After the Tension: Is a Homeless Shelter a Threat?

Homeless Man

About six weeks ago, the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Messiah in Greenpoint quietly opened a homeless shelter. Quietly, because some of the Greenpoint residents did not like the idea at all, and, in fact, tried to block it. Now that the shelter has been operating—serving as what the pastor calls a “death-prevention center” during the very cold months—NY City Lens wanted to find out if the residents views have changed.

So we asked some of them. Out of ten residents who live in the neighborhood, two said they did not have an opinion about the issue. The rest said they did not see much of a problem.

Before the shelter opened, some 400 local residents signed a petition against it, according to The Brooklyn Paper. And when the shelter started functioning at the end of January, some residents expressed their outrage. At the Community Board 1 meeting in Brooklyn on Feb. 10, Linda McCormack expressed her concern about the shelter, noting that it would be across from Msgr. McGolrick Park: “Why would they want to put this across the street from a park, where children play?” she said at the meeting. “I live across the street from the park. I see, how many of these men sit there. They become very disorderly, they urinate, they relieve themselves. There is a health concern. There is a safety concern. So I don’t quite understand—Why would they want to house them there?”

But none of the other residents commented on the issue raised by McCormack, despite her multiple questions to the audience about whether anyone else was concerned.

Children walk out of the Msgr. McGolrick Park in Greenpoint (Joanna Socha/NYCityLens)

Children walk out of the Msgr. McGolrick Park in Greenpoint (Joanna Socha/NYCityLens)

The shelter is small and temporary. It serves ten people during the very cold months and its main purpose is to give homeless people a place to sleep until the weather gets better. According to pastor Amy Kienzle, its mission is to prevent people from dying on the streets. Pastor Kienzle, who opened the shelter on Russel street in Greenpoint—has no doubt that there is a need for such places. “Part of our mission is to care of our neighbors, which is every neighbor. Not only the ones that have homes, but also the ones that are the least,” she explained. “This is the death- prevention shelter, for a very small number of people who have no place to go.”

She explained that the shelter is run by the Common Ground organization, which has provided sleeping cots and sent staffers to keep watch each night. “We just provide the space,” Pastor Kienzle said. The funds, she said, come from the NYC Department of Homeless Services.

Pastor Kienzle does not agree that homeless people must be source of problems for Greenpoint, or that they are all alcoholics or have mental problems. She said she has spent time with some of the homeless men and “I saw them calm. I didn’t see evidence of mental problems,” she said. Maybe some residents do not know the situation, she said, and this is why they think in certain way.

Although the Greenpoint residents we spoke to concede that there is a concern about crime, most of them do not see any change in the neighborhood caused by the shelter. Everybody thinks a shelter is a great idea, “but nobody wants it in their neighborhood because of crime, people sleeping near your gate,” said 50-year-old Mary Ellen, who lives nearby and had a mixed opinion. “I think it’s probably not as big a problem as the people thought it would be,” she said. “But you just feel like the homeless—they probably use drugs and drink all day, you don’t want your kids to see it.”

“It’s always a good idea; people need help,” said 26-year-old Alex Borgstre, who lives near the shelter. “People are afraid that this will compromise safety, but I live just right by a shelter and I’ve never had trouble with anybody. I’ve never seen anyone getting harassed, so I don’t really see much of a downside.”

“I haven’t seen any negative results of the shelter, so I don’t mind,” said 36-year-old Chris, who declined to give his last name, explaining that he owns a business in the area and does not want to be identified with the shelter. He also mentioned that although he occasionally sees homeless people “hanging out and drinking,” he doesn’t think they pose any threat.

“I didn’t even know that there was one opened, but I think it’s great, it’s important, I’ve got no problem on that,” said Jamie Lloyd, 38, a Greenpoint resident. “As a society we have to look after the more vulnerable people, so we have responsibility.”

Mark Morgan, 40, a visitor to Greenpoint, said he has seen similar situations. “It’s always the case in America—You put a homeless shelter and people are like, ‘Oh my God! What are those people doing here?’” he said. “The thing that always drives me crazy is people, who theoretically want to have shelters, once they have this reality at their block, they actually don’t want it anymore.”

“Anything that’s good for the community, that’s helping other people, I have a hard time being against.” Said 33-year-old Rebecca Thomas. “Even though it may not be convenient, it’s still better for the community as a whole.”

Lutheran Church of Messiah (Joanna Socha/NY City Lens)

Lutheran Church of Messiah (Joanna Socha/NY City Lens)

According to data from the Coalition For The Homeless, the number of homeless people in NYC sleeping in shelters each night is steadily increasing. In February 2012 there were approximately 43,000 homeless people sleeping in shelters. In November 2014 the number rose to more than 60,000.

Some research show that the shelters actually influence communities in a postive way. Authors of a study released by NYU’s Furman Center in 2008 found that “five years after a supportive development opens, nearby property values tend to have risen more than in similar areas with no such facility,” according to a City & State article, “After the Shouting, Do Homeless Shelters Harm Neighborhoods?”