From Bellevue To Bklyn: Homeless Center To Move

Critics pan a plan to close the city's main intake center for homeless men and lease it to developers.

By: By Tram Whitehurst

By next spring, the Department of Homeless Services plans to move the city's main intake center for homeless men from Manhattan to Brooklyn in a shift the agency says is part of a strategy to improve outcomes overall, but has come under fire from some homeless advocates and elected officials.

The plan is to move the intake center from the Bellevue Hospital campus on Manhattan's East Side to the Bedford-Atlantic Armory in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the city currently operates a 350-bed shelter. It's one part of the city's approach to homelessness in recent years, shifting from a "shelter first" strategy to a focus on preventing homelessness and providing permanent housing. In the process, the city has embraced a new set of initiatives that it says reduces the need for traditional tools of the homeless services system like large shelters and intake centers.

"This move presents an opportunity to redesign the men's intake facility, making it better, faster and more services-rich," DHS Commissioner Robert Hess said in an interview last week. The Armory capacity will be slimmed from 350 to 230 beds, according to the agency, increasing the ratio of staff to clients and thus improving security and the provision of services.

But since the city announced the change April 25, opponents of the plan – from local elected officials to advocates for the homeless and neighborhood groups – have called it a cynical attempt to reduce the number of homeless men in shelters at a time when there is increasing pressure on DHS to limit costs and lower the city's overall rate of homelessness. The agency is facing a budget cut of $54 million in the upcoming fiscal year, and the mayor's goal remains a two-thirds reduction in street homelessness by 2009. Spokeswoman Heather Janik says DHS has not yet calculated the exact savings associated with the move, but expects the impact on the budget to be minor, as most of the agency's expenses are personnel costs and DHS doesn't plan to cut positions as part of the move.

The intake center is the single point of entry for homeless men seeking access to emergency shelter. Some advocates predict that the move will actually exacerbate the problem of street homelessness by making it harder for a highly vulnerable population to reach the intake center. "If this plan goes through we're going to see a dramatic increase in the number of people living on the streets in Manhattan and the Bronx," said Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless.

The Coalition says that's because the majority of the street homeless population is located in Manhattan, particularly around Midtown. In this year's homeless street count, DHS estimated that 58 percent of homeless people found on the streets were located in Manhattan—the borough's street homeless population increased 21 percent from last year—while the street homeless in Brooklyn made up only 16 percent of the total.

"To move the front door of the men's shelter system far away from the area of the city with the highest concentration of street homelessness just doesn't make sense," said State Assemblyman Karim Camara of Brooklyn, who opposes moving the intake center to his district. The current intake center at East 30th Street at First Avenue has the added benefit of being next door to Bellevue Hospital, allowing homeless men to access medical services. Homeless advocates are calling for the city to keep the Manhattan center open and launch other intake sites to serve a wider swath of the city.
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At least one homeless services provider does not see the move as cause for alarm. As executive director of the Bowery Residents Committee, Muzzy Rosenblatt oversees two Safe Havens, a newer kind of shelter with fewer rules than traditional shelters and more emphasis on individualized services and getting people into housing. "The city is trying to change the dynamics of how people access the system, and I think they're doing it successfully," Rosenblatt said.

He sees several reasons why the move may well work out. Typical patrons of the Bellevue intake center tend to need housing – they may be leaving prison, or just lost a living situation, and have some income – but they don't have such severe needs otherwise, and are capable of getting to Brooklyn, he said. (That's in contrast to truly street-homeless people, who often have health and other needs beyond housing, and are good candidates for outreach by Safe Haven workers.) After all, the city's main women's intake shelter is in the Bronx, he pointed out.

Also, the Bellevue facility "is a horrible building for just about anything" and needs a gut renovation, he said. And the idea of moving intake services is not new. When Rosenblatt served as acting commissioner of DHS a decade ago, an agreement was made with the neighborhood to move the center. In terms of where the need is, Times Square might make the most sense, he said – but real estate and political realities probably would prevent that. "It's allocation of scarcity," Rosenblatt says. "You've got to work with what you've got."

