Greenpoint Gazette
Jeff Mann
L-R Father John Merz, Rachel Brodsky and Ava, Pat McDonnell, Joe Lentol, Elaine Brodsky, Norm Brodsky, Virginia Sheehan, Rami Metal

Residents Work Together to Create Local Homeless Shelter

BY Stephanie Kuo

After a turbulent four-year battle with the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), advocates in Greenpoint will finally open a shelter to house and help the neighborhood’s homeless. Set to open by November 1st, the new facility will cater to a unique, local homeless population consisting mainly of Polish nationals, many of whom are chronic alcoholics.

Following an alarming string of homeless deaths over the past few years in McCarren and McGolrick Parks, the Greenpoint Homeless Task Force, a group of residents, business owners, clergy, elected officials and health care providers began working diligently to bring the new shelter to fruition.

Task Force members said the new shelter will address many of the problems that the Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC) assessment shelter, which recently opened at 400 McGuinness Boulevard, does not, despite promises to the contrary.

The BRC shelter serves the entire city, and acts as more like a revolving door – where residents are in and out within 30 days and are shuffled between other shelters in the city, said Pat McDonnell, a recovery coach and a Greenpoint resident who’s been involved with the Task Force shelter’s development since its inception.

“They can’t get connected to people who can actually help them or have some sense of community,” McDonnell said.

As of press time, BRC could not be reached for comment.

According to McDonnell, the Task Force’s shelter, will strive to create a safe community that the estimated 15-to-20 homeless men in Greenpoint can essentially call home.

“What we really want to do is not just give someone a bed. We want to give them whatever they need so they can become productive members of society again,” she explained. “We want to build their trust, so they will feel comfortable enough to come back to get the help they need.”

In addition to providing a place to stay and a meal every night, the shelter will offer outreach programs in a coordinated effort with Kingsboro Psychiatric Center and Woodhull Hospital and provide 15 volunteer recovery coaches to help battle alcohol and substance abuse – both recurring problems among the neighborhood’s homeless.

To further their impact on local homeless, the Task Force has hired Polish and Spanish-speaking staff as a way to cut through language barriers and increase the likelihood that residents will return.

DHS is currently considering a number of churches to house the shelter, which McDonnell said will be open 365 days a year and will have no maximum stay limit. Residents will be required to leave every morning at 6 a.m., but are welcomed back to the same bed every night for however long they need, though she said she hopes to have them back on their feet in less than a year.

For the first year, as per the city’s request, the shelter will only be open to men, said Neil Sheehan, a Task Force member and the director of Outreach, a drug and alcohol treatment facility. But the task force plans to welcome women in following years if it can raise enough private funding to run the shelter independently.

“We’re going to turn these folks into regular citizens with love, support and services. We’re going to build relationships with them, and counsel them back to health. That’s what this is all about,” said Sheehan.

Initially, DHS fought the shelter, officially called the Greenpoint Homeless Respite Bed Program, on the grounds that it was simply an unusual model, said Councilmember Steve Levin who has advocated for the shelter since he took office almost three years ago.

“Most shelters in New York aren’t neighborhood-based,” he argued. “Greenpoint has a homeless population that stays in Greenpoint.”

According to the legislator, questions arose and priorities shifted after the previous DHS commissioner stepped down from office two years ago, in the middle of the shelter’s development.

“They wondered, ‘How do we pay for this, for something unprecedented in the city?’ It just wasn’t a priority.”

Levin said DHS finally responded last month after he brought their attention again to the six homeless men who had died last winter from hypothermia.

“We are tailoring services to the community’s needs and addressing [Greenpoint’s] mos¬t vulnerable population by offering concrete solutions, while being culturally sensitive,” said current DHS Commissioner Seth Diamond in an e-mail.

The department approved $100,000 to help fund 20 beds, bilingual staff and meals for the remainder of the 2012 fiscal year, which ends June 2013, said a DHS spokeswoman. A non-profit group, Common Ground, will work in collaboration with the city to decide how the funds will be most effectively allocated.

The Task Force is also seeking out an additional $40,000 in private donations to make their proposed budget for the first year. As of Thursday, they had raised about $18,000, and are working to secure more pledges, said Sheehan. The Task Force is considering hosting a fundraiser in the spring.

“It’s important that we do this all together…This is a community-based project by the community for the community,” he said.

CitiStorage founders Norm and Elaine Brodsky are private donors who have been active in the shelter’s development. Elaine, who was an alcoholism counselor in the 1980s, said she’s always felt passionately about helping the less fortunate.

“If we are successful in this community, we have to give back. We have to stand for something,” she said. “[Greenpoint] has been good to us, and now we’re being good back.”

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