NEW YORK—Finding it difficult to get on his feet after a decade in jail for committing robbery, Wesley turned to a homeless shelter in Chelsea. He became one of the first waves of residents at the Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC) shelter when it opened amid much controversy a year ago.
“So far, it has helped me a lot,” Wesley said. “If a client really wants the help, they’ll help; it’s effective depending on the person.”
Next week, Wesley is scheduled to move into permanent housing. Residents only remain at the shelter for a year, after which they move into permanent housing or receive further treatment at a hospital.
A year into its tenure on 25th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, the shelter is the newest facility for BRC—an organization that works with the Department of Homeless Services. “Our programs empower our clients with the knowledge and skills to permanently overcome poverty, addiction, physical and mental illness, homelessness, and unemployment,” the BRC website says.
The Chelsea shelter has 200 permanent beds for overnight stays. Adding its daytime programs, the 12-story building is filled with 328 beds, according to BRC.
Although BRC’s substance abuse and mental illness treatment programs do not provide beds, there is room for 65 men and women who seek help for substance abuse on a daily basis, and 35 men and women who seek mental stability assistance.
Other BRC shelters are located in the Bowery, Harlem, Lower East Side, Bed-Stuy, and NoHo.
A Year On
Facing strong opposition from neighborhood parents and shop owners, the Chelsea shelter officially opened its doors last July; since then, parts of the community have softened their stance, while others continue to feel frustration.
The shelter is nestled among antique shops, a costume store that Lady Gaga shops at; The New York Vintage store, where cast members of Gossip Girl frequently visit; a Sheraton Hotel; a quilting store; and condo buildings.
Dale Riehl, co-owner of City Quilter, the sole art quilt gallery in New York, said he was shocked that deputy mayor and fellow quilter Linda Quips had no objection to the shelter.
Riehl said he has witnessed what he believes to be drug dealing at a nearby phone booth, but was unable to confirm it was shelter residents.
“I brought it to the police department’s attention immediately, and now they’re trying to change the phone booth so that it doesn’t have sides to it,” Riehl said. “It’s being addressed in some fashion; someone’s actually doing something.”
He said the shelter is a “very professional operation,” but the location is inappropriate.
Kevin Jang, an employee at NYC Displays on 25th Street, said, “There’s no choice, they need somewhere to go. … It’s the government’s decision.”
“I think it’s fine, but there are a lot of unhappy pedestrians,” he said.
There are two fire hydrants located in front of the NYC Displays store that shelter residents like to sit on, Jang said. “Customers don’t like to come in when they sit there. Other than that, it doesn’t really have an effect on our business.”
Hilary Botein, an assistant professor at Baruch College who specializes in housing policy, said there is a preconception that shelters are ugly and poorly run.
“But it’s just not true anymore,” she said. “In any block in New York, you’re going to have people of all incomes, people of all backgrounds; I think it just blends in more than what people expected it to blend.”
She said protests by neighbors and business owners is “a pretty typical pattern.”
“It’s kind of understandable that [the community] is afraid [that] shelters and affordable housing will change the neighborhood patterns, but then they don’t notice any difference and go on with their lives,” she said.
BRC had two facilities downtown—on 324 Lafayette St. and 85 Delancey St.—but when the leases expired in 2010 they decided to move to Chelsea. A major reason for selecting 127 W. 25th St. was the availability of space and the landlord’s agreement to a long-term lease. BRC signed a 33-year lease for the building in 2011.
Before the shelter opened last July, the Chelsea Flatiron Coalition protested that the building was going to be used illegally—under the S 21-312(b) law, adult shelters may not have more than 200 people.
But, homelessness remains an issue in the city, and with only 200 overnight beds, government officials approved the shelter. As of June 5, there are approximately 42,575 homeless people throughout New York City, according to the Department of Homeless Services.
Heather Janik, spokesperson for Department of Homeless Services, said there should be more comprehensive programs like BRC to help the homeless transition to permanent housing.
Food for Thought, a catering business on 25th Street, decided to close a small caféeadjacent to its building as a result of the shelter moving in.
Karina Galarza, an employee at Food of Thought, said shelter residents often went to the cafe to beg. Although the company never witnessed any specific incidents, it did not want to take any chances.
“It was just too difficult, our employee was a little scared. … She didn’t know if they were going to do something,” she said. “We were just protecting her safety.”
The cafe’s closing, however, did not affect the business, Galarza said, the catering company gets most of its business from elsewhere.
“I understand the whole situation, why they opened it,” Galarza said. “But there’s always cop cars, [and] ambulances; there’s always something happening. …We don’t feel comfortable.”
Fashion Utilities shop owner, Carmela, said she is concerned for the young girls from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) who frequent her store, which is located on the same block as the shelter.
“It bothers me how these older men, who are not well, literally come into my store to approach the FIT girls,” said Carmela, 80. “The FIT are young, pretty girls, they wear short skirts, high heels, but they go to FIT; it’s how they dress.”
She said she often hears quarrels and has witnessed a fight between a pedestrian and a BRC resident. Carmela and various storeowners said the nearby CVS has been robbed more than once by BRC residents. The manager of CVS declined to comment.
Carmela said she is torn over what to tell potential neighbors, who often go to her store to ask about the neighborhood.
“What can you say to [the buyers]? The [sellers] are moving because of the shelter,” she said. “You don’t want to kill people’s sale; it puts everybody in a bad situation.”
“In my humble opinion, this was just the wrong location,” she said.
More Lenient Neighbors
Jim Bartleng is a renter at Chelsea Landmark on 55 W. 25th St. Rents are $4,000 a month average for a studio; Bartleng pays $6,000 a month for a one bedroom.
“There’s a homeless guy sleeping across the street from the building everyday; obviously he’s not from the shelter,” he said. “This just goes to show we’re in New York City after all—you can’t avoid people like that no matter what neighborhood you’re in.”
Bartleng said he finds the shelter “well maintained” when he walks by to get his routine haircuts.
“Honestly, I bet half the people in my building don’t even know the shelter exists,” he said. “I haven’t heard any complaints from neighbors.”Opal Pahsuwkul, a homeowner one block away from the shelter, said she hasn’t noticed a change in the neighborhood. “I’ve been living in this house for two years, I never even knew it opened,” she said.
Teresa Thomas, a nanny in Chelsea, thinks the shelter is a good idea. “These people need someone to take care of them,” she said.
Thomas said she felt safe looking after a child in the area, adding that the NYPD presence is good.
BRC itself has 24-hour security on duty at the facility. The building hires around 270 workers, out of which 74 personnel focus on security, according to BRC’s website.
The NYPD has one police officer in charge of the 25th Street post. If the officer gets a call, he or she must leave the post, but other police cars constantly drive by the area.
When asked via several emails and phone calls how many shelter residents moved on to permanent housing instead of returning to hospitals, BRC staff at the Chelsea facility declined to respond.
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