New York Press
March 4, 2009
[This article won the NYPA’s [New York Press Association] journalism award for “Best feature Writing” in 2009.]
Icy gusts whip through Murray Hill on a Saturday, just before midnight. Wind chill makes the air burn at a frigid 10 degrees. This is a night when being homeless can kill a man. But Philip Hubbert—a fidgety old black dude in a knit hat—can’t stop hustling. Standing next to his shopping cart filled with aluminum cans, he stretches his arm out pleadingly to a couple of girls tottering along tipsily. He flashes a gummy smile and hits them up: “Can I please get a dollar?” The girls chirp into each other’s soft nests of wool and pick up the pace with their ankle-strapped heels.
I ask Hubbert where he sleeps when it gets this cold, and he reels out an addled fantasy. “My uncle’s house in Poughkeepsie; he sends a limousine for me.”
I wave a buck under his nose, and he flashes those swollen gums again. “Last week I went to a shelter behind Port Authority. God help you if you go there,” he says. “Two-hundred motherfuckers be sitting on little school desks, and they all on crack.”
Throwing a couple of cans in his shopping cart, he points toward the East River and adds: “Go to Bellevue; it’s nice.” But what Hubbert and many others don’t know is that later this year even that won’t be an option.
City administrations have never cared much for men like Philip Hubbert. Dirty, smelly, often drug-addicted, sometimes mentally ill and disproportionately black, these so-called chronically homeless have terrified white urbanites to the core of their soul for decades. Bloomberg has dedicated himself to lowering the number of homeless in the city; but this winter, his administration quietly declared a two-front campaign against the shelter system that was developed to assist with the persistent homelessness problem.
A rapidly unfolding policy from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) is expected to slash available beds for homeless by nearly half. In a time of great need, when many more people may end up homeless and on the streets due to extenuating financial circumstances, the City is reducing access to many of the shelter system’s points of entry.
This past December, DHS invoked new standards that regulate “faith-based” emergency shelters, the ones supported by churches and synagogues. The protocol threatened closure for any of these volunteer-staffed operations that couldn’t agree to a list of several demands, including that they remain open for five nights a week and serve hot meals. That was a major change for many of these volunteer-based operations, since many have varying schedules, were only open during high-need winter months or serve light meals but nothing “hot.” At the same time, DHS published a request for proposals that announced new contracts up for bid for shelters that would meet their new requirements.
Shortly after, 26 of the faith-based shelters folded, mostly in Queens and Brooklyn, but also including the services at St. Stephen of Hungary at East 82nd Street in the Upper East Side. The shelter, which had been operating for 18 years, was open 52 weeks a year—but only on Fridays.
“The City has cast off an amazing volunteer resource,” says Zoilo Torres, director of the emergency shelter network for the Partnership for the Homeless. “They’ve been taken down from 109 to 56 [emergency shelters]. And if their criteria prevails, it will be cut down to 24. The City is cutting its nose off to spite its face.”
Most of the remaining 60 faith-based shelters and soup kitchens are on the chopping block for eventual closure. When I spoke with more than a dozen homeless men, they unanimously agreed that the places under the gun are much safer and more comfortable than the city’s warehouse facilities. They wish there were more of these.
Just as troubling are the closings of the allnight “drop-in centers,” which will be slashed from
seven to only three. The drop-ins are loosely tied to the faith-based shelters: since, in the 1980s, the affiliates set-up a proxy
organization called Partnership for the Homeless to do business with the city’s bean counters.
Terry Grace, a high-ranking board member of several church shelters said the John Heuss House—a 24-hour
drop-in center located at the iconic Trinity Church on Beaver Street (and the only drop-in center below 14th Street)—would close in June. She claimed the Bloomberg administration would not allow Trinity to renew its lease on the city-owned building it occupies despite their desire to do so.The few drop-in centers left will go from operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week to regular business hours.
The effects of one closed drop-in center can already be felt on the Upper East Side, according to homeless advocates. The City shut down Neighborhood Center for Homeless, a drop-in center that was located on East 77th, in June of 2008. Jamie Manson, the outreach director of Jan Hus Presbyterian Church on East 74th claims, “[Since then] we have seen a tripling of our clients for services. They went from an average of 15 to 45 [people] in a matter of a week.” Pausing for emphasis she adds,
“Sometimes we see as many as 60.”
Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst for the highly respected Coalition for the Homeless, says the
new restructuring program will have deadly consequences. In a recent report he wrote, Markee uses City of New York data to show that, in fact, homeless numbers have steadily risen since Bloomberg took office.
“It’s a one-two knock-out blow to the homeless, they will literally die in the streets,” he said. Markee says that 400 to 600 men
sleep overnight squeezed into chairs in the drop-in centers. “And if they don’t get there at 8 p.m. they’re out of luck,” Markee added.
