A Shelter’s Icy Reception

A Shelter’s Icy Reception

On a recent Saturday afternoon, 50 people gathered inside the Church of the Ascension’s parish hall in Greenpoint. Some came with friends. Some, lacking energy, moved at a leaden pace. Volunteers waited at the door to help the elderly up the three steps.

Every Saturday, the church hosts a lunch for the neighborhood’s homeless. That Saturday, beef chili over rice, soup, and cake were served. The group, mostly men, are middle-aged or slightly older. They keep to themselves or speak quietly to one another in Polish, in huddles of two or three. The air feels warm and smells slightly stale. Often, the loudest noise one hears is the metallic clinking of silverware as someone grabs a fork or knife from the cutlery bin next to the percolator and coffee cups on one side of the room. A volunteer tells me that one man punched another a few minutes before I arrived, but, from the scene before me, I wouldn’t have guessed it.

The meal lasts one hour and fifteen minutes. The men leave as quickly as they arrive, taking their coats and backpacks and carts and garbage bags full of possessions. They walk slowly down the hall toward the door. Most likely, they have no real plan or anywhere to be for the day. They might walk up and down Manhattan Avenue, or spend the day in McGolrick Park, or find another spot to sit or stand.

Greenpoint has a homeless population of 30 to 50 people. Officials with the Department of Homeless Services and other social service organizations consider the group to be a unique population among the city’s homeless. They are Polish, speaking the smallest smattering of English or none at all. They are middle-aged men. They are alcoholics. Their chronic drinking habits, many agree, is what keeps the men homeless. Some have houses and live with their families in the area, but when they binge for two or three weeks at a time, their families kick them out.

They are either Greenpoint natives or newcomers, drawn to a neighborhood where Polish is spoken. They are often seen walking down Manhattan Avenue, hanging out in front of the McDonald’s on Greenpoint Avenue and sleeping in McGolrick Park. They frequent food pantries and meals hosted by the Church of the Ascension and Greenpoint Reformed Church.

Many of those without homes in the city are willing to travel to another part of the city if a spot in a shelter becomes available. But the homeless people of Greenpoint will not. Their strong cultural ties to Greenpoint keep them in the neighborhood.

In recent winters, a handful of these men have died from exposure while they slept in McGolrick Park, leading local churches to open a small respite shelter. From ten at night to five the next morning, ten of the neediest men — the people most likely to die if left to sleep outside — can sleep inside the church. The respite shelter is currently located at the Lutheran Church of the Messiah, directly across the street from McGolrick Park on Russell Street.

The existence of the respite shelter has caused an uproar. Residents have vociferously opposed the respite program — first when it was in Greenpoint Reformed Church in 2013, then when it moved to the Church of the Ascension, and now that it is in the Lutheran Church of the Messiah. Neighbors fear for the safety and the livability of their neighborhood. Some even say that they don’t care if one, or more, homeless people die.

The respite shelter opened in late January. The men sleep on ten cots located in the church’s basement. They arrive at ten at night and are awoken at five the next morning. Two outreach workers, paid by the social service agency Common Ground and fluent in Polish, staff the respite shelter at night.

Adam, 38, has been sleeping at the Church of the Messiah since the respite shelter opened in January. It is “better than the bench,” he says. He would prefer that the men be allowed to sleep for another hour, but he is most frustrated by how some of the men act inside the church, especially if they’ve been drinking. “People forget who this building belong to. Belong to God,” he says. He tried to talk to the men about it, but says he now “just walks away.”

Adam says he grew up in a small village in southeastern Poland and first came to the United States in 1996. His mother had asked him to in order to check on his sister, who had come to the States before him. After a couple of months, he returned to Poland. His mother died from cancer later that year. Adam promised her he would return to the States and take care of his family there. He immigrated permanently in 1997. His entire family, including three sisters, now live here as well.

A couple years ago, he and his wife divorced, an event he identifies as the catalyst of his homelessness. “I get depression, and nothing make me happy. Nothing doesn’t matter,” he says. He lost his job, lost his friends, alienated his family, which became angry and refuses to see him, and lost his apartment. Adam has been homeless for about a year.

It’s hard to talk about being homeless, he says. Sometimes he’s comfortable going to Bible study groups and other meetings that might help him. When he is at his most depressed, he turns to alcohol. “I talk to the bottle. The vodka. She listen to me. She actually doesn’t bother me,” Adam says. “That's how it is.”

