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The Upper West Side Open Hearts Initiative facilitates programs for homeless residents living in temporary hotel shelters in New York City. (Photo from Melissa Sanchez)

Two Penn professors, who are Upper West Side residents, won the fifth annual Compassionate Communities Award from the New York City Coalition for the Homeless for their initiative supporting homeless residents living in local shelters.

English professor Melissa Sanchez and Business Economics and Public Policy assistant professor Corinne Low won the award for leading the Upper West Side Open Hearts Initiative, which Low co-founded. Open Hearts supports homeless residents living in temporary hotel shelters by facilitating programs such as donation drives, resume workshops, employment fairs, and voter registration drives.

Low co-founded Open Hearts in late July after members of the Upper West Side community expressed anger at the transfer of residents from homeless shelters to the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side for sanitation purposes to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some Upper West Side residents alleged there was open drug use and reports of physical and verbal assaults.

In support of the shelter residents, Low, along with other Upper West Side neighbors, agreed to scatter messages of joy outside the streets of the Lucerne Hotel in an effort to welcome shelter residents to the neighborhood.

“We wanted to show them that there are people in this neighborhood who wanted them here and welcomed them here,” Low said.

Sanchez said she was inspired to join Open Hearts’ leadership team after witnessing misinformation and hatred spread throughout the Upper West Side about the shelter residents.

“I can either ignore this, go on with my life, and be complicit in allowing this misinformation to spread, or I can get involved and do something," Sanchez said. "It just didn't feel like a choice."

Open Hearts organizes weekly events, most recently the Ribbon of Love event held on Oct. 4. Shelter residents, government officials, and community members filled the outskirts of the Lucerne hotel and raised a ribbon to stand up against those seeking to remove the homeless population from the Upper West Side.   

Open Hearts also holds voter registration drives to ensure that shelter residents are eligible to vote in the 2020 election.

“Because so many unhoused persons are not registered to vote, they have no role in choosing the people who determine so much about their lives. So the voter registration drives have been geared towards allowing them direct influence on the policies that most affect them,” Sanchez said.

A shelter resident of the Lucerne Hotel, known as Da Homeless Hero, said he was in shock from the love shown by Open Hearts because of the resistance and negativity presented to the homeless community upon their arrival. He was initially reluctant to venture outside the shelter because of the response he felt he would receive from the Upper West Side neighborhood

“[Open Hearts] transformed that fear, anger, confusion, and disorientation into love. The very thing we had been missing during this entire experience of homelessness, we had now been getting from strangers,” Da Homeless Hero said. 

Low and Sanchez said they are grateful for the Compassionate Communities Award and hope that it will encourage others to join in on their efforts to support New York City’s homeless population.

In the future, Open Hearts seeks to see permanent housing for shelter residents implemented across New York. 

“I would like to see Open Hearts become an empowered organization that can do what it's done for us here for other people in other places — because this is unprecedented among the homeless population,” Da Homeless Hero said.

Low and Sanchez are adamant about continuing to embrace individuals in shelter housing throughout the neighborhood. They ultimately hope to construct a more long-term, comprehensive project that will help develop community support for several other neighborhoods in addition to the Upper West Side.