Then there’s the imminent closing of the city’s Bellevue Shelter. The 30th
Street Men’s Homeless Intake Facility, located at the corner of First Avenue, is commonly known as the Bellevue Shelter and, according to the city, is the largest shelter in Manhattan, with 850 beds, including more than 130 beds designated for “homeless men living with special needs (including mental illness or tuberculosis).” Approximately 600
men currently reside in the shelter each night. In April 2008, it was announced that the Bellevue Shelter is shutting down as of June 2009. It will move to Brooklyn and merge with the Bedford-Atlantic Armory, a 350-bed
shelter located in the Crown Heights, leaving many with no refuge in Manhattan.
Neither Robert Hess, commissioner of DHS, or the organization’s representatives would agree to an interview, so
it remains unclear why the city is reducing services for their poorest population in a deepening recession. DHS deputy Heather Janik responded after repeated email requests for a statement, but she parroted a month-old press release: “What is most important to note is the number of beds citywide—including church beds, Safe Haven beds and
stabilization beds—will increase significantly.” This is a howler around homeless advocates and church shelter officials alike.
According to Markee, it’s deliberately misleading: “It’s truthful in only the most narrow sense.”
Part of the problem stems from the Safe Haven initiative. It’s Hess’ signature project and on paper
appears extremely empathetic to the plight of the homeless by giving a bed to any homeless person—no questions asked. Many of the
faith-based shelters refuse to participate because there is no screening process to determine if a person is drunk or high. “Safe
Havens” seem like a theoretical construct that allows the DHS to refute charges that they are rolling back 1981’s landmark Callahan v. Carey decision, which established a “right to shelter” for the homeless in NYC. Even if the “Safe Haven” slots do represent beds—cots that will be plunked down in an outer borough—they are not effectively reaching the
people who need them most.
St. Francis Xavier is a Romanesque stucco Catholic Church on West 15th Street, a quiet, wealthy, tree-lined block in Chelsea. Each evening, volunteers roll out cots for 15 men. It’s all but doomed by the new guidelines. Cassandra Agredo, the 26-year-old director of the church’s mission, agreed to take a couple of hours out of her schedule to answer my questions about the municipal red tape. After greeting me politely, she sat down, a simple gold crucifix around her neck, and let out a short sigh. Crossing her legs, she began: “We’ve been confused around here, too.”
Agredo’s frustration quickly turned to anger when I showed her a copy of the email Janik sent me. Leaning
forward and tapping her black boot on the carpet, she scoffed: “His math doesn’t add up. He’s saying that the number of faith-based beds will go up, but he’s closed down more than 30 [faithbased] shelters.”
When pressed for further comment, Janik responded that she didn’t appreciate me “implying that she’s been anything but helpful” and that there “might be something wrong with [my] email.”
At a December City Council meeting Hess, who was hired by Bloomberg in 2006, made a bewildering comment that reinforced a reputation for being hopelessly out of touch. As a rationale for why the hours of drop-in centers would
be scaled back to the business-hour model, Agredo reported that he said, “a lot of the people who access drop-in centers aren’t really homeless and just want a hot meal.’”
Of those who heard the comment, few are willing to chalk it up to incompetence. Terry Grace goes so far as to call Hess’ policies “inhumane.”
City pols are questioning Hess’ motivation as well. On January 14, 2009 Brooklyn Councilmember Bill de Blasio, who heads the Council’s General Welfare Committee and is running a campaign for the office of Public Advocate, chaired a hearing to examine the DHS’s plans. One of the speakers was Channa Camins of B’nai Jeshurun, an Upper West Side synagogue that runs an overnight shelter. Camins compared her costs with the city shelters and concluded: “[We] accomplish all of this work at less than half the cost per person of providing the same services in the general city shelter system.”
Four days later, a nearly yearlong probe led by Councilman Alan Gerson, prompted by complaints from families at the LIFE Family Residence on the Lower East Side, reported that DHS was sitting on a record 83 state violations that they had received in 2008 for neglect of clients. It was more than double the number amassed in years prior.
The question remains as to why City Hall would look to clamp down on volunteer-run shelters when it still has so many problems to address in the city-run shelter system. But it’s not so difficult to see where the Byzantine corridors lead. The shelter system is chockfull of contracts: for food, transportation and housing. And the bidding for much of it
begins in four months.
“Partnership for the Homeless oversees the faith-based network,” Agredo explained. “Their service contract with DHS is up on June 30 of this year.” When asked about what was at stake, one Catholic Charities honcho—who declined to
be named—intoned darkly through the phone: “You need to follow the money.”