The respite shelter’s operation is lean, and its goal this winter has been simple: prevent people from dying during a winter night.

This winter, the coldest New York City has experienced in 30 years, has been especially brutal. For nine weeks in January, February, and early March, the average nighttime temperature was below freezing and the wind chill below zero. Pavement on the streets turned a wispy white, and the cold penetrated bare skin like the lingering prick of a tattoo needle.

The Church of the Ascension, where the respite shelter moved after its original site, Greenpoint Reformed Church, faced an uproar.

Greenpoint churches have opened their doors to the homeless for years. St. Anthony of Padua on Manhattan Avenue allows homeless people to sleep on the floor when temperatures drop below 24 degrees.

In 2011, five homeless men died in Greenpoint’s McCarren and McGolrick parks during nights when the temperature dropped below freezing. The previous winter, one person died from exposure. Concerned residents were alarmed by the deaths and began talking about opening a small shelter in a church during the 2012–2013 winter. The Department of Homeless Services offered to pay the operating costs for running the respite shelter, up to $100,000. Greenpoint Reformed Church on Milton Street opened the respite shelter in mid-November 2012. The church was already active in assisting the neighborhood’s homeless: it hosts a dinner on Wednesdays and a food pantry every Thursday.

But for the people living along that stretch of Milton Street, it was too much. They complained that the men were urinating and defecating in their lawns, loitering, and making the neighborhood feel unsafe. They began calling the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Department of Buildings and filed dozens of code violations, saying the church violated various city codes. Greenpoint Reformed’s pastor, Ann Kansfield, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was physically threatened by a neighbor.

“It seemed to explode,” John Merz, the Church of the Ascension’s priest, says. “It wasn’t a good fit.”

Greenpoint Reformed hastily closed the respite program in January 2013. The shelter moved to the Church of the Ascension, an Episcopal church two blocks away. Working with Common Ground, the church used a van to pick up the men at McGolrick Park each evening and bring them to the church.

Despite the uproar from neighbors, no one died that winter.

Neither church hosted the shelter the following winter. Neither did other churches in Greenpoint, including Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Saints Cyril and Methodius Church, St. Stanislaus Kostka, and St. Anthony of Padua. That winter, one man died from hypothermia.

Homelessness had become a hot-button issue in Greenpoint at the time Kansfield and Merz tried to locate a winter shelter in one of their churches — not only because of their efforts but also because the city began looking to Greenpoint as a place to locate two large homeless shelters.

City law mandates that homeless people must be provided with shelter. New York City has six intake shelters, which give homeless people a place to live for thirty days before they’re given transitional housing. Assignment to an intake shelter is random: a person is given a shelter spot based on availability, not necessarily location or other factors.

The Bowery Residents’ Committee, a nonprofit that provides social services to poor New Yorkers, quietly opened an intake shelter in August 2012 on McGuinness Boulevard in northern Greenpoint. It provides shelter for 200 men, many with mental illnesses or substance addictions. Some are registered sex offenders. Greenpointers actively fought the shelter’s opening, arguing that crime would increase and that the shelter, which would take in residents from across New York City, wouldn’t do enough to address the neighborhood’s own homeless population.

An entrance to the BRC, on Clay Street.

After the BRC opened, Merz and others tried working with the shelter’s staff to change the BRC’s policies to be more amenable to the neighborhood’s Polish homeless men, who don’t feel safe in a shelter that does not segregate its population. Merz suggested that the BRC designate a room specifically for the Polish men to sleep at night.

In November 2014, the Department of Homeless Services announced it would open a second homeless shelter, which would serve 91 homeless families. It would be located two blocks away from the BRC, on Clay Street. The timeline for opening the shelter has not been set, but residents’ reactions were immediate. State Assemblyman Joe Lentol, who represents Greenpoint, wrote a letter opposing the shelter’s opening, challenging that the shelter would violate a requirement in the city’s charter, which stipulates that the City Planning Commission adopt “criteria to further the fair distribution of the burdens and benefits associated with city facilities, consistent with community needs for services and efficient and cost-effective delivery of services and with due regard for the social and economic impacts of such facilities upon the areas surrounding the sites.”

The quiet proposal to open the Clay Street shelter typified, to some Greenpointers, how the city treats the neighborhood: with little to no communication, public involvement, or respect for residents. “There is a lot of mistrust between the community and the city around homelessness,” Amy Kienzle, the pastor at the Lutheran Church of the Messiah, says.

