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East Williamsburg: A Shelter Creates a Storm

East Williamsburg may soon be the recipient of a new homeless shelter. This past May, the Doe Fund, a nonprofit group that runs residential work programs, completed the purchase of a 72,000 square foot abandoned textile factory located at 89-111 Porter Avenue. The Doe Fund already has a construction permit, and within the next 18 months it plans to create a 400-bed facility that will house men for up to 21 days before they are referred to smaller shelters that handle specific cases involving drug abuse or mental illness.

The new shelter will replace close to half of the 850 beds at Manhattan’s Bellevue Assessment Shelter, which has needed repairs for many years; a 400-bed shelter slated to be built by the city in the Bronx will cover most of the other half. The contract to build the East Williamsburg shelter was awarded by the city in early 2000, as part of the Giuliani administration’s welfare-to-work programs. These programs were stalled when a state court ruled that they violated a 1981 consent decree that established a right to shelter. Critics of the programs argued that the contracts were doled out in haste without an adequate public review process.

While New York lacks adequate sheltering facilities, many advocates for the homeless protest the new Brooklyn shelter. Shelly Nortz, the Deputy Director for Policy at the Coalition for the Homeless, believes that the money to build a new shelter would be better spent on rent subsidies and permanent low-income housing. Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg recently acknowledged that affordable housing may be the best solution to the problem of homelessness in the city. Yet, even among those who feel more shelters are indeed necessary, the proposed development has raised staunch opposition because of its location.

The main problem with the new East Williamsburg shelter is that it continues New York’s inequitable distribution of city resources. Whenever a necessary but obtrusive city service is proposed, like a homeless shelter or a garbage transfer station, communities naturally try to prevent them entering their neighborhoods, fearing they will lessen the local quality of life. Unfortunately, in the current political environment, only communities with substantial wealth and influence have the resources to ward off objectionable developments. The less desirable facilities thus tend to be concentrated in lower-income communities.

The proposed facility falls in a district that Assemblyman Vito Lopez describes as one of the poorest in New York State, where 35 percent of the residents are on public assistance. The area already has a 200-bed shelter for men in Greenpoint and a 200-bed shelter for women in Bushwick. Lopez contends, “The additional shelter gives a negative impact by over-saturating the area and leaving less room for economic development.” The site is also located across the street from Waste Management, which processes 40 percent of New York’s garbage, which causes environmental hazards to anyone nearby. As Jose Leon of the East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Development Corporation points out, “There are no ancillary services such as grocery stores, pharmacies, or other regular types of businesses that are needed to help someone make the transition from homelessness to productive life.”

While the Bellevue Shelter on 30th Street does need extensive renovation to continue operating, the site need not necessarily be closed. The assessment shelter is the first place where homeless people counter the Department of Homeless Services, so the current central location in Manhattan is very important. According to Shelley Nortz, if the homeless cannot access the intake center, they cannot access homeless services. The reasons for the closure may well be due to the relatively high land value of that section of Manhattan, as compared to the sections of Brooklyn and the Bronx where the replacement shelters are being placed.

A biotech medical research facility is now intended to replace the Bellevue Shelter, which is scheduled to close in 2003. Responding to those plans, Lopez says, “Instead of giving us the homeless shelter, give us the bio-tech research facility. It would be a very positive thing for our community because it would create hundreds of jobs.” Leon, who supports economic initiatives that would attain or retain the industry in East Williamsburg, believes that the biotech facility would reduce its costs by operating out of Brooklyn; extended transportation time would be the only foreseeable drawback. However, like many other lower-income communities, East Williamsburg does not attract that kind of development, partly due to its perhaps perceived status as an economic wasteland. The addition of more shelters, power plants, and waste transfer stations throughout the area only reinforces the negative perception and further precludes the possibility of improvement.

