Concerned Brooklynites rallied last week to revive their fight against the Department of Homeless Services’ plan to add an intake center for homeless men to the homeless shelter already housed at the Bedford-Atlantic Armory in Crown Heights. Elected officials and community activists laid out their strategy at a lively town hall meeting filled with area residents.

The speakers criticized the DHS plan – first proposed more than a year ago – called for petition signing and donations, outlined their legal strategy and decried what they said was the Bloomberg administration’s disregard for central Brooklyn.
“You will not continue to disrespect our community,” said City Councilwoman Letitia James, whose district includes the armory. Her calls to fight Mayor Bloomberg brought the group of about 100 to their feet with applause.

Crown Heights, the organizers argued, has been overloaded with a disproportionate share of social service facilities. The “fair share” provision in the city charter, which requires that the burdens and benefits of city facilities be fairly distributed, is one of their main defenses.

An intake center is the point of entry for homeless individuals seeking access to emergency shelter. Currently, the only men’s intake center is at the former Bellevue psychiatric hospital, on East 29th Street in Manhattan. The city intends to develop a hotel and convention center on that site.

DHS would actually spread services more evenly if it opened an intake center in Brooklyn, Deputy Commissioner for Adult Services George Nashak said in an interview following the meeting. He said that 30 percent of single adult men who enter the shelter system are from Brooklyn – a greater portion than from any other borough.

“We think it’s better for clients, it’s more efficient, and it will result in a better service to have two points of intake,” said Nashak. The shelter’s capacity, meanwhile, would be reduced from 350 beds to 230 beds. “By reducing the bed count and maintaining our level of funding, we can intensify the social services for these clients. So we think everybody wins in this deal.”

But in a battle of statistics, opponents pointed to the 2009 homeless street survey, which said 57 percent of street homeless individuals were in Manhattan and 15 percent were in Brooklyn. Nashak countered that these are individuals who typically avoid the shelter system and who would not use the intake center anyway.

Opponents at the meeting, held at St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church not far from the Armory, warned that DHS would close the Manhattan center. That was the agency’s original plan, but Commissioner Robert Hess testified in March that it decided to keep Bellevue open and delay the redevelopment until a sufficient Manhattan replacement was found.
A new Brooklyn intake center would require approval from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. Several local officials wrote to OTDA in late June requesting that a decision be postponed until a new commissioner has been appointed, as Commissioner David Hansell left his post Friday for a post in the Obama administration.

This would buy time so the coalition of opponents could craft an alternate proposal for review by OTDA – one that would require DHS to keep operating the Bellevue facility, said attorney Jim Walden, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher who is providing pro bono services to the community organizers.

Failing these measures, the coalition would sue the city to force an environmental review, including an assessment of public safety impacts, to conduct a fair-share analysis, and to employ the Unified Land Use Review Procedure, Walden said.

He and speakers from the Crown Heights Revitalization Movement (CHRM), an activist group that organized the event, encouraged neighbors to join the lawsuit as plaintiffs and to submit their stories of problems with the current shelter. They wanted the stories both for the lawsuit and to stir emotions at the meeting.

Local residents obliged. Margaret McFarlane, who lives across the street from the armory, said the men who currently occupy the shelter spill into the streets early in the morning and assault her senses. “You can smell the urine,” she said.

Each speaker, though, took pains to emphasize that their opposition was more complex and noble than “not in my back yard.” Indeed, if the armory did not already have a troubled history of alleged crime and bothering its neighbors, then the arguments against locating it there could be mistaken for NIMBY preconceptions – the fear of derelicts defacing property and harassing children, lower property values and other negative impacts.

“We have nothing against the population they’re serving,” said Sandy Taggart, the co-founder of Crown Heights Revitalization Movement. “The community is just so incredibly saturated with social service beds.”

To Nashak, the resistance is all too common. “Nobody wants homeless people in their neighborhood,” he said, “but there’s also not exactly a high level of tolerance of the solution to homelessness in peoples’ neighborhoods, either.”

– Mike Reicher