A homeless man died from exposure in McGolrick Park on November 2 of last year. The park sits directly across the street from the Lutheran Church of the Messiah, where Kienzle began ministering in August 2013. She thinks of the relationship between the church and the park as symbiotic and has sought to strengthen ties between the church, the McGolrick Park Neighborhood Alliance, and the park’s farmers’ market. When she learned of the homeless man’s death, she organized a prayer service and public lament that was held in the park the following Sunday.

It became clear to Kienzle that she and her colleagues had to do something. Merz and Kansfield told her of their experiences hosting the respite shelter and about the problems with the BRC. Kienzle decided that Lutheran Church of the Messiah would host the shelter.

She, Merz and Kansfield are driven by a deep commitment to living according to what Merz calls “the Christian ethos.” It is most succinctly described in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus Christ tells his followers that there is a place in heaven for those who help the least fortunate: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

“At the very center of a Christian ethic,” Merz says, “is the idea of interconnection.”

To Kienzle, choosing to host the shelter was a no-brainer. “My faith tells me that grace still abounds for all of us,” she says. “That means that no matter the choices we've made, we will deserve to be treated with dignity, love, and respect. It would be shameful to me to be the pastor of a church that was a neighbor to a park and do nothing.”

Merz and others say there is “no question” that the men are capable of becoming sober and getting off the street.

They all know to come to Ascension Hall for lunch at eleven on Saturday mornings, Pat McDonnell, a member of the North Brooklyn Homeless Task Force, a volunteer group, points out. A couple of weeks ago, she saw a man “out of his mind, talking to himself, but he knew to walk down here.” There is the capacity to change, she believes, especially if people and social services help them find a direction. “I’ve seen it,” McDonnell says.

Merz knows of some men who have gone back to Poland. Two men who stayed at the respite shelter when it was at Greenpoint Reformed entered drug and alcohol treatment. Merz remembers another man who regularly sat in front of his church. By the way he read a newspaper and smoked his cigarettes, Merz saw a sophistication in him.

“He had a very settled routine in front of my church,” Merz says, laughing. A few weeks ago, Merz saw him again. He was dressed well, “clearly back in his life.”

Kienzle and her colleagues are motivated by pragmatism, too: some men might lift themselves out of homelessness, but those who don’t aren’t going anywhere. “This is their home,” Kienzle says.

This is hardly the first time Greenpointers have protested a new arrival to the neighborhood. With 19 out of the city’s 58 waste transfer stations located in Greenpoint, Greenpoint has the highest concentration of such facilities in the city. The Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, the city’s largest sewer facility, is in Greenpoint, as is the city’s largest Superfund site, the result of a 1978 oil spill in Newtown Creek.

Many Greenpointers feel their neighborhood is New York City’s dumping ground.

“There is a long history of defensiveness in terms of that neighborhood,” Jerry Krase, an urban sociologist and emeritus professor at Brooklyn College, says.

Greenpoint is a neighborhood in transition. Though it’s seen its share of gentrification and has attracted younger, affluent residents, the neighborhood is still dominated by a working-class, blue-collar community, an identity that has been shaped since the nineteenth century. Greenpoint remains a neighborhood of immigrants. After Chicago, the neighborhood has the second-largest concentration of Polish people in the country; according to the 2010 census, 44 percent of Greenpoint residents identified as Polish or having Polish ancestry. When you walk down Manhattan Avenue, you are as likely to hear people speaking Polish as you are to hear them speaking English.

The area has weathered decay and strife. As has happened elsewhere in the city, drugs swept through the neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s. Alcoholism is still known to old-timers as “the Greenpoint disease.” “Greenpoint has a long history of being associated with alcoholics and drunkenness,” Krase says. “It goes back to even when Greenpoint was in good shape. It’s part of Central and Eastern European culture.”

People who could afford to leave left. But people who stayed have seen their decision pay off. People who bought homes for tens of thousands of dollars during the ’70s or ’80es now live in homes worth millions. Condo prices regularly clock in at $1,000 per square foot, and townhouses sell for as much as $2.5 million dollars.

“NIMBYism” — a “Not in my backyard!” attitude — “is very parochial,” says Van Tran, an urban sociologist at Columbia University. “People, especially long-term residents, are very frustrated. They are often voicing concerns such as ‘I’m seeing my own neighborhood slipping around from me.’”

