At the start of last week, as the streets of Greenpoint became eerily empty, ten homeless men crawled into roll-out cots found in the basement of the Lutheran Church of the Messiah. While the rest of the city braced for the onset of a blizzard, these men were able to close their eyes with pillows under their heads rather than the usual wooden park benches.
On Jan. 22, pastor Amy Kienzle decided to open the Russell Street church to a small cohort of men who usually sleep in McGolrick Park. The decision has proved controversial: more than 400 residents have signed a petition arguing that the shelter will bring crime and attract the mentally ill, the Brooklyn Paper reports.
Last month, Kienzle held a community meeting to discuss using the church’s basement as a shelter. Residents were so adamantly opposed to the idea and full of vitriol for the homeless that the gathering ended prematurely, she said. But she went ahead with the plan anyway.
“It’s intended to prevent people from dying,” Kienzle said. “It’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem.”
The ten men were chosen because they were “determined to be the most vulnerable by our trained outreach workers,” according to Jaslee Carayol of the city’s Department of Homeless Services. They’re welcome to stay in the church between the hours of 10 p.m and 6 a.m., whether they’re sober or not.
Greenpoint’s problems with the local homeless have spanned over 50 years, according to Kienzle. Two years ago a similar shelter in the Greenpoint Reformed Church on Milton Street closed due to local complaints. And in 2011, residents rallied against a proposed 200-bed shelter on McGuiness Boulevard. The overarching consensus is that the shelters, rather than truly remedying homelessness in Greenpoint, simply provide the homeless with the facilities to continue drinking and taking drugs. Kienzle says that at December’s meeting, most attendees were more in support of shipping them straight to the hospital, rather than temporarily housing them.
The problem, Kienzle says, is that because many of the community’s homeless are Polish and unable to speak English, they’re unwilling to accept housing in other parts of the city. Because of this, the DHS’s biggest challenge, according to Carayol, is the “area residents who wish to remain in their home community, but need housing.”
On Tuesday, a next-door neighbor of the church told me that his friend, a local bar owner, was at the contentious residential gathering. He explained that his friend’s concern was that the men were constantly intoxicated and “he didn’t want them to be seen by the little girls” who play in the park. The bar owner’s concerns were common at December’s meeting. The Greenpoint Gazette quotes Jane Bognacki, a longtime Greenpoint resident who questioned the proposed shelter by asking: “Can you promise our children will be safe?”
But the safety of the men who sleep in McGolrick Park is also at stake. Just before Thanksgiving, a homeless man died on one of the park’s benches. Shortly after, Pastor Kienzle held a remembrance service in the park pavilion and a homeless man approached her to explain that the deceased, whose name was Frank, had struggled during his life and mostly kept to himself. What she gleaned from the conversation was that the community of Greenpoint’s homeless policed itself, each member holding one another accountable for their so frequently reckless lifestyles.
Last week, a group of Greenpoint roommates who had attended the memorial told me that it was absolutely a good thing that the church had decided to temporarily house the men. “If they weren’t in there they’d just be in the park,” said one.
On Friday, three scruffy men loitered near the Russell Street church. One sat on a park bench with heavy eyelids while the other two spoke to each other in raucous Polish. One of the men spoke animatedly as blood ran down his forehead; the other, looking bleary eyed and red faced, slurred back to him.
The language barrier made it difficult for me to interview the men, but the scene made it easy to understand the safety concerns that Sarah Samuels, a local resident and mother of two, expressed — initially — when I spoke to her about the church’s new occupants. Mulling it over, she sighed and said, “It’s difficult…I just want everyone to be.” She explained that the homeless men were a familiar sight. However problematic their presence was, she felt she knew them as part of the fabric of the area, and thus felt a degree of responsibility for their welfare.
There are already signs that the church may be able to improve that welfare, albeit in small steps. Kienzle says that two of the local homeless that had matched the selection criteria for the church’s basement shelter are now in alcohol recovery programs.