“We’ve had two rounds of the Polar Vortex this year,” said Father John Merz, discussing Greenpoint’s homeless population. “If this had been two years ago, they’d all be dead.”
Merz, Vicar of the Church of the Ascension and a longtime advocate for the homeless, was referring specifically to the groups of Polish-speaking chronic inebriates Greenpoint residents are accustomed to seeing around the neighborhood and in its parks.
For years, advocates sought a solution for sheltering this group, especially during the harsh winter months. Attempt after attempt failed for a variety of reasons, as the tally of local homeless killed by exposure to the elements rose.
Following last winter, the first in several years without a homeless death in Greenpoint, advocates were once again left without alternatives. The respite bed program they had established at the Greenpoint Reformed Church last year, which relocated to Merz’ Church following complaints from some Reformed Church neighbors, still had funding for ten beds from the City, but lacked a site after the Church of the Ascension signed a developmental deal for its back building.
When another homeless man was found dead in McGolrick Park last November, advocates were once again scrambling for a shelter, at the onset of what has so far turned out to be one of New York’s toughest winters in many years. With few options, a small group, including Councilmember Steve Levin, Pat McDonnell and Merz, approached the City’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) demanding that beds for the local homeless be made available at the 200 bed men’s assessment shelter run by the Bowery Resident’s Committee (BRC) at 400 McGuinness Boulevard.
Before opening the center in 2012, BRC and DHS had agreed to set aside 20 beds for Greenpoint’s homeless. They honored that commitment, McDonnell said, but without outreach to the local homeless population and a mechanism for bypassing DHS’ intake center, it was an empty promise. But at that late November 2013 meeting, DHS and BRC agreed to the advocates’ request and as a result the local homeless population has remained safe from this brutal winter.
“[DHS] wanted to make sure the people who are from the community stayed in the community,” said Lisa Black, a spokesperson for DHS. She credited BRC Executive Director Muzzy Rosenblatt and Levin for keeping the local homeless in their own neighborhoods – a factor many believed was crucial to bringing them in from the bitter cold.
In addition to bringing in the local homeless to BRC, Black noted that DHS still has money available to the community for a church based respite bed program were a location to become available.
“When you look back at this whole process, you have people like Pat McDonnell and Eryka Volcker who were kind of voices in the wilderness, saying ‘we need to do something,’” said Neil Sheehan, Director of Project Outreach, which treats people with substance abuse issues. “Pat convinced a bunch of us to form a task force. We went to Norm Brodsky and Tony Argento who gave us the seed money to make this thing work. There was a whole constellation of people that actually made this happen.”
As the task force developed, Greenpoint was in an uproar over the proposed assessment shelter. As with similar projects there were shouts of NIMBY, but more frequently there were demands to the City to take care of Greenpoint’s homeless first if it was going to open a center here.
“For the last 30 years, we have been our brothers’ keepers and have taken care of the homeless problem for the city of New York [at Greenpoint Hospital],” Assemblyman Joe Lentol said at the time. “And what do we get for the good service that we have done for the city of New York? No fix for the homeless problem of our own.”
According to several task force members, it was the work of two people that was most instrumental in getting the homeless into the BRC facility, Levin and Chris Szkiladz, a former addict who himself was homeless at one time, and is now an employee of Common Ground, which does the DHS street outreach for Brooklyn and Queens.
From day one, Levin remained steadfast that any facility opened in Greenpoint would serve the local population. He recognized the need for a facility that would be welcoming to the Polish-speaking inebriates. A place with familiar faces at which they could be addressed in their native language.
“We wanted to set up a church based respite center, because it’s more inviting for people to come in,” Levin said. “Right now, 400 McGuinness, even though I opposed it and it still has some major problems, is saving lives because these guys would not have anywhere else to go. I did the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) count the other day and we met a guy who was out on the street at 3AM in 18 degree weather. If they’re not going there, they’re not going anywhere.”
“Levin took a lot of heat,” Sheehan said. “This wasn’t very popular, but he stayed with it.”
Szkiladz came to the task force through his employment with Common Ground. Sheehan met him at Outreach, where Szkiladz trained as a recovery coach – and was once a client. The native of Poland established a rapport with many of the local homeless, bringing them to the respite bed program. When that program ended, he remained, and the trust he had established helped persuade the homeless men to come off the freezing streets and to go to BRC’s center.
“I met Chris on a particularly cold night and I said ‘Wow! This must be a tough night to go out and get the [homeless] guys’” Sheehan recalled. “He said, ‘I already got them.’ We ended up getting this community eyesore and have gotten some local good out of it. Chris is the conduit for turning BRC into a resource that without, many of the neighborhood’s homeless would be dead.”
McDonnell, however, wondered whether BRC is the best solution.
She would like to see a separate space for the locals in the BRC facility. Some BRC residents were upset about having to live with the chronically inebriated and occasionally belligerent local men and fights have broken out. McDonnell suggests that the local homeless would be better served with a dedicated Polish speaker and an in-house recovery program.
“This works thanks to our local electeds and community priests who together worked on a common goal,” McDonnell said. “But we still have work to do. All the population being placed are men. A small space for women would be a great project to invest in for the future.”
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