Krase says the fiercest NIMBY battles happen over “anything which is public and visible.” When a person or group adopts a “not in my backyard” attitude toward a particular project, they’re not necessarily saying the project or development is bad; it should just be further away. Another fear is that there will be chaos contagion: if one project is approved, more will follow, leading to general degradation.

“People develop a sense in these embattled neighborhoods that they’re being picked on. There is an added resentment. These people have been here that whole time. They survived this and they survived that, and they own property, and it’s possible they can get $3 million, but they’re only $2 million if there is a homeless shelter,” Krase says. “They’re thinking more economically. ‘If this takes place, it’s going to negatively affect my bottom line.’”

That is the key to NIMBYism: the careful calculus a person or block or neighborhood does to determine whether they will be directly and negatively affected by some perceived societal ill. Like an oil spill. Or a caravan of dump trucks. Or a small homeless shelter.

A man crosses India St. along McGuinness Boulevard. A water treatment plant is visible in the background.

The respite shelter at the Lutheran Church of the Messiah is not a permanent center — it opened in January and will close again this May — and, with just ten cots, is not nearly as big as the BRC or the proposed Clay Street shelter. So why are residents so opposed to it?

Tran says neighborhoods, and people generally, can handle a great deal of stress. But a threshold is crossed when there are multiple, co-occurring stresses. “We are open-minded and tolerant, but it is difficult in the face of multiple negative pressures,” he says. That is when the top blows off.

On December 4, Kienzle hosted a public meeting at the Church of the Messiah. It was an opportunity for Greenpointers to discuss the shelter and an opportunity for Kienzle to attract volunteers. She, Merz, and Kansfield also hoped they could get neighbors on board with working with the city to loosen the BRC’s intake guidelines.

Stephen Levin, Greenpoint’s city councilman and chair of the council’s Committee on General Welfare, attended and stood with Kienzle in front of a packed church. It soon became obvious that the majority of residents were infuriated. One man stood up and asked who wanted the shelter not to open. Almost everyone raised a hand.

“They are drunkards, and they have families, and they should all just go home,” he said.

Another man said he was the father of two children and worried for their safety. “How are you going to guarantee the safety our children if you’re bringing in mentally ill people or people who have problems?”

People applauded and whistled loudly.

“These guys are sleeping across the street,” Levin responded.

People began shouting over one another. One person said that the homeless men who sleep in McGolrick Park sleep throughout the park; they do not sleep together in a concentrated area.

Levin spoke about the respite program when it was at Greenpoint Reformed and Church of the Ascension. He assured people that the homeless people who stayed at the church were supervised. “They were fast asleep,” he said.

The father spoke again. “My priority is the preservation and safety of our children. Since they cannot defend themselves, if these people come around, I will defend them. I will defend my children if these people were to come around me.”

His comments were met with loud applause and whistling. Another resident said that the respite program was being “jammed down” the resident’s throats. As dozens of people began talking, Levin tried to regain control of the floor. After a few seconds, he called on Ann Kansfield, who had to raise her voice to be heard. People made shushing sounds. Someone shouted, “Let her speak!” Another person said, “Show some respect!”

“How many of us like having people who are drunk and passed out in the park, on our corner, in our stoops, in our front laws?” Kansfield asked. “I don’t think anybody likes that.”

She continued speaking about the homeless men: why they sleep in the area, why they consider Greenpoint their home. Someone shouted — “We don’t trust them!” — and the roar of the crowd picked up again. Kansfield asked people to imagine their own alcoholic relatives. Everyone has at least one, she said — including her.

“You never know when someone who is an alcoholic might actually get sober,” Kansfield said. “I can tell you when they won’t get sober is when they’re dead. I wait and hope and pray for a miracle for all the guys who are out in the street. But when they’re dead, the miracle is over.”

“All we’re trying to do is keep them alive until the miracle can happen,” Kansfield said. “If they’re peeing in God's house, they’re not peeing in your stoop or in your park. If they’re sleeping here, they’re not sleeping in your park.”

Kansfield finished. People began speaking over one another, talking and interrupting.

“What is the benefit?” a woman asked.

“When they sleep outside, they can die,” Levin said.

“Who cares?” a person shouted.

