“I’ve tolerated 18-wheelers making early morning food deliveries, film crews, catering trucks with loud generators, and wardrobe crews,” wrote Margaret McMahon, Milton Street resident, in a call-to-action letter to her neighbors. “I’ve held my breath when walking by crates of produce that were delivered to the Church that sat out on the curb in the sun…and also asked drunken, disorderly people to please get out of my front yard so I can get to my house.”
“[A friend once said to me], ‘What concerns me most is this is just the beginning, first a food bank – what’s next, a homeless shelter?’ I laughed and I said that would never happen. Well, here we are, Milton Street is now the proud owner of a food bank, a soup kitchen, and a homeless shelter.”
And so Ms. McMahon fired her first volley at the Greenpoint Reformed Church and Common Cause, the two groups that have collaborated together to bring a 10-bed respite program for the homeless to the Church at 136 Milton Street.
The letter – cosigned by neighbors Tom & Renata Naklicki – has sparked a discussion that led Assemblyman Joe Lentol, Councilman Steve Levin and Reverend Ann Kansfield to organize a community forum for January 24th at 7PM. The three hope to develop a dialogue on the church’s role in aiding the dispossessed, and what responsibilities Common Cause, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), and the church itself have in keeping the street’s residents an informed part of their decision-making process.
Mr. Naklicki thinks the respite bed program is unnecessary. “There are only about fifty homeless people in Greenpoint,” he said. Naklicki argued that the 200-bed shelter at 400 McGuinness Boulevard, which opened in September, should serve the local homeless. The problem, he claims, is that it’s being largely filled with homeless from outside of the neighborhood while Greenpoint’s own homeless population remains underserved. Given the shelter on McGuinness and others throughout the city, Naklicki believes that putting a shelter on his block is an example of organizational inefficiency.
“[We’ve] set aside 20 beds [for Greenpoint’s homeless population] at the newly-opened assessment shelter on McGuinness Boulevard, to be accessed by street homeless persons who live in the community and are brought in by outreach teams,” responded DHS spokesperson Heather Janik.
“Despite the availability of [these] additional beds, Homeless Services noticed a need for clients who were unwilling to accept services, but who wanted respite from the cold. To round out the portfolio of available options for street homeless individuals, Homeless Services dedicated $100,000 in funding for a new project.”
That new project was originally slated to take place at the Church of the Ascension on Kent Street. When a development project at the church nixed the shelter plans, Kansfield opened her doors.
“As a pastor, I feel like it’s my responsibility to take care of all the people in a ten-block radius around my church. That means everybody, rich and poor,” said Kansfield.
Kansfield thinks part of the problem with the McGuinness Boulevard shelter lies in how the homeless are processed by the city. Homeless men are brought to an intake center in midtown Manhattan, and then – depending on their needs – are sent out to the shelters appropriate for them. But according to Kansfield, DHS “doesn’t take into account language or culture.” For the Polish homeless of Greenpoint, the prospect of being sent to a shelter where their language isn’t spoken is daunting, so they never go to intake for processing, and the beds on McGuinness remain empty. At the Greenpoint Reformed Church, the overnight staff speak Polish and allow them to stay in a neighborhood where they feel like they belong.
In regards to eliminating the overnight respite at the Church, Assemblyman Lentol says that it’s possible, but only if there’s a contingency plan in place for those who have found a warm bed at the church. “I, as an elected official, and other community leaders have really resolved to help our own. We’re trying to do what we can to be our brother’s keeper.”
Mr. Naklicki worries about the safety of his daughter, and – given that the overnight program only runs from 9 PM until 6 AM – wants to know what will be done to keep the homeless from openly prowling the neighborhood during the day.
“They’re not supposed to stay on the block,” says Reverend Kansfield. “And I think we’ve gotten that through to them.” Then, after a moment, she adds, “I wish there was another place they could turn to during the day.”