The new shelter also raises concerns about community safety. The Doe Fund’s other facilities are less than half the size of the one proposed on Porter Avenue, and officials have not assured the resident of East Williamsburg that there will be adequate security measures. One resident of Grattan Street said, “We already have pimps and prostitutes on this block and in this area. If this homeless shelter comes, we’ll be surrounded.” Perhaps the most troubling potential side effect of the new shelter, according to Leon, is that many local businesses, including several manufacturers have threatened to leave the neighborhood if the shelter arrives due to their anxieties over issues of security. Such a significant removal of jobs would surely sink the area into an even deeper state of poverty.

The conditions under which the contract was given outraged many critics of the proposed shelter. Normally, homeless shelters are built by the city. Yet, because the Doe Fund is a nongovernmental firm purchasing the site from a private seller, the city maintained that the traditional public review process did not apply. This sets a dangerous precedent, as the city has shown it can avoid accountability by contracting out city services to organizations like the Doe Fund.

Additionally, the Giuliani administration, citing a crisis in the shortage of shelters in New York, enacted an emergency provision of the City Charter to bypass the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure in awarding the Bellevue contract. Legal Aid attorney Steven Banks said at the time that Giuliani pressed the contract forward because of the city’s ties to real estate interests, not because of the shelter shortage to which Giuliani pointed. As Banks argues, “It’s clearly a self-created emergency generated by an effort to close the Bellevue shelter to make way for a private real-estate development.” While there may be a lot of private interests in the Bellevue site, the area is far better suited to transitional housing facility than an area that cannot provide jobs because it has been saturated by shelters and industrial uses.

George McDonald, the president of the Doe Fund, believes strongly in the power of work to rehabilitate the “socially dysfunctional.” A former advertising agent, McDonald began his current career passing out sandwiches in Grand Central Station as a volunteer for the Coalition for the Homeless. (The Doe Fund gets its name from Mama Doe, a homeless woman who froze to death outside of Grand Central in 1985.) McDonald has developed his own brand of workfare housing program, which now operates under the name Ready, Willing, and Able. Program participants pay for a portion of their housing by picking up trash in surrounding neighborhoods for minimum wage. McDonald received his first contract in 1989 under Ed Koch, and the Doe Fund now has programs in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Harlem, Jersey City, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia.

The Porter Avenue shelter would be divided roughly in two, with half of the beds set aside to the Department of Homeless Services as replacement for the Bellevue Assessment Shelter, and the other half allocated to run the Ready, Willing, and Able program. When his program was launched in Harlem in 1996, the Coalition for the Homeless picketed it as racist and a form of slavery. That may be slightly extreme. Many past participants of his program attest to its ability to provide them with confidence and the tools for success. However, Doe’s programs are certainly not for everyone and should not be forced onto anyone, whether by law or merely by the scarcity of beds in traditional shelters.

McDonald has difficulty understanding the opposition in Brooklyn, or the fact that many of his critics feel that the money for the new shelter would be better spent on permanent, low-income housing. “In a system like New York City,” he says, “you have to have transitional facilities. You can’t take someone right off the street and put them in permanent housing.” Still, McDonald fails to see that East Williamsburg is not suited for such a purpose. A transitional housing facility should be placed in an area with better resources that will help integrate the homeless into the workforce so that they may lead productive lives. Concentrating shelters in low-income neighborhoods tends to repeat the failed strategy that led to the disastrous housing projects created under the urban renewal policies of the 1960s.

More legal action against the shelter proposal is pending. A coalition of local businesses and residents in East Williamsburg have prepared briefs opposing the plan; they will be heard by a state appellate court in August. A victory in court by this coalition would prove very beneficial both for the community and for the homeless population of New York City. Most observers, however, feel that the court will uphold the placement of the shelter.

In general, the forces of real estate development, if left unregulated, will continue to push unattractive city services to areas where land values are low. Thus, to protect the rights of low-income communities such as East Williamsburg, New York must institute substantial changes in government policy in order to prevent some areas from over-saturate, and to ensure a more equitable balance of resources throughout the city.


Eric Simundza

Eric Simundza recently graduated from the Metropolitan Studies Program at NYU. This essay is adapted from his senior Honors Project comparing waterfront planning in New York City and London.


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