Winter Raises Stakes for Homeless in Greenpoint

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An argument over whether to locate a large homeless shelter in Greenpoint is playing out in a neighborhood where there is already a very visible homeless population. For some, the question isn't whether the homeless will come to Greenpoint or not, but whether they'll sleep on the street or in a bed.

Photo by: Jim Henderson

An argument over whether to locate a large homeless shelter in Greenpoint is playing out in a neighborhood where there is already a very visible homeless population. For some, the question isn't whether the homeless will come to Greenpoint or not, but whether they'll sleep on the street or in a bed.

There is a problem Greenpoint residents see every day, whether strolling down Manhattan Avenue to run errands, or sprinting to catch the next G train to work: homelessness.

There are homeless men and women sprawled out in the streets, sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes in a corner of the Nassau subway station, living in both McGolrick and McCarren parks, dwelling under the BQE, napping on doorsteps and, when it gets cold, dying of hypothermia – if not taking their own lives.

Recently two proposals for a homeless shelter in Greenpoint at 400 McGuinness Blvd, one by HELPUSA and one by the Bowery Residents Committee (BRC), have been opposed by Community Board 1 in non-binding advisory votes.

HELPUSA withdrew its proposal due to a lack of funding to run the site properly and BRC stepped in soon after. According to Muzzy Rosenblatt, executive director of BRC, they still plan to move forward with their proposal.

Among opponents of the project, the location of the proposed facility—intended to be a transition center for homeless people suffering from alcohol and substance abuse problems—has been seen as too far from the subway, and too close to a residential neighborhood.

But the main objections were that the location is too close to a number of three-quarter houses—facilities housing people who are struggling with drug addictions—on Manhattan Avenue, and that a 200-bed, all-men’s shelter would bring with it a spike in crime.

Concerns were voiced in community board meetings about The Greenpoint Hotel, a three-quarter house where drug dealers and gang members have been known to hang out over the years and violence—even murder—have been reported. Between 1998 and 2006, 20 deaths had been reported at the house and at least one was a drug-related murder according to a 2006 New York Times article.

“The real issue with the three-quarter-house is that it is unmanaged. There’s no commitment to the neighborhood, no regulation,” Reverend Ann Kansfield, co-Pastor of the Greenpoint Reformed Church, who runs a soup kitchen and food pantry there, says. “When it’s poorly run like it is here, it’s a real issue.”

“[We] don’t know if the proposed shelter will have a positive or negative impact… We do know that the hotel is very poorly run,” she adds. Kansfield won’t say whether she supports the proposed shelter, but says, “I support the idea of everyone being able to have a roof over their head.”

According to a report by the Coalition for the Homeless, New York City as a whole is seeing the highest levels of homelessness since the Great Depression. In 2010, the number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping in the municipal shelter system was 37 percent higher than in 2002.

“People from the neighborhood don’t want to go to a shelter in East New York, where they don’t speak Polish,” says Kansfield. She notes that there are some resources for people close by—but without the right documentation, they have no access to them. Many of the homeless in Greenpoint hardly speak a word of English and some aren’t U.S. citizens, or have no papers or identification to prove that they are.

Some argue Greenpoint isn’t the right location for a shelter. “With the nearby sewage treatment plant, the Newton Creek waste problems, and the existing crime in our neighborhood… Greenpoint residents have already shouldered more than enough of the city’s problems,” says Greg McGunagle, a 30-year-old public relations executive and Greenpoint resident.

Others disagree. Mishka Shubaly, a 34-year-old writer and musician, who lived out of a van for a year, says, “People are just casting about for reasons to keep the shelter out of the community.” Shubaly suffered from alcoholism, and got help from the Outreach program, a non-profit organization that helps people who suffer from substance abuse problems. He has now been clean for two and a half years.

With the addition of the shelter he says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the crime rate went down. There are already a ton of people living outdoors, in vehicles, under bridges. Police selectively enforce open container laws because the problem is so prevalent. If you give these people a place to go, you can step up enforcement.”

He emphasizes, “Between four and ten people live full-time under the BQE across from my house. It’s unsanitary and dangerous for them and it’s a nuisance for the neighborhood. Giving them housing is a great step towards helping them.”

Last winter, Father Robert W. Czok at St. Anthony’s Church allowed the homeless to stay in the church basement on the coldest nights. Pat McDonnell – who works as a coordinator at Outreach, and also spends her own time cooking for and feeding the homeless, as well as trying to find shelter for them – would assist in getting the homeless to the church.

“It was a little crazy. It was like a telegram type of thing… someone would go on a bicycle to McCarren Park and round everybody up, cause it was like 26 degrees out, and they would all come gathering in one location. It was a very archaic way of doing it, but it worked,” McDonnell, a lifelong Greenpoint resident, recalls.

When they arrived at the church, they weren’t allowed to drink—but if already drunk, they were still allowed in. They slept on cardboard on the hard cement floor, which may not sound ideal, but is “still better than sleeping outside” says McDonnell. “I get afraid because they’re a little bit rowdy. I get afraid they’ll fall and crack their heads. But nobody has.”

A few weeks ago, Czok retired, and now McDonnell fears that the homeless will have nowhere to go this winter. She says congregants have been holding votes at different churches over whether to allow the homeless to stay, but because of staffing, money and insurance issues, many of the churches vote against the idea. Czok was in the neighborhood for a long time, and built up a good reputation for himself. It wasn’t hard for him to open his doors to the homeless—but for other pastors who haven’t been here for quite as long, it could be more difficult. They run the risk of someone dying or being injured inside, and being blamed for it, McDonnell says.

In October, reports of a homeless man hanging himself in McGolrick Park marked the fifth reported death of a homeless man in Greenpoint’s parks in the past 15 months. Two have taken their own lives (the second man in Barge Park off Commercial Street), one man drowned in McCarren Park, another died of hypothermia in the same park and a third died of unknown causes, also in McCarren Park.

“It’s a sick way of thinking because the person could die in the street and then no one’s responsible,” says McDonnell, “is that what we do, do we just let people die and not be responsible?”