways to similar proposals.

However, to tackle homelessness long-term, wealthy neighborhoods must assume their social responsibility, de-stigmatize homelessness, offer their resources to the less-privileged, and realize that without opening their arms today, our homelessness crisis will worsen tomorrow.

We must first resolve a basic question: Can a neighborhood have obligations, and where does it derive them from? A neighborhood is a voluntary organization of people under a shared identity, these people having assumed some level of solidarity. 

Riverdalians can choose to leave the neighborhood at any time, support one another, and take on qualifiers and a collective memory with which they all identify. This is to say that communities with shared interest accept a collective identity and a collective responsibility that comes with it; collective identity begets collective responsibility.

Nonetheless, it remains important to understand what this shelter will tangibly do. Numerous studies and maps indicate discrepancies in the distribution of shelters and the homeless. Not only are most of the city’s homeless distant from shelters, but shelters are located far from economic opportunities that could mitigate the conditions of the homeless.

This is no coincidence. Neighborhoods with the highest incomes, the most opportunities and the most political clout are the most vocal about preventing accommodations for the homeless within their bounds. Unfounded stigmas about the homeless, fears about declining property values, and the worry that a neighborhood would become “undesirable” with shelters eliminate almost all popular will to build homeless shelters in areas with real opportunities to offer.

Instead, shelters are concentrated in neighborhoods that lack the luxury to be as vocal as higher-income ones. The New York Times finds that the proportion of the city’s homeless shelters in poorer neighborhoods exceeds the proportion of people who become homeless in those neighborhoods, whereas the opposite is true for better-off neighborhoods. Poor areas are disproportionately inundated with shelters they don’t need, whereas wealthier areas have fewer shelters than they do need.

The Riverdale Press itself has found that we have a similar deficit, wherein far more people here are homeless than housed. Wealthier areas got what they wanted in offloading their social responsibility onto the neighborhoods they spurn the most. Thus, Riverdale shouldn’t fight a more just distribution of shelters across the city, and shouldn’t be pushing its homeless into more disadvantage.

Riverdale’s obligations aside, will this homeless shelter “change” our neighborhood? Not visibly. Other high-income neighborhoods that have begun to shoulder the responsibility of expanding shelters have also seen developers change plans to accommodate the homeless. 

Defending the integrity of Williamsburg after its conversion of a hotel to a 400-bed shelter, Councilman Antonio Reynoso explained, “I would ask anyone … to name those shelters and where they are. I would be hard-pressed to find one person who can do so, because they’re seamless. Because the majority of homeless people are just ordinary people who are down and out on their luck or circumstance, and trying to find their way back.”


ocal residents contend that this shelter’s construction portends school overcrowding. Ours is among the best-performing educational districts in New York despite being one of the most overcrowded; a marginal 80 families, distributed across many schools in the area, will have little observable impact. And the 3,000 classroom seats that we are slated for accommodate far more than these 80 families.

Nonetheless, arguments about how much larger our classrooms will grow or how our property values will be affected (all of which are incorrect) fundamentally ignore that the most important reasons to accept the construction of this shelter are moral ones. Riverdale has a responsibility to the less-privileged, and to see such a wide panning of a very marginal and wholly justifiable action is disappointing, to say the least.

We have a choice as a neighborhood — accept newcomers and the less-privileged with open arms, or fight to ignore our obligations to them, accept cruel stereotypes about them, and worsen the city’s homelessness crisis.

To me, the choice is straightforward.