There really is no such thing as a free lunch.
That’s what two residents of the Upper West Side’s Lucerne Hotel homeless shelter say, alleging in new court documents that they were offered money or food in exchange for signing onto a petition supporting their relocation downtown.
Locals citing a declining quality of life have been fighting for months to shutter the shelter and shift its more than 200 residents — adult men battling mental illness or substance addictions — elsewhere.
In September, City Hall agreed to relocate the group to another hotel in the Financial District, but the exodus has since been hung up in court, with Lucerne residents winning a court order to delay moving day.
Now, two homeless men allege that someone has tried tempting them with food and cash to support the move in writing.
One, Elihu Hesterbey, attests in an affidavit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court that he was approached outside the shelter on Sunday by a woman.
“The woman asked me for a favor. Specifically, she asked if I could knock on the doors of two residents of the Lucerne and let them know that she was waiting downstairs for them,” wrote Hesterbey, adding that he tried the men’s rooms but found they weren’t around.
Hesterbey reported back to the woman, who asked whether he would be interested in getting his own private room at a different hotel in the Financial District, he wrote.
Hesterbey said that he wasn’t interested in moving, but the woman, who gave her name as Melinda, insisted that they speak again that afternoon, according to Hesterbey’s affidavit.
“At that time, she explained that she could offer me some money for a couple of months if I was willing to sign papers saying that I no longer want to live at the Lucerne and would prefer to move to the Wall Street area, which I took to mean the Hotel Radisson Shelter located at 52 Williams Street,” Hesterbey wrote of the second meeting.
“I politely explained that I was not willing to sign anything.”
Writing in a second sworn affidavit, another Lucerne resident — withholding his name for fear of “retribution” — details a similar interaction.
“I, too, was asked to sign the Alleged Petition, and when I declined, I was offered food to reconsider. In particular, a white woman, medium height and walking with two dogs (one white and one brown), offered me pizza or pasta from the pizza restaurant on the corner of West 79th Street and Amsterdam, in exchange for me signing the Alleged Petition,” that resident wrote.
He went on to attest that “several other men” told him they received similar offers, either of food or cash, with some agreeing to it.
“The standard ‘fee’ for signing the Alleged Petition was between $10 and $20, which is a lot of money for homeless people,” he wrote.
Two other men, Ramone Buford and Larry Thomas, submitted sworn affidavits stating that they had spoken with residents who reported similar experiences, but do not claim that they personally received such offers.
In an affidavit of her own, Melinda Thaler, a lawyer and Upper West Sider of nearly 30 years, said that she met with a handful of Lucerne residents about accommodations elsewhere, “sometimes over a coffee or a simple meal,” but strongly denies offering anything resembling a bribe.
“Two of the individuals with whom I met and who agreed to submit affidavits had no method of communication, so I provided these two individuals with a limited-value and limited-duration burner phone solely so that I could arrange to stay in contact with them so that we could meet again to review an affidavit, as necessary in the course of the litigation,” wrote Thaler, a member of the West Side Community Organization, or WestCo.
“On a few occasions, I also provided a ride-share service or other transportation to facilitate a meeting when some individuals were not near the Upper West Side during our scheduled meeting time.
“The allegation that I paid anybody to do anything or otherwise did anything inappropriate is a complete fabrication.”
WestCo’s goal, according to its Web site, “is to advocate for a restored quality of life for residents, visitors, and the small business community and to advance safer and more compassionate policies regarding New Yorkers who are struggling with homelessness, mental illness, and drug addiction.”
The John Doe affidavit alleged WestCo was behind the bribes, but a spokesman for the group issued a statement doubling-down on the denial of any dirty-dealing.
“WestCo categorically denies these defamatory accusations. No one associated with WestCo offered to pay or paid anyone at the Lucerne in exchange for anything. Individuals there signed affidavits of their own volition because they wanted to share their stories,” the statement read.
“That they met with a WestCo affiliate over coffee or a simple meal to share their views in support of the move to the better facility downtown is hardly newsworthy,” it continued. “But the allegation that they were given anything of value in exchange for their testimony or that anything untoward occurred here is simply a lie.”
Michael Hiller — a lawyer representing a group of Lucerne residents including Buford and Thomas, and providing legal assistance to many more — fired back.
“We are deeply disturbed that representatives WestCo, by their own admission, have been giving cell phones and hot meals to homeless men to procure witness statements in an active litigation,” said Hiller.
“We are also continuing to investigate the multiple reports we have received that, in addition to hot meals and phones, cash payments have also been offered to homeless men in exchange for affidavits supportive of WestCo’s positions in this matter.
“While WestCo claims that what was offered was of little value, such assertions only reinforce the tone-deafness of wealthy residents who evidently have never taken the time to consider the tragedy of homelessness and what a hot meal, a cell phone and few dollars means to those who have nothing.”
Meanwhile, Randy Mastro, an attorney who represented Upper West Siders’ bid to close the shelter, has filed sworn affidavits from three Lucerne residents in support of the move downtown.
Mastro’s Upper East Side home was tagged with graffiti last month by bike-riding miscreants in an apparent act of retribution for his involvement in the case.
In yet another sheaf of court papers filed early Wednesday, Hiller disputed the notion that Lucerne residents or their backers were behind the vandalism.
“While we condemn the Vandalism on the strongest terms, we reject with equal vehemence any suggestion that the Lucerne Petitioners or anyone on their behalf was involved,” wrote Hiller.
“First, homeless men don’t own expensive road bikes; nor do they typically have the funds to purchase multiple cans of spray paint, equipment and stencil sets,” he wrote. “Second, unless they have jobs that require late-night work, the Lucerne Petitioners are not permitted out after 10 pm; if they miss curfew, a record is made and kept.”
A second WestCo spokesman was quick to clarify that no one associated with the Lucerne has actually been implicated in the vandalism.
“Nobody suggested anyone at the Lucerne or any homeless people vandalized Randy’s home,” said Juda Engelmayer. “We believe it was an organized effort by people who oppose the position Randy and my clients have taken.”
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