As a controversial shelter plan moves forward in Williamsburg, the city is one step closer to moving its central intake shelter for homeless men out of Manhattan.
On May 6, the Doe Fund, a nonprofit homeless services organization, finalized the purchase of an old knitting factory on Porter Avenue in the East Williamsburg Industrial Park. Under its $175.9 million, 22-year contract with the city, Doe will provide beds to 400 homeless men. This project is meant to replace half of the beds currently at Bellevue Medical Center on First Avenue in Manhattan, which the Department of Homeless Services plans to close to make way for a New York University complex for biotechnology companies.
The city has said it will not finalize the deal with NYU until it secures new space for all 850 beds currently at Bellevue. The city is reportedly negotiating with another organization to operate a large men’s shelter in the Bronx.
Meanwhile, a group of residents, merchants and elected officials in Williamsburg are still hoping to derail the Doe Fund project. Soon after Doe won the city contract in 2000, the opponents, which included the local community board, then-Brooklyn Borough president Howard Golden and some nearby companies, filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court claiming that Doe had failed to put the shelter proposal through the city’s land use and environmental review processes. Last November, the court dismissed the case. The local opposition has since filed a notice of appeal, and plan to submit briefs to the court by July.
“A lot of the businesses are not happy with having the shelter in the East Williamsburg Industrial Park,” said Jose Leon, director of the East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Development Corporation, some of whose members, including Cornell Beverages and the Joyva candy company, are a part of the lawsuit. “We will have homeless men wandering the streets looking for the location, while trucks are coming in and out.”
The shelter proposal also came under attack from former city Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who rejected it outright. Part of his concern was that Doe was buying the building from Abraham Weiss, who was convicted on federal charges a few years ago. Weiss had bought the Porter Avenue property just three months before the city entered a contract with the Doe Fund. The city should not provide such a windfall to Weiss, Hevesi said at the time.
The Doe Fund ultimately bought the building for $2.7 million. In March, the New York Post reported a DHS spokesperson as saying the Weiss family would only see $8,000 in profit from the sale, with the rest going to an unnamed charitable foundation.
Now that the deal is done, said George McDonald, founder and president of the Doe Fund, nothing can block the project. “Construction will begin immediately,” he told City Limits last week. “You can’t stop us.”
Of the 400 beds at the Porter Avenue shelter, said McDonald, 100 will be reserved for participants in Doe’s Ready, Willing and Able program, which pays participants $5.50 to $6.50 an hour to do jobs like street cleaning. During the nine- to 18-month program, participants are required to pay $65 a week for room and board and to put $30 a week into savings accounts, which the organization matches at the end of the program. Doe also offers clients case management, drug counseling, and classes in computers and other skills.
The other 300 beds will be reserved for men undergoing the city’s 21-day assessment to determine what kind of shelter they are eligible for. McDonald hopes to raise private money to shift another 100 beds at the facility to Doe’s Ready, Willing and Able program.