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City Council Candidates Debate Homelessness, Crime at Upper West Side Forum
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City Council Candidates Debate Homelessness, Crime at Upper West Side Forum

All but one said they wouldn't house the homeless in hotels, a hot-button issue last summer.

Manhattan Borough President Gale  Brewer, running for City Council on the Upper West Side, speaks at a virtual candidates' forum sponsored by The Jewish Center and other synagogues, May 27, 2021. (YouTube)
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, running for City Council on the Upper West Side, speaks at a virtual candidates' forum sponsored by The Jewish Center and other synagogues, May 27, 2021. (YouTube)

Five candidates for the Upper West Side’s District 6
City Council seat talked crime and homelessness at
forum hosted by The Jewish Center and other local Orthodox synagogues.

Jewish groups were on opposites sides of a homelessness controversy last summer, when at the height of the pandemic New York City movement homeless men in empty neighborhood hotels. Some of the Orthodox synagogues hosting the forum were vocal in saying the move had threatened the neighborhood’s safety and quality of life.

Several candidates agreed that more housing needed to be built in the city, including supportive long-term housing for the homeless and mentally ill, and that expanding the shelter system, which provides temporary housing for the homeless, was not the answer.

Gale Brewer, the Manhattan Borough President seeking a return to the council, suggested placing shelters in hotels in Midtown, which has not yet returned to its pre-pandemic level of activity as people continue to work from home, rather than on the Upper West Side.

Sara Lind, a member of the neighborhood’s Community Board 7, and Jeffrey Omura, an actor and officer in the Actors’ Equity guild, suggested building more affordable housing throughout the city, including on the Upper West Side, and including supportive housing for those with mental illness.

When asked if they would house the homeless in hotels, nearly all of the candidates said no. Lind was the only one to say that moving the homeless into hotels was the correct decision at the time but one she would not repeat.

Rabbi Elie Buechler, assistant rabbi at The Jewish Center and the moderator of the forum, also asked the candidates about crime on the streets and in the subways.

All of the candidates agreed that police officers could not address the issue alone and required help from mental health providers. But there was some disagreement over the exact scope of the problem and whether funding to the police should be redirected as the city seeks to reduce costs and focus on economic recovery efforts.

Lind, who serves as a liaison to the police for Community Board 7, said year-to-year comparisons during the pandemic exaggerated the crime rate.

“We’re actually down 2% from two years ago,” she said, explaining that comparing 2021 to 2019 would be more appropriate.

Several candidates suggested pairing mental health providers with police officers due to the high number of crimes committed by people with mental illnesses.

“Police and mental health treatment should go together,” said screenwriter and actor Zack Weiner, who, at 26 years old, is the youngest candidate in the race.

None of the candidates said they would support defunding the police, a position the rose to prominence during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. Omura, however, said there is “room to reallocate funds towards mental health, social work, and education,” and Lind agreed that “there’s waste in that budget,” referring to the police department budget. “There are ways we can reallocate some of that and keep our city safe,” she said.

All of the candidates agreed that the city needed to do more to curb the increase in hate crimes, particularly anti-Asian crimes that swept the city during the pandemic and antisemitic incidents seemingly inspired by the recent Israel-Hamas conflict.

Maria Danzilo, a lawyer and community activist, mentioned “false narratives” about Israel in the press as one part of the problem and called on all the candidates to denounce the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

When asked, all of the candidates said they did not support BDS. Brewer also noted that Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which endorsed her and Lind, does not support BDS.

Brewer suggested more funding for groups like the Anti-Defamation League that work on hate crime prevention. Lind suggested improving education about the Holocaust and investing in restorative justice for those convicted of committing hate crimes. Omura, who is Japanese American, suggested increasing representation for Asian-Americans on the city council, saying his own presence there would be a step in the right direction.

The Democratic primary is June 22. The district’s current Council member, Helen Rosenthal, is term-limited and cannot seek reelection.

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