Eryka Volker could barely fit into her car. Large and small black duffle bags had been stuffed in the beak seat, and whatever couldn’t fit in the trunk rested on the floor. All were filled with clothing, food and late holiday presents, and all were earmarked for Greenpoint’s homeless.
On Friday, January 11th, residents, community leaders, and representatives from over a dozen organizations gathered at the Ascension Church on Java Street to celebrate “A Christmas Party with the Homeless.” Sponsored by the Polish Consulate for the past three years – many of Greenpoint’s homeless are Polish nationals – the event served as a reminder that anyone could support the neighborhood’s less fortunate at any time. (Though originally scheduled for December, the party was postponed due to last year’s hurricane.)
After receiving a blessing in English from Father John Merz of the Church of Ascension and one in Polish from Father Ryszard Koper of the Holy Cross Church in Maspeth, guests sat down to a traditional Polish Christmas dinner of borscht, stuffed cabbage, pierogi, herring and much more provided by Pyza Restaurant. They also exchanged oplatki – an old Polish custom in which family and friends break off wafers and pass them to one another with their own blessings. Three young musicians from local parishes, Claudia Nytko (vocals), Karol Podkowa (violin) and Michael Toniuk (keyboard) performed Christmas carols throughout the evening.
“We are happy to have so many wonderful friends,” said Polish Consul Ewa Lukowicz. “Ending homelessness requires housing combined with different types of services. Greenpoint is definitely going in the right direction thanks to good leadership and many dedicated people.”
Following that mission has not been easy, according to Volker, a member of North Brooklyn Homeless Task Force and Society of St. Anthony Parish Homeless SOS. For nearly five years, she recalled, the Task Force had sought a place to operate a shelter specifically for Greenpoint’s homeless population. Last Spring, the Task Force reached a deal with the city, that if they provided a space, rent money and a sufficient supply of food, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) would provide beds, linen, two Polish-speaking guards and two supervisors. On November 19th, a 10-bed respite bed program for men was instituted at the Greenpoint Reformed Church in collaboration with non-profit Common Ground, DHS’ street outreach provider for Brooklyn.
Volker stated that the main goal of the program is to train people to coach the homeless on an individual basis. This means monitoring their overall progress and making sure they keep detox appointments and attend AA meetings.
Food at the new shelter is provided by volunteers and organizations based in Greenpoint and throughout the city. (Grandma Roses makes a delivery every Friday.) Towards the end of the evening, Polish and Slavic Federal Credit Union (PSFCU) representatives presented Task Force President Pat McDonnell with a check for $500. “We’re happy to assist in any way we can,” said PSFCU Marketing Manager Mariusz Moryl. “The credit union is not going to forget the neighborhood where it began.”
Many elected officials and community leaders also pledged to support the bed respite program. Among those that broke bread were Community Board 1 Chairman and District Leader Chris Olechowski, 94th Precinct Captain Stefan Komar, Assemblyman Joe Lentol, and Councilmember Steve Levin (Rami Metal, Levin’s Legislative Director, led the Task Force in finding its current location.).
“This winter, for the first time, we have a program,” said Levin. “My fondest and deepest wish is that it’s successful, and I think with the community investment, it will be.” He added, “In the three years since I’ve taken office, this is probably the thing I’m most proud of.”
Volker thanked all those who have loaned a hand to help the homeless. She lauded the Polish Consulate, with whom St. Anthony Homeless SOS has had a long and fruitful partnership. In the past six years, ten Greenpoint homeless have been reunited with their families in Poland. “The Consulate is always ready to help every Polish emigrant, especially the homeless,” she said. “They never need to wait on line, and they get free passports and a free ticket back to Poland.”
She also thanked representatives from the Greenpoint Outreach Center, DHS, Common Ground, the Greenpoint Reformed Church, the Ascension Church, the Parks Department, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the 94th Precinct, Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center, the Kingsboro Addiction Treatment Center, TV Polonia, Polish-language newspapers Kurier Plus and Nowy Dziennik, Polskie Radio 1030 AM, Dobra Polska Szkola, Russell Street motorcycle club Unknown Bikers, the PSFCU, CitiStorage founders Norm and Elaine Brodsky, BRC psychiatric nurse Krystyna de Jacq, Greenpoint Branch librarian Izabela J. Barry and donors who wished to remain anonymous.
“We are here because we know all too well that life is unpredictable and that at any time, we too, may need a helping hand,” Volker said. “We know that we are all God’s children and that some of our brothers and sisters went the way of depression, rejection, loneliness and addiction…and we are so thankful to be able to help.”
To find out how to volunteer, call Eryka Volker at (347) 495-7934, or Pat McDonnell at (347) 925-5532.