Shelter for All: An Interview with Paul Lotter
The Urban Design Forum’s 2018 Forefront Fellowship, Shelter for All, addressed the homelessness crisis in New York City by examining how to dignify the shelter system through better design and exploring the root causes of homelessness and housing precarity. Fellows developed original design and policy proposals on how to address the prison-to-shelter pipeline, public bathrooms, public realm management, supportive housing, and racist housing policies, which we are pleased to published alongside interviews with leading experts.
The following interview with Paul Lotter, Director of BID Field Operations for the Long Island City Partnership, accompanies Homelessness in the Public Realm. Read the full set of Shelter for All proposals and interviews here.
Stella Kim: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your current role?
Paul Lotter: I am the Director of BID Field Operations for the Long Island City Partnership, where I oversee all operations, from our multi-cultural programs to our sanitation programs to various other programs. A major part of this role is working with outside agencies on related issues and obstacles.
Before working at the LIC Partnership, I was working at Block by Block for a year and a half overseeing the operations for six Business Improvement Districts within New York City. Prior to that, I was the Precinct Manager at the Cape Town Central City Improvement District, which is a very large BID in Cape Town, South Africa.
SK: Could you talk more about the spaces the LIC BID oversees?
PL: We don’t have a whole lot of public space in the LIC BID. The public spaces we manage are the Queens Plaza Greenway and the Dutch Kills Green. We have a contract with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to manage and maintain the multi-cultural aspects of the public space, essentially keeping it clean and beautifying the area. If there are any structural issues with the benches or the street lights, that would be something we would attend to.
Other than that, we do not have many open public spaces where people can come sit to enjoy the outside realm. We do know of one area down on Vernon Boulevard and Jackson Avenue, but it is not a public space that we program or activate.
The public spaces that we manage are not the kind that you might have in mind, like when you go to the Flatiron District where they have a large median that they’ve turned into a public seating area with food trucks and free Wi-Fi. Our set up is slightly different. A lot of the public space we manage is centered on the bicycle lanes and horticultural beds that accompany it. There are few benches that people can come and make use of during their lunches.
SK: How often does the Partnership staff encounter people experiencing homelessness within your BID boundary? Are there any effective strategies that the BID employs that others might be willing to try?
PL: When it comes to our public space, I have not noticed a lot of homeless people utilizing the space. We notice the homeless population mainly during the summer months. Typically, I will notice them on the busiest sidewalks, where there is a lot of retail activity. We do not have a high homeless population within our BID. Typically, we only have about four individuals during the summer months, and they are quite well known to our partners at Breaking Ground. Some of the strategies that we have employed to assist the homeless population include doing district walks with Breaking Ground to see how they can assist those the vulnerable and those that are in need.
Our goal is not to displace anyone. They have a right to be in the community. This is their home. But on the flip side, if there is an activity that is causing a public nuisance or destruction, like public urination and defecation or aggressive panhandling, then typically we would partner with NYPD to see how we can remedy this issue.
For the most part, the homeless population within the BID does not seem to be bothering anyone.
SK: What has been most challenging about managing these situations? Who can help BIDs and other managers of the public realm manage these challenges?
PL: For me, over the years, the biggest challenge I’ve encountered is their willingness to accept help. A lot of people experiencing homelessness don’t want assistance. They are perfectly happy with their lifestyle. We might see them as in dire need of help, but they might not view themselves in that light.
Another challenge is also education in the public realm. Homelessness is something that needs inputs from local organizations, from city organizations, from the general pedestrian. Everyone should get involved at some point if they can.
SK: In addition to the services that you already are utilizing and the relationships that you have, is there anyone else that can help? Or any specific recommendations you would put forth to the City that would be helpful?
PL: Research and education around this whole topic, like the work that you’re doing right now to come up with recommendations and publications on the whole topic of homelessness, would be of vital importance. Not only to BIDs, but to everyone. Most businesses are in urban areas. If you work in downtown, chances are you pass someone that’s homeless or someone that’s in need. This kind of information—what to do or how to handle the situation—is something that is not out there yet. Or if it is, not a lot of people know about it.
SK: What does a more compassionate management of the public realm look like to you?
PL: An area or a community where no one is judged based on their living conditions or how it is they choose to live their life. That is compassionate management of the public realm. A public realm where no one is getting displaced or being asked to move on based on their appearance or their conditions.
You know, if you look behind me—this gentleman with his trolley is there, but he’s well known to our partners at Breaking Ground, and he doesn’t harm anyone. But from what I’ve noticed, a lot of people choose to avoid him or keep their distance. Why do you think that is? That doesn’t seem very compassionate to me. And that goes back to our whole conversation about education and awareness of the issues and challenges that that individual might have had.
SK: What will it take for public spaces to be truly for all?
SK: Another big picture question! We’re probing all the experts in public space management for your dream ideas.
PL: Dream ideas…well, bathrooms, certainly, there is a big need for that. If you live on the street, where do you go? Restaurants aren’t going to let you use their facilities unless you have a relationship.
With bench design, a lot of cities have incorporated defensive designs to prevent people, and more specifically the homeless population, from sleeping on benches. Simple things like that. Make it more inviting.
Then you can look at if it is accessible to the elderly, or people with disabilities. When you say public space for all, that includes the homeless population, your average Joe walking down the street, visitors to the area. If you want to make it for all, you have to truly ask who the visitors are, too. Wayfinding apps or information boards might be helpful to them.
SK: This is a great list. It takes different kinds of amenities and features that will reach certain segments of the population, and will combine to create a truly great space.