More than 150 neighbors packed into the site of a planned homeless shelter on Bergen Street in Crown Heights on Saturday morning to angrily oppose a men’s shelter that will open later this month. Residents and politicians accused the Department of Homeless Services of overburdening the neighborhood, which already has 15 homeless shelters.
Locals demanded answers about security for the shelter and slammed the city for not giving the neighborhood enough notice about the facility, which will open its doors March 22. Many residents said they had only heard about the shelter this week, after the local community board and elected officials circulated fliers for the meeting. The shelter at 1173 Bergen Street, between New York and Brooklyn avenues, will house 104 single adult men aged 50 and older, most of whom list northern Crown Heights as their last known address.
Representatives from the Department of Homeless Services, the Human Resources Administration, and shelter provider CORE services struggled to answer questions from the crowd during the two-and-a-half hour meeting, as attendees yelled questions and interrupted officials.
“We’ve gotta shut it down!” exclaimed Assembly Member Diana Richardson. “When they went to put in that shelter in Maspeth, they shut it down. The fact that they had [the meeting] on Saturday, March 4 is disrespectful.”
A senior policy advisor for the mayor, Lincoln Restler, shot back by saying that previous administrations had even shoddier track records when it came to notifying residents about homeless shelters. “For decades, shelters were opened without any notice,” he said, raising his voice slightly over the frustrated buzzing of the crowd. “Clients would get moved in in the middle of the night and that’s not okay. It’s how we did it under Koch, Giuliani, Bloomberg, and even at the beginning of Mayor de Blasio’s administration.”
Going forward, the city has promised to give communities at least 30 days notice before opening a shelter. Richardson and Council Member Robert Cornegy said they had been informed of the shelter’s opening two weeks ago, and the city agreed to push back the opening date from March 15 to March 22 after Richardson pointed out that February was a short month.
Frustrated neighbors also wondered whether they and their children would feel safe walking near the building, particularly after dark.
Jenny Scott, whose eight-year-old daughter practices in a marching band at Union United Methodist Church next to the shelter site, said she was nervous because several men loiter outside an existing, city-run men’s shelter nearby at Bedford Avenue and Pacific Street. “We have children going home alone [after dark],” she said. “There’s already panhandling that’s going on… There are gentlemen who are getting up early in the morning to go collect their drugs.”
Representatives from CORE explained that six uniformed security officers and five full-time supervisors will be on duty at all times, matching the numbers DHS provided in a fact sheet before the meeting. CORE Services president Jack Brown also emphasized that sex offenders and individuals with mental illness would not be housed at the shelter.
When attendees asked why the city had chosen to open a 16th shelter in Crown Heights, instead of in an area with fewer homeless facilities, officials replied that 1,100 people in the citywide shelter system came from northern Crown Heights. The city’s new approach is to shelter homeless New Yorkers “as close to the neighborhood they come from as possible,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week. The policy is meant to offer stability for the homeless and make it easier for them to commute to work, send their kids to school, and see their friends and family. But it will also increase the number of homeless shelters in communities that already shoulder the heaviest burdens of the shelter system, including central Brooklyn, the central and south Bronx, central Harlem, and Jamaica, Queens.
The administration’s homelessness plan has arrived just as the City Council tackles “fair share” rules, which guide decisions on where to locate shelters, waste transfer stations and other unpopular municipal facilities. Cornegy, Richardson, and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery blasted the city for failing to respect fair share when it comes to opening shelters in Community District 8, which covers Crown Heights.
“I’m concerned that this will be a conversation about not in my backyard,” said Councilman Cornegy, whose district covers Bedford-Stuyvesant and northern Crown Heights. “There’s a parity conversation that needs to happen on a larger scale… What I have is a tale of two districts. Because you have 19 shelters with over 1,000 homeless families, and on the opposite spectrum, a median rent of $3,000.” The 19 shelters figure includes southern Crown Heights, which sits in Community District 9.
During the meeting, officials promised to close five shelters, including three this year, in Crown Heights over the course of the next few years. Two more are scheduled to open later this year at 265 Rogers Avenue and 174 Prospect Place, DNAinfo reported last week.
The Bergen Street shelter is just one of 90 new shelters that the mayor has promised to open citywide over the next five years. Some would open in the same buildings where previous shelters had closed, and others would operate in newly leased properties. The city aims to construct at least 25 new shelters operated by non-profits in the next five years, according to a report released by City Hall last week. The mayor unveiled a plan last Tuesday that pledged to reduce the city’s record high homeless shelter population of 60,000 people by 2,500 by the end of 2021. The plan also calls for shuttering 360 cluster site shelters and hotels, which would shrink the number of shelters by 45 percent.