On Thursday 1/24, a crowd of nearly forty Greenpointers gathered at Greenpoint Church to discuss the recently opened Homeless Respite. Pastor Ann asked that all press and bloggers reveal the publication and keep off the record comments off the record. It was a neighborly forum and while the night had some very difficult and uncomfortable moments, important progress was made.
(For the record, no one spoke off the record, but I did not directly quote or identify residents.)
First and most importantly, ten homeless men, our neighbors, would sleep in warm beds on an 18 degree night without the risk of freezing to death. This is a good thing.
Second, issues of communication, a big concern for Milton St residents, was discussed (loudly, with some yelling) and promises were made for improvement. More open meetings to discuss the impact of the church’s services on the residents of Milton St will be scheduled.
When it was my turn to introduce myself, I said, “I am in attendance first as a member of the church and next representing Greenpointers.” I write this blog post from the same position. I am not an unbiased reporter. I openly support the efforts the church makes to care for those who would otherwise be left to go hungry or sleep in the cold. That being said I will do my best to be sympathetic to the residents of Milton St who are opposed to the shelter and share the burden as well.
I don’t live on Milton St, so I don’t know their day to day experiences. Complaints which include public defecation, urination, inebriation and homeless men passed out on sidewalks is not limited to the area surrounding the church. It is a neighborhood wide problem and the church is not the cause of these problems, but rather trying to help solve them.
Ann began with a story about her first encounter with hungry residents. When asked for money for food, Ann kept the promise she made to her Grandfather, that instead of giving money she would take the person to eat. When she realized she was keeping LA Pizza on Manhattan Ave in business, she knew a hunger program was in order. What began as a 25 person soup kitchen turned into feeding over 600 people per week. This is also a good thing.
The meeting was not about the hunger program, or the many other programs, like AA, that the church provides, although the homeless men might very well be taking the blame for problems stemming from the other programs, or other homeless people around the area. It’s not as if we can make them wear signs saying they sleep at the church, or special ID jackets, like one Milton St resident suggested – to cringes all around the room.
Another issue that was brought up was the assessment center at 400 McGuinness, which serves 200 homeless people and opened despite strong opposition from many Greenpointers because it doesn’t directly serve the neighborhood’s homeless but brings homeless people from all over the city.
While there are beds reserved for local homeless people there, the particular men sleeping at the Greenpoint Chuch refuse to go there, for multiple reasons including language barriers, severe alcoholism and because they do not feel safe. “They would rather sleep on the street,” according to Council Member Levin.
According to DHS Deputy Commissioner, Barbara Brancaccio, DHS created this unique program “because the community asked us.” To this Councilmen Levin explained that plans for this respite were years in the making and in response to requests from neighbors to do something about the homeless here in Greenpoint. As winter approached Levin explained that “another person won’t die in the cold; not on [his] watch,” as has unfortunately happened in recent winters.
The Greenpoint Church homeless respite is not a shelter, but a place to sleep. The men come at 9pm, sleep, and leave at 6am. Two staff members supervise the men during these hours. The program is run by Common Ground, an organization contracted by Department of Homeless Services (DHS). As far as funding, the city allocated $100,000 to pay for the two employees and to cover utility costs.
The church is not making any money on the deal. In fact Pastor Jen and Pastor Ann did not want the shelter, as Jen frankly explained. After all, they live upstairs with their two children and already do so much with the soup kitchen and food pantry, but no one else was willing to take the responsibility.
Neighbors asked, “Why here?” Some suggested that it would be more appropriate in the more industrial areas. Others worried about their million dollar real estate investments, while one woman said that Milton St has always been the best block, but not with a Soup Kitchen and “now this” – a shelter opening up. Others strongly defended the church’s decision. Another resident in support of the shelter said that you don’t “audition” to be part of the community, there is no application then continued to express that the homeless are our responsibility.
My question isn’t why here? But why not somewhere else? With all the other churches in the area, two in clear sight of Greenpoint Church and much larger, why did another church not offer the respite? According to Levin, all options were explored, but in the end only Greenpoint Church agreed.
The original plan was to open the respite at Church of the Ascension, but at the last minute that option fell through. With the cold weather approaching and no other church providing a space, Pastor Ann and Pastor Jen stepped up. This is a good thing.
The main frustration with residents was that they only found out about the respite after it had already opened. No obvious effort was made by the church, Council Member Levin, Common Ground or DHS to announce the respite’s opening to the community or the residents of Milton St directly. This is not a good thing.
Announcing the opening to the residents would not have had any affect on the respite’s opening, as Brancaccio cited the city’s “Right To Shelter.” That is to say whether the residents liked it or not the shelter would have opened. Still, the tone at the meeting might have been different had a courteous announcement been made.
A resident loudly accused Levin and DHS of making an effort to keep the respite quiet on purpose, which was denied. Countless times, Levin and Pastor Ann apologized and promised to keep the lines of communication open in the future.
The timing of the shelter’s opening coincided with Hurricane Sandy, when the church was actively preparing over 300 meals per day for those affected. I do believe that PR was not a priority at that time.
Concerns were also raised about background checks on the individuals and worry about whether they are sex offenders or murderers. Doug Brecht of Common Ground assured that they know these men, have been in contact with them for years and that they are not criminals, just public inebriates. (We’ve all been there.)
He said the shelter is “really a blessing,” and he and Pastor Ann have seen changes in the men. You’d be surprised what a good night’s sleep can do, although some residents did not agree that sleeping is the answer.
They have a long road ahead of them no doubt, and residents asked what the men do when they are released at 6am. One woman asked, “Can’t they make them go to AA? It’s not a secret anymore you know.”
Two men bravely opened up about their personal experiences as addicts and how the Greenpoint Church helped them sober up and restore their own lives. This was a real turning point for the meeting. One man, a lifelong resident, talked about a time he remembers when Puerto Ricans couldn’t go past Freeman St, and that he was honored to be their that evening, calling himself, “the best thing that ever came out the church.” The other man admitted that he could be one of those men sleeping downstairs.
In the end, the residents of Milton needed to vent, which is also a good thing. They felt duped which is understandable, and they wanted to understand what the respite is and how it works.
The church, DHS, Levin and Common Ground very thoroughly explained the scenario and were eager to understand how improvements could be made. They assured they would be open to complaints at anytime and would act quickly to remedy negative situations.
While the homeless men cannot be forced to wear identification, the staff members who patrol the street and get the men into the church in the evening do wear jackets and are available if something happens. As always, if a crime is occurring call 911.
These 10 men aren’t problems, they are people, our neighbors and our responsibility. As Levin stated many times, if they don’t sleep in the shelter, they are sleeping on the street. This is a chance for them. A good night’s sleep, a moment of safety and comfort. A sense of trust and maybe that will give them hope, and even a little hope can make a big difference in the life of someone who feels lost and forgotten.
Milton St is the best block. It’s not the amazing architecture or high property value or views of the river, it’s the people that make that make Milton St great. People who make personal sacrifices everyday so that others who are less fortunate have a chance to sober up, enjoy a nourishing meal and a warm bed at night. These are great things.
I applaud everyone who attended the meeting and bravely voiced their concerns, fears, frustrations, and support.
The best part of all this is that 10 of our homeless neighbors have a bed to sleep in tonight. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is better than the alternative.