New Drop-In Center Opens in Chelsea Despite Community Pushback



Chalk writing on West 14th Street decries treatment of homeless people. Photo by Natalie Demaree

Several people lined up in front of a nondescript building in Chelsea. At first glance, it looked like they were standing outside an office space. But a closer view showed homeless individuals waiting for shelter at a drop-in center that recently opened in the neighborhood.  

Paul’s Place, located on West 14th Street near the Salvation Army headquarters, is run by the Center for Urban Community Services, a social services organization based in New York. There isn’t any signage out front and for a reason: local residents and small business owners don’t want more homeless shelters in Chelsea and have tried to stop them from opening.

Paul’s Place is located in Chelsea but falls within Community District 2, which includes several Lower Manhattan neighborhoods like the West Village, SoHo, Noho, Greenwich Village and Chinatown. Although Paul’s Place is one of four drop-in centers in Chelsea, it’s the first in District 2, upsetting residents who live within that jurisdiction.

“People were concerned,” said Douglas James, who was the chief operating officer at the Center for Urban Community Services when Paul’s Place was under development. “They don’t understand what we’re doing. They’ve never had a shelter next to them or in their neighborhood before, so this was like a new thing to be presented.”

There are different kinds of shelters for the unhoused population, according to the Department of Social Services. Homeless shelters typically have a structured set of rules and provide semi-permanent housing for those who meet a certain criteria. Drop-in centers, on the other hand, offer temporary beds, hot meals, showers and social services for New Yorkers who aren’t in the city’s system for more permanent housing and benefits. 

“Paul’s Place provides a place for people to get clean, to shower, feel safe,” said James. “A little bit of dignity, a little bit of rest, respite from the outdoors, and on top of that you get them to come in for those things, and you also have social workers who engage them.” 

At a Community Board 2 meeting in April, a number of Lower Manhattan residents knocked down a proposal for a drop-in center, voicing displeasure about safety and quality of life issues. 

“The security concerns that I’ve heard from community members are that homeless people are sleeping on our benches on our private property and following us into the buildings at night,” said Tira Bluestone, who’s lived in Chelsea for a decade and is now running for the board of directors at Penn South, a cooperative housing community on West 24th Street.

Cheri Rothman, a mother of three who’s lived in Chelsea for 18 years, said the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the number of unhoused individuals in her neighborhood. 

“It just has gotten much scarier since,” said Rothman. “It’s much more desolate, and not as many things are open, and there’s just a lot more homeless men it seems like.”

James said it took a few years of sharing the Center for Urban Community Service’s proposal for a drop-in center with city officials, block associations and community boards before Paul Place could open.

“We were looking for a while, and we found a few sites that we thought would be great and the landlords themselves rejected our offers, not wanting to be associated with homeless services,” he said, adding that a few community members asked the Center for Urban Community Services to choose a different neighborhood for the site because theirs was “too nice.”

“Some of those questions were a bit hostile. What was underlying those questions was fear and uncertainty,” said James.

Finally, the Center for Urban Community Services was able to find a landlord willing to rent a distressed building to them on West 14th Street, said James. 

But Rothman is weary about the increase of homeless people roaming the area. “Nobody wants them in their neighborhoods, so if I say, ‘Hey, I’d like a lot of the homes to be in another neighborhood,’ that’s just putting them in somebody else’s neighborhood,” she said.

Last year, 107,510 homeless adults and children slept in the New York City Department of Homeless Services shelter system, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy organization.

While some New Yorkers worry about crime in areas that have shelters or drop-in centers, the data shows only a slight increase in arrests. From April to June, a total of 424 arrests were made at homeless shelters across New York City, a 1.3% increase from 2021, according to New York City Police Department data.

There are some Chelsea locals who are more accepting of homeless individuals in the neighborhood.

John Henniger, co-owner of Dan and John’s Wings, a restaurant across the street from Paul’s Place, said it was common for people to come in looking for a restroom or a place to sit. Although he hadn’t heard about the opening of Paul’s Place, Henniger said he thinks anything to help people experiencing homelessness in their neighborhood is a positive thing.

“They’re part of the community and we’re happy to, you know, talk about football with them and just hang out with them for a minute,” he said.