The city's plan for the Bellevue space seems to be adding to skepticism about the plan, however. On March 31, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) announced a request for proposals to "redevelop the building as a hotel and conference center catering to the adjacent medical and bioscience related communities." The city will retain ownership of the property and offer the chosen developer a long-term lease. Officials at the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which operates the surrounding Bellevue Hospital Center, say the revenue generated by the lease will be used to support the programs and services of the hospital.

The city contends that most chronically street homeless men don't even use the intake center, and that the move to Brooklyn should therefore not affect many people. But the Coalition thinks the city's own numbers contradict that assertion. According to an analysis of DHS nightly intake statistics by the Coalition for the Homeless, over 11,500 men sought shelter and services at Bellevue in the first four months of this year, for a nightly average of 93 men. On one night in January alone, a total of 241 men walked in to the center. Advocates say the numbers tend to be higher in the winter as the homeless seek to get out of the cold.

And local community groups and residents argue that moving the intake center to Crown Heights will further burden a neighborhood that they say is already oversaturated with social service facilities. An analysis of city and state data by the Crown Heights Revitalization Movement (CHARM) found that Community Board 8, where the Armory is located, houses more residential social service beds per acre than any other Brooklyn community—in fact, more than five times the borough average. The Armory also has had a reputation for poor management, overcrowding and dangerous living conditions among the homeless and those who work with them. "Bedford-Atlantic is not a safe place," said Nathan Ashford, 39, who's been homeless for the past two months and has recently been living in the Armory. He said he's witnessed drug dealing and been solicited for sex on several occasions in the shelter.

"This is a case of Brooklyn being dumped on," said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who opposes the plan because he thinks it's unfair to the community. Representatives from the area argue that by diverting the flow of homeless men to the Armory, the city could also be shifting more crime and congestion to the surrounding neighborhood.

It was only four years ago that the city, in its sweeping Uniting for Solutions Beyond Shelter action plan, actually pledged to increase the number of intake centers by decentralizing the intake process and creating three smaller facilities in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. The 2004 plan said that the Manhattan intake center was flawed because "the large number of people that receive services there, the perception of the site as unsafe, and its inaccessibility to men living on the streets in other boroughs discourages some homeless men from seeking shelter."

However, since the implementation of a new homeless outreach plan in the fall of 2007, the city's priorities have changed. Hess says that DHS' ability to get the homeless into housing directly from the street (600 homeless people have moved off the street through the outreach program since last fall) makes the old notion of an intake center—whether one or three—outmoded. The goal is now to de-emphasize the intake center and reduce the number of shelter beds across the city, while promoting permanent housing for the homeless. Hess says the city has cut 1,200 shelter beds over the past two years, and aims to cut 600 more by next year.

To that end the city is cutting existing programs to expand initiatives that it says are more in line with the push for permanent housing. The city has proposed a $16.9 million cut for drop-in centers in the fiscal year 2009 executive budget, with plans to close two centers—one on the Upper East Side and the other in downtown Brooklyn—in the near future. Drop-in centers generally offer food, clothing and medical care to the homeless, and help them to access overnight shelter in churches and synagogues.

The money saved by the drop-in center cuts will be used to fund an expansion of the Safe Haven program, which provides a more comprehensive level of service to chronically homeless men. "Safe Haven and stabilization beds offer low-threshold shelter for clients who are not ready for structured shelter or independent living," said Hess. "We know that by providing these immediate housing alternatives to the chronically street homeless, we are able to increase chances they will accept housing." There are currently about 200 Safe Haven beds in Manhattan, with a goal of 500 beds citywide by the end of the year. Janik of DHS says that the agency is also working on a city and state agreement to develop 9,000 units of permanent supportive housing over the next several years.

But critics say this is in many ways a numbers game, and the city's math just isn't adding up. Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, points out that while the new outreach and Safe Haven efforts are important, they can't replace the central role that the intake center serves for homeless men. "What's critical is the traffic Bellevue allows. You can't process those types of numbers anywhere else," he said. Markee likens the difference between the intake center and Safe Haven shelters to that between a hospital emergency room and neighborhood health clinics. Opponents are asking the city to shelve its plan to relocate the center, to take the EDC request for proposals off the table and to once again focus on decentralizing the intake process for homeless men.

- Tram Whitehurst