The Bellevue shelter is in a broken-down colossus that takes up the entire First Avenue block between East 29th and 30th streets. The infamous H-shaped building served as the city’s asylum until it was closed down in the 1980s. A decade later, it became Manhattan’s only full-service emergency shelter—a wink on the part of the brutal Giuliani administration to the origins of “modern homelessness,” a phenomenon often blamed on the deinstitutionalization of the mental hospitals that
took place in the 1970s.
There’s a small metal sign, posted next to a makeshift entrance that reads:VACANCY/ EMERGENCY SHELTER. The intimidating brick facade is still open to the most reviled of society, but just barely.
After the April 2008 announcement of the site’s closing, Janel Patterson, a spokesperson for the city’s Economic and Development Commission, laid out the administration’s hopes for the site when she gushed to ABC News: “We think the layout lends itself to a hotel facility.”
Despite the recent changing economic climate, the commission is still purported to be looking for luxury bidders. If all goes according to plan, starting in July, Manhattan’s hardest cases will have to hobble out to Bedford-Atlantic Armory, nine miles away in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It appears to be another of Bloomberg’s policies bent on eliminating poverty in Manhattan—by unloading it on to the boroughs.
Defeated by the cold and fatigue, ragged bodies march up, heads bowed. A man in his sixties with a powerful torso and crumpled legs hobbles towards at turtle-slow speed. He doesn’t have a cane to lean on and he has to rest his arthritic legs every few yards. Mistaking me for homeless as he approaches, he kindly says, “Might as well go in, at least it’s warm.”
With “Night Train” breath and a gravel pit voice, he tells me his name his Juan. “This is your last step before six feet under,” he says. I ask him the last time he had a nice place to sleep. Rubbing his oven mitt-sized hands together with glee, he says, “Oh I got locked in the supermarket once.You ever hear of that?” He bellows further, with a bass-filled laugh. “I was getting ready to call the cops on myself when I seen the deli. Boy I went crazy. I ate up all I could eat up, then I went down to the beers, then I went to sleep.”
When I ask him where he’d like to go, he starts to cry and explains how, last night in Bellevue, a man slammed him in the face with a tray filled with food. After trailing off, he sighs, “They gone in the head in there, good gracious.”
He’s drunk and probably mentally ill too—his locutions are dotted with slurred asides such as “I love you”—but he
appears harmless. He’s an old man that needs a place to sleep, but he can barely walk down the street to the bus stop. It’s a mystery how he’ll get to Brooklyn once Bellevue closes.
An active and powerful constituency also wants to ensure the Bedford-Atlantic Armory, a building on Atlantic Avenue sometimes referred to as Castle Greyskull, is not accepting new vagrants. After all, Brooklynites don’t want a massive, castle-sized dump for humanity’s flotsam anymore than those in Manhattan.
For the last five years, Borough President Marty Markowitz has been doing his best to raise Brooklyn’s profile and
lower poverty levels. Strangely, the Crown Heights native, who expressed some initial concerns about the in-take center, now seems to be toeing the city line.
Under continuing pressure, Hess has claimed that DHS will open a new emergency shelter in Manhattan when Bellevue
closes.They have yet to announce the location or size of the facility though, and community boards across the city have promised to fight any emergency shelter encroachments into their neighborhoods.
Markowitz responded to our attempts to get a comment on the subject with an email that read: “We have been assured that there will be a Manhattan intake center (location to be determined by DHS) and that Brooklyn will not bear the brunt of intake traffic.”
Just last week, however, the New York Post reported the City has still not applied for approval for a new Manhattan site,
citing officials with the state Office of Temporary Disability.
De Blasio reiterated that “the city has until our next hearing in March to make good on their promises.”
But Crown Heights Councilmember Letitia James is actively trying to keep the Bedford-Atlantic Armory shelter
from becoming a reality. According to her, the opponents of the merger have retained counsel and are holding a March 9 press conference on the steps of City Hall that will include a number of elected officials, clergy, block associations and civic leaders.
“First off, let me say that the Mayor had agreed to put an intake center in every borough. Now he wants to convert the one in Manhattan to a luxury hotel,” James said. “It’s a violation of state law and indeed the state constitution, which guarantees shelter services.”
At the moment, it seems a distinct possibility that the Bellevue Shelter, the drop-in centers and church basements might close without even a spuriously designated replacement.
Add to this mix the complication that most homeless already would rather sleep anywhere besides a city shelter: atop subway grates, under a bridge or in an empty basement.
On the coldest night of the year, I ran across a man in his fifties begging in front of a deli on West 14th Street wrapped in a torn blanket. “An Asian man gave it to me,” he said. It was his only plan to avoid frostbite, and he said he wouldn’t go to a shelter.
For the time being, the Bellevue Shelter will remain open until the weather warms up. But next winter is a different story. If Manhattan bums need a warm respite from the cold, it looks like it’s either a trip to Brooklyn—or a swiveling plastic chair in a McDonald’s. They’ll be lovin’ it.