With new homeless shelters proposed, housing providers strive to reassure communities

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, first lady Chirlane McCray, and Commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration/Department of Social Services Steven Banks speak to a homeless man.

With new homeless shelters proposed, housing providers strive to reassure communities

With new homeless shelters proposed, housing providers strive to reassure communities
October 18, 2016

A fear among neighborhood residents that new homeless shelters will bring unfamiliar people – some of them desperate or addicted to drugs or mentally ill – into their community is not a new phenomenon. But with the ranks of the homeless sleeping in shelters in New York City nearly topping 60,000 – a record high – nonprofit housing providers are under increasing pressure to build more housing.

And more than ever, that also means building consensus in the neighborhoods that will host these sites.

Providers must notify elected officials about the size and scope of the facility, both when proposing a project and immediately after being awarded a contract, as well as make an attempt to meet with the local community board. The city weighs those concerns as well as the number of similar facilities nearby when making a final determination.

While there seems to be no magic bullet, advocates say transparency, adaptive design and strong community roots can increase the chances that a project will win community approval.

In recent months, however, that approval has been hard to secure. An East Harlem community board slammed the Department of Homeless Services last month, saying the agency neglected to prioritize local residents in filling a new homeless shelter. Residents in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy fought against the opening of facilities in their neighborhoods. And community opposition led the city to drop a proposal to open a Bronx shelter for people with HIV. In the most high-profile recent confrontation, residents of Maspeth, Queens, fought against the conversion of a local hotel to a shelter and protested outside the Brooklyn home of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks.

The nonprofit agencies that develop homeless shelters and supportive housing have also been met with opposition.

“Whenever they see that there’s a nonprofit sponsor, somebody like Samaritan Village, or BRC, or whatever it is, laypeople, average people, don’t understand the difference,” said Nancy Wackstein, who led United Neighborhood Houses until last year when she became director of community engagement and partnerships at Fordham University. “They just see it as a big, bad old city shelter.”

She said many people also don’t understand the difference between emergency shelters and supportive housing. Many cities and nonprofits are focused more on building permanent supportive housing, which offers individuals a long-term residence along with help getting jobs, managing illnesses and advocating for benefits and other services. Facilities vary in size and focus on a range of people, such as those with HIV/AIDS, domestic violence victims, single men or families.

Unlike the current system, in which nonprofits get city funding to operate facilities, in the early 1980s the shelter apparatus consisted of single-room occupancy hotels and city-run shelters, often in enormous buildings like armories. In the 1990s, Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, which Wackstein led at the time, took over a city-run women’s shelter at the Park Avenue Armory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. That program, she said, was a success because the group had operated in the neighborhood since 1894 and its employees and board members lived nearby.

“Everybody knew that if something went wrong, where we were, because we were not going anyplace,” she said. “We were rooted in that neighborhood.”

Still, Wackstein said, some nonprofits don’t give the neighborhoods enough notice, or open facilities that are out of scale with the surroundings, adding to fears.

At this point, the fears are largely unsubstantiated. Recent research about whether supportive housing or shelters correlate with lower property values or higher crime in New York is limited, but earlier data suggests the consequences of locating a shelter in a neighborhood are less dire than some would suppose. A 2008 report by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy found that the typical supportive housing development actually increased real estate values within 500 feet. The research team – which included Vicki Been, the current commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development – also found a temporary drop in prices for properties further away, but those prices rose shortly after the development opened.

1999 study of some supportive housing developments in Denver found that while reports of disorderly conduct near the facilities increased, fears of a rise in crime were “generally unfounded” and real estate values also increased.

Catherine Trapani, executive director of Homeless Services United, said that shelter facilities are in new, highly regulated buildings with social services for the occupants. “Very often, if I’m going for a site visit and I’m looking for one of my members’ buildings, I just look for the best looking place on the block and I’m going to find it.”

Trapani said she has talked with her members, about 50 nonprofits that operate shelters, about how to reassure communities where they seek to open facilities. She said successful operators can allay concerns by assuring residents that suggestions will be addressed and highlighting features such as security, lighting and designated smoking areas to keep residents from congregating on stoops.

The city has also tried to distribute facilities more equitably – away from poor neighborhoods like the South Bronx and East New York and into other neighborhoods across the city, citing economic justice issues and pure logistics.

“If a neighborhood is welcoming, we don’t want to wear out our welcome,” Trapani said. “We have to make sure that we’re really taking into account the ability of any neighborhood – for any residential project, by the way – to absorb new residents.”

Lauren Gray, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeless Services, echoed Trapani’s point.

“Homelessness is a citywide issue that requires citywide solutions,” Gray said in an email. “Each community must do its share.”

The department tracks neighborhood saturation of shelters and is moving toward what it calls a “more borough-specific” approach to keep displaced individuals and families closer to their neighborhoods. The de Blasio administration has also increased security near shelters, while the NYPD has reviewed shelter security measures and started training more DHS peace officers.

Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of The Children’s Village, which owns four facilities in New York City, said it was critical to listen to community input. He cited the organization’s announcement of plans to open a residential program on Staten Island in 2013. The process was so contentious that police were called 24 minutes into one community meeting, according to the Staten Island Advance.

“Our neighbors were worried, they didn’t know who was coming in,” Kohomban said. “... And one of the problems with a situation like that is sometimes you have one or two people who are not always well-informed, but they tend to be the rabble-rousers, and before you know it, you have almost an explosive situation on your hands.”

Kohomban shared his contact information with local residents and ultimately created a community advisory board. The city also compromised: The Administration for Children’s Services, which managed the program, opted to place a non-secure girls’ program in the neighborhood instead of the proposed “limited-secure placement” program for teenage boys.

“There are many times when a few misguided and uninformed people will try to tear down the work that needs to happen,” he said. “But more often than not, I see us often working with reasonable people, who are neighbors just like my neighbors in my own community, that have reasonable questions and they need to be heard.”

Race and gender biases also come into play. Programs like a women’s shelter at an armory spark fewer concerns because homeless women are perceived as less dangerous than men. “I can’t tell you the number of times when everything gets turned into ‘Homeless drug addicts are going to be on our street,’” Wackstein said of the media coverage. “And usually if it’s homeless black men, it’s worse.”

Earlier this year, former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (who in 2011 objected to a proposed 328-bed facility in her home district of Chelsea, Manhattan) told reporters that New Yorkers needed to “get over themselves” about fearing the homeless. Quinn, who now heads the nonprofit Women In Need, said tabloids trafficked in stereotypes by publishing “racist shots of single men – they've purposely picked men of color who are put on the cover to seem scary and 'them, not us.’”

Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier said that protesters would be more productive if they looked at the bigger picture.

“I would urge folks who are angry about shelters in their neighborhood to think about the larger problem and to sort of direct their anger toward permanent solutions, because that’s really what’s going to work,” she said. (One fix backed by the coalition includes passing a memorandum of understanding on how to allocate $2 billion for housing – Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed the MOU, but it needs agreement from state legislative leaders to be implemented.)

Routhier was heartened recently when her neighborhood of Kensington, Brooklyn, was mostly welcoming of a family shelter run by CAMBA, another nonprofit organization. “The neighbors really seemed to use it as an opportunity to get together, not just for this negative reason, but also for a positive reason: to come together and put together care packets and to welcome families,” she said. 

This article was first published on our sister site, New York Nonprofit Media, on October 17.

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Dan Rosenblum from New York Nonprofit Media