Residents — particularly long-time residents, homeowners, and members of the Polish community — remain staunchly opposed. Between the December meeting and the respite shelter’s opening in late January, 400 nearby residents signed and delivered a petition to Kienzle asking that the shelter not open. The petition recited arguments the opponents had made before: that the shelter would attract homeless men who were alcoholic or mentally unstable, and that the houses around the church would be more prone to robberies and break-ins.

Kienzle has a hard time swallowing their concerns. The men who sleep in the respite shelter were already in the neighborhood; they slept in McGolrick Park, which is right across the street from the Church of the Messiah. She thinks the respite shelter is, if anything, a solution to, not a cause of, the problems residents bring up. “We’re bringing them off the street,” she says.

Lutheran Church of the Messiah, on Russell Street.

Joe DiNapoli, who has lived a few doors down from the church for the last two years, agrees. He says they already drink and urinate in the park and around the neighborhood. The shelter is not going to change that.

The McGolrick Park Neighborhood Alliance, which advocates for the park and seeks to improve its conditions, has taken a neutral stance toward the respite shelter’s existence. In a two-page statement, the alliance wrote that “some of the members of our steering committee are very much in favor of the center and some are very much opposed. Given that we are divided as a group on this issue, we are focusing our energies on other areas where we align. We want to make clear that we are not working to support or oppose the respite shelter.” The statement did not directly acknowledge that homeless people sleep in the park, nor did it allude to any future involvement the alliance might take on in the future.

“What are they going to do?” McDonnell says in reference to the group’s public declaration of neutrality. “Move [a man] over and plant a tree and move him back?”

The Puritan work ethic tells us that if we work hard and pull up our bootstraps, we will prosper. It is a philosophy that celebrates the individual. But the inverse of that is not a message of optimism, but one of condemnation: people who are poor, homeless or down on their luck are at fault for their condition, not because of social forces, but because they're lazy, addicted to drugs or alcohol or moral degenerates. In a society that is atomized into rich and poor, homeowners and renters, white and black, it can become unfathomable to consider the greater good.

The respite shelter will close in May. It is unclear what the future holds. It’s possible, Merz says, that the past will repeat itself: the issue will die down throughout the summer, and when the weather begins cooling in October and November, it will come to the fore once again. Merz also wants to keep convincing residents to become involved in changing the BRC’s regulations. “There are things we can do here together,” Merz says. “We run the system. The system doesn’t run us. We can change the laws. We can change the regulations. That seems like that’s the next step.”

“We give them six months where they’re not going to die,” McDonnell says. “That’s great. But we need to do more.” She says there needs to be programs that teach the men how to speak English fluently and that help them find a job.

“You have to build a relationship with people so they trust you. I'm not going to take anything from you. I’m not going to hurt you,” McDonnell says. “That’s why it can work.”

Gabe Greenberg agrees. He has lived near McGolrick Park for ten years and sees the homeless men regularly. He is “truly undecided” about the respite shelter. He agrees that it prevents people from dying, but he wonders if it has anything to do with a long-term solution. “They have serious health problems,” he says. “As a substance abuser, you pass the point where you’re able to make logical decisions about your health. There’s no deciding to stop drinking. These guys can’t decide. These guys are brain-damaged. You can see it.”

It is that kind of trust and relationship building that also dissipates NIMBY battles. Debra Stein founded GCA Strategies, a San Francisco-based public affairs firm specializing in controversial land-use projects, after a woman spat at her during a public meeting. Prior to her death in 2009, she had become an expert on NIMBYism.

In a 1997 article, she writes that “all community opposition is not alike, and the wrong type of outreach response can create more problems than it solves. If opposition isn’t caused by lack of information, then newsletters and fact sheets will backfire. Making concessions won’t resolve opposition based on unmet emotional needs. You can’t negotiate a conflict of values. Endless meetings won’t solve conflicts of interest. But, by carefully diagnosing the cause of opposition and undertaking outreach activities specifically tailored to respond to that cause, you can reduce citizen opposition to your project.”

Everyone in Greenpoint may not be able to agree. But if they’re able to foster the kind of careful, compassionate dialogue Stein speaks of, they might find understanding and the ability to coexist.

Amanda Waldroupe is an award-winning journalist and writer based in Portland, Oregon and New York. She is writing a book about a murder that happened in her hometown of Redmond, Oregon in 2001.

Anthony Rhoades is a freelance photographer and the photo editor of /ONE/. He lives in Greenpoint.