From the outside, the New Horizon Gospel Ministries church blends in with the many storefront houses of worship lining the aptly-named Church Avenue in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn.
One Wednesday evening last month, however, it was crammed with a standing-room-only crowd eager to bear witness in opposition to a different type of establishment, which residents consider overly abundant: various kinds of rehabilitative facilities, group homes and shelters.
Community Board 17 members followed up on a recommendation of its housing committee by rejecting the proposed project that had drawn so much interest. Tilden Gardens, which would have been sited at 2513-2519 Tilden Avenue, was killed by nearly all members present – 29 votes against, none in favor and one abstention.
“We are very sympathetic people, we are very caring people. But we are oversaturated,” said Board Secretary Mary Bell-Downes, explaining her recommendation for rejecting the proposal.
The Bridge, Inc., a 55-year-old nonprofit agency that's garnered nationwide recognition for its housing programs for people with mental health problems, sponsored the ill-fated project. According to Dr. Peter Beitchman, the agency’s executive director, Tilden Gardens was to be part of the city and state’s ambitious New York/New York III Agreement: a $1 billion dollar initiative with the goal of creating 9,000 units of supportive housing throughout the city by the year 2015.
The Tilden Gardens project would have created studio apartments for 45 men and women, as well as a separate wing that would have housed 15 young adults, according to a fact sheet distributed during the hearing.
But several residents at the meeting, while commending the Bridge’s work with the mentally ill, bristled at what they perceive as a glut of special housing and rehabilitation services in their district. They considered the point perfectly illustrated by the fact that the proposed site for Tilden Gardens is directly across the street from another facility in the neighborhood, Tilden Hall.
“Once you come into the community…what benefits or services are you going to offer the residents that live here as opposed to bringing more people [with special housing needs] into an already saturated area?” asked Rose Saint Albord, a resident of East Flatbush for 25 years.
Beitchman’s response that the residence would provide “a significant number of jobs” didn't appear to convince those in attendance.
More convincing, it seemed, was Michelle Williams-Libert's tale. In a neighborhood where street signs proclaim East Flatbush to be “The Caribbean Heart & Soul of Brooklyn,” the testimony that seemed most compelling to the board came from this businesswoman whose company handles export services for Caribbean immigrants throughout New York City. Williams-Libert runs the family business started by her Guyanese father and operating for 20 years out of its current leased location at 2513 Tilden Avenue – the lot where The Bridge planned to build.
Although Williams-Libert's objection to the project was different from that of others – it was that she had only learned that very day of The Bridge’s plan to erect Tilden Gardens on her company’s site – her tale of late notification seemed to help seal the proposal's fate. (Williams-Libert stressed later that Beitchman had been unaware of her own attempts to buy the property from the lot’s present owner.)
In interviews during the days following the hearing, several residents in the immediate area around the proposed site expressed their concerns over another special housing facility as a possible neighbor—citing past problems with vandalism, fighting and aggressive panhandling from clients of Tilden Hall as well as Kingsboro Psychiatric Center.
“They’re going to pollute the neighborhood,” said Mel, a local resident shopping at Victor’s Deli & Grocery at the corner of Lott Street and Tilden Avenue, who did not want to provide his last name. “We got tired of them begging six, seven, eight months out of the year and when people stopped helping them, they want to break into cars.”
Beitchman pointed out during the meeting that Tilden Gardens would be staffed and supervised around the clock and was aimed specifically at graduates of the Bridge’s mental rehabilitation programs. As a requirement for admission, residents would be required to have no kind of psychiatric hospitalization of any kind for a minimum of five years.
Residents of the local community district who met the eligibility criteria would have been given priority admission to the project. That was welcome news to one person – Sister Janet Kinney, a 15-year East Flatbush resident and director of a Providence House facility at 2518 Church Avenue. Kinney has referred some of her clients at Providence House, a residence for women who have been abused, homeless or incarcerated, to Bridge programs.
“If [the Bridge] was next door to my Providence House, I would be happy to have them,” said Sister Kinney during the meeting. “Everyone who has a mental illness deserves to have a place to live, and our community is no different.”
That sentiment ultimately held little sway over community board members, however, who seemed more concerned about the balance of land uses in the area and holding the line against outside agendas.
For Beitchman, the story of Tilden Gardens' rejection is part of a larger saga of stigmatization of the mentally ill. And the outcry over supportive housing “saturation” is one he has heard before in making proposals to bring Bridge programs to city neighborhoods.
“It’s just very difficult for people to overcome their unfortunate image of people with mental health conditions,” he said. “People automatically conjure up these terrible images of the mentally ill that persist and it’s unfortunate that they do. But with 570 beds [provided through Bridge housing programs] we are successful very often with communities of color and we expect to continue to be successful in the future.”
Correction: In the article, both Tilden Hall and Providence House had been erroneously identified as permanent supportive housing residences when in fact they are – according to the Department of City Planning – transitional housing facilities for residents referred by the Department of Homeless Services. There are currently no permanent supportive housing residences in Community District 17, according to the Supportive Housing Network of New York, which tracks state and city agencies responsible for funding such projects. 2/19/09