UPPER EAST SIDE, NY — The long-awaited East 91st Street homeless shelter is moving forward with a new provider, over a year after the original non-profit ditched the site over a programmatic disconnect.

Services For the Underserved, or S:US, will now run the site as a 92-bed “Welcome Center:” a “low-barrier” program focused on immediate need and pre-assessment site aimed at helping individual adult men and women without housing to get connected with services or a long-term shelter, according to a presentation given to the Community Board 8 Health, Seniors, Social Services committee on Thursday.

At the meeting, the 45-year-old non-profit, which serves over 37,000 families and individuals each year, employs nearly 1,800 staff and provides over $250 million in services, explained how the new welcome center shelter model would operate.

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Intake will be handled by the city’s Department of Homeless Services and the site won’t operate as a walk-in center, city officials said, but DHS crisis coordinators would be on hand for people who show up looking for help.

According to Sharon Dorr, the vice president of homeless services at S:US, the welcome center serves as a place where their staff helps people in need “asses where do you want to go next in your life and how can we help you get there.”

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But this isn’t a shelter for long-term stays, S:US said.

The average stay at the welcome center at 419 East 91st St., located between York and First avenues, would be under 30 days, according to the presentation.

“You got two to three weeks, you got 30 days — let’s get this ball rolling,” said Dorr. “We want to engage them and bring them back to understanding: you are a valuable person and you can move forward and be a valuable member of society.”

Off the street — and into housing

The shelter site, which was warmly received by local community leaders as a facility to help the neighborhood’s homeless find more permanent housing, was initially proposed to open in January 2022 as an 88-bed facility run by Goddard Riverside.

That deadline went by — as did Goddard, who left the project in mid-2022.

And what came were a series of struggles, from a failed lawsuit filed by neighbor Eli Zabar to a zoning challenge from a neighborhood group.

But now, city officials and representatives from the new non-profit, the shelter — which is largely built — will be open in December 2024.

The welcome center will be staffed with specialists and a strong security presence 24/7, S:US said, and ensure there will be a proactive approach to security to prevent quality of life issues like loitering and smoking in front of the building.

Inside the six-story building would be a maximum of eight beds per room.

The welcome center would also have its own outdoor space so that residents could have space to congregate that is away from the street — and from the children’s gymnastics studio and a popular toddler play zone just next door.

A bike room will also be available for residents, but no e-bikes will be permitted inside — per DHS policy.

Marricka Scott-McFadden, the deputy commissioner of intergovernmental and legislative affairs at the city’s Department of Social Services, said the program offered by S:US differs from the one previously offered by Goddard Riverside by aiming to avoid the strict formalities that keep many people away from traditional shelters, which should help build trust and ultimately result in more productive outcomes.

The low-barrier shelter, Scott-McFadden said, isn’t a program offered by Goddard Riverside, who dropped out of the project in August, 2022.

“We want to meet them where they are,” said Scott-McFadden, “we want to be able to put few barriers in for them to come in, because we want them to do better for themselves, and also building trust, and then maybe even moving into the ultimate goal of permanent housing, which is our goal.”

Currently DHS operates two other welcome centers in New York City: a 90-bed facility in Brooklyn and an 80-bed facility in the Bronx — both of which are in residential neighborhoods.

“Glad this is happening”

Community members at the meeting welcomed the news, but they came ready with questions.
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Faith Fraser said that she was “glad this is happening,” and noted that she has been trying for a long time to help a woman who has been living on the street on Second Avenue and East 72nd Street.

“I think this is a fantastic program,” said Community Board 8 board member Wilma Johnson. “It’s very needed in our, in our area, or disseminated. And we have a lot of homeless people, a lot of people that need services on the street as of today, yesterday, tonight, tomorrow.”

“This service is definitely a service that should be welcomed into the neighborhood to get some of these people that need to be off the streets and into that place, and get them the services that they need,” said Johnson.

Committee member Rebecca Dangoor asked Scott-McFadden if DHS could commit to housing people on the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island experiencing homelessness — a component of the previous model that drew many in the community to support the proposal years ago.

Scott-McFadden said that DHS always tries to keep people near a community where they have connections.

Dangoor also asked about outdoor space specifics (a 1,000-square-foot roof deck) and if the space is pet friendly (yes, if registered as an emotional support animal, which DHS assists with).

One Upper East Side mother named Jamie asked how S:US was interacting with the Covenant of the Sacred Heart, the all-girls school which has its gym across the street which her daughter attends.

“I just want to clarify [if] there’s no guard outside — meaning it’s up to the girls to be very aware,” Jamie said. “She’s 14, and I am very concerned.”

Scott-McFadden said that no guard is permanently stationed outside, but the security strategy involves patrols around the site and multiple cameras will surveil the exterior.

Longtime Community Board 8 member Judy Schneider said that she couldn’t support the program unless there was security placed outside.

“I will not support anything that does not have some kind of security outside,” Schneider said,”with these people having a certain amount of freedom and people on the street.”

“People are not being brought over and dropped out of vans,” said Scott-McFadden. “The operation is part of a warm handoff.”

Newly elected Community Board 8 chair Valerie Mason, who at the close of the meeting called S:US “very competent, very skilled and … very enthusiastic and dedicated to what they want to do here,” said that the board would take the next steps to create a community advisory board to further the neighborhood’s relationship with the new provider.

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