As emotions reached a fever pitch last week over the city’s planned move of a homeless intake center from Manhattan to Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, neighborhood residents and local leaders who oppose the move had a revelation of sorts: Instead of solely relying on protesting to city officials who seem intent on carrying out the plan, focus instead on blocking the move both in court and at the state level, where the next procedural hurdle lies.
State Senator Eric Adams, speaking at a community board meeting in Brooklyn last week, vowed to file an injunction in court stopping the plan, which calls for the city’s main intake center for homeless men to be relocated from the East Side of Manhattan – the former Bellevue Hospital site – to the Bedford-Atlantic Armory in Crown Heights, where neighborhood residents say they already feel the strain of an over-concentration of social service providers in their neighborhood. The armory is currently home to a 350-bed shelter, notorious for its reputation as a den of violence, drug abuse and sexual solicitation. The Peter Young homeless shelter, with a similarly sordid reputation, is a block and a half away.
City Councilwoman Letitia James, whose district includes the armory and also opposes the relocation plan, and Adams, whose Brooklyn district is nearby, began rallying neighborhood residents to attend a Sept. 19 public hearing of the state Assembly Standing Committee on Social Services, which will examine the impact of the facility’s move on the homeless population and the local community. Although both properties are controlled by the city, the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance must review and approve the site relocation. The city plans to lease the Bellevue building at 30th Street and First Avenue in Manhattan to a developer who will turn the property into a hotel and conference center. (For details, see From Bellevue To Bklyn: Homeless Center to Move, City Limits Weekly #640, May 19, 2008.)
City officials say the proposed relocation is part of a comprehensive strategy to improve outcomes overall. Part of that strategy involves moving away from a centralized intake center – the so-called “front door” to the entire city shelter system – and moving toward a “safe haven” program of smaller shelters with more relaxed rules, where there is more focus on services and getting people into permanent housing. The Bloomberg administration has pledged to reduce homelessness by two-thirds before the end of 2009 (though a recent report by the Independent Budget Office says meeting that goal is unlikely).
But the plan has run into strong opposition from numerous constituencies, from neighborhood residents to local elected officials to the Coalition for the Homeless. The Coalition says it doesn’t make sense to take the intake center from Manhattan, which has 58 percent of the city’s street homeless people, and move it to Brooklyn, which has 16 percent, according to a city study conducted earlier this year.
Department of Homeless Services Deputy Commissioner George Nashak got an earful from a standing-room-only capacity crowd at the Community Board 8 meeting in Crown Heights on Aug. 12. And while residents said they sympathized with the plight of the men who seek services in the shelter system, they described their neighborhood as a repository for the city’s unwanted – a predominantly black neighborhood that has only recently begun to shake off a history of violence and unrest.
“We have always been the dumping ground,” said neighborhood native Father Caleb Buchanan, of nearby St. Gregory the Great. “I will say it as a priest of God for this community. I used to serve in Bay Ridge for four years and this process would not have happened this way in Bay Ridge.”
Many local people couched the shelter quandary in a broader condemnation of a city social services system that fails to fulfill its mandate to help needy people tap the resources they need to live a healthy and dignified life.
“Any of us in here can be homeless, especially in this time and age,” said Samantha Bernardine, a 30-year Crown Heights resident and a social worker who has visited several shelters in the area in her work with clients. “The condition of the shelters in Brooklyn is atrocious, and that is something that needs to be addressed.”
Attempting to respond to an increasingly angry crowd, Nashak tried to make the case that the Department of Homeless Services’ track record would improve once the intake center was moved and the Bedford-Altantic Armory shelter’s bed count was reduced from 350 to 230 as now planned, spreading the existing services and security over a smaller shelter population.
But people who live near the shelter described coming home from work every day to droves of forlorn, mentally unstable or drug-addicted homeless men flooding Pacific and Dean Streets. Nathan Ashford, a former Bedford-Armory shelter resident who spent three months there before moving on to Washington Heights last month, described a place where people openly smoked crack, threatened violence, and solicited one another for sex. And in spite of his need for services to help manage his bipolar disorder, he said he was continually told there was no better solution for him available.
“You can’t even manage the assessment at Bedford, how are you going to deal with intake?” he told Nashak.
Later, asked point blank what he was hearing from community residents, Nashak was unequivocal in his response. “I think it’s an avalanche of opposition to our plan,” he said quietly. The crowd, as it had many times that night, erupted in frustrated shouts and groans. The next chorus of argument and objection may well be heard in a New York Court.