Home is where the heart is, even if that home is a temporary one while you get back on your feet.
Its official name is the Broadway Family Plaza, but those who don’t live there might recognize it more as 5731 Broadway, a transitional housing facility run by the city’s homeless services department. And it’s now, with help from Welcoming Neighbors Northwest Bronx, celebrating its second annual holiday party.
What started off with a flurry of kids tumbled into a snowstorm of little ones who spent their time at the ornament party creating knick-knacks and singing Christmas carols.
“I saw Santa,” said Najee Smith, one of the young residents at the facility. We spoke “about school and people who don’t know that Santa is real, so he said that he’s gonna put them on the naughty list.”
It’s true. Smith, 6, did speak with Santa in the building her family has called home for the last few months. But that home is about to change — and in a good way. Smith’s family is off to Pennsylvania before the year is through, using that boost the one-time controversial transitional facility has offered.
“I would like to see a lot of families move into permanent housing,” said Darlene Hines, the center’s director. “The rent here in New York City is high, and it makes it challenging for them to move. And that’s where I want to see improvement.”
Opened last year over the protest of many of its neighbors and a thumbs down from Community Board 8, Broadway Family Plaza was part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new initiative to deal with homeless issues, dissolving “cluster housing” where the city would just rent out disparate apartment units, and instead take over full buildings, like the one at 5731 Broadway.
It’s designed to allow those looking to transition from homelessness to independent living the chance to receive various resources in one location convenient to where they live, DHS officials said last year. The Broadway facility is no different, offering a number of programs including mental health and tutoring.
Getting help for schoolwork is something Kairi Henry is grateful for, as he knows sometimes kids like his son listens better when lessons aren’t just coming from his own family.
“It helps a lot because it’s one thing for me to say something, but when other adults are saying the same thing, it gets across a lot better in that way,” Henry said. “And his grades are a lot better now. He was doing all right before, but the things I was looking for him to progress in he’s progressing in.”
Henry has lived at the plaza with his girlfriend and son for a few months. While Santa stepped out for a few minutes after visiting with the kids, Henry serenaded the children with a soulful performance of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” In the past, Henry has performed at the Apollo Theater and even won a few of their amateur competitions.
Ask Henry what he wants for Christmas, he’ll half-jokingly say a record deal. But with a baby on the way, this Christmas has been more about preparing for his newborn, who is expected to arrive next year.
“I got the baby on the way and the baby is due in April, and yeah that’s my Christmas gift,” he said. “I’m hyped up on that, and so I’m just trying to stay busy and stay positive.”
Henry not only will be a father of two next year, but he’s also set to lead a new music program at the facility. The course will teach the components of making music through songwriting, producing and singing. Henry’s goal is to show there’s more to music beyond the voice.
“The song is not complete without the background,” he said, “or without the music to it.”
Reaching kids and parents through creative and resourceful methods are exactly what center director Hines strives to do through her programs. And it’s personal for Hines, who helped her mother seek public assistance while she suffered from cancer, only to have the staff for that facility treat her like she wasn’t a person.
“There wasn’t any respect or dignity, and the fact that she was ill, you could see that,” Hines said.
“It’s about treating people with respect and dignity because things happen and people’s situation can change. That’s why instead of a shelter, I call it a transition, because we’re always in transition. It’s part of our journey in life.”
Hines plans to implement a GED and English as a Second Language program next year with the hopes to make that transition even easier. For Hines, the most challenging part of her job is dealing with the things that aren’t in her control, like the housing and job market, and the effect those have on the community.
“Well any family can end up homeless,” said Ivan Braun, a member of Welcoming Neighbors, a group of volunteers that formed last year after 5731 Broadway officially opened. “Many, many people live one paycheck away from hard times, and if you don’t have family to fall back on, you can end up someplace needing shelter from the city.”
Welcoming Neighbors not only offers a plethora of volunteers to the facility each year, but also is constantly looking for new ways to be an even bigger resource to the shelter.
“Obviously, for the children, it’s no fault of their own,” Braun said. The ornament party “just gives them the opportunity to feel like they’re participating in the holiday cheer that everyone else does.”
When it comes to Welcoming Neighbors, their help is not just restricted to the holidays. They look for volunteers year-round to help make life at the transitional facility better. Those interested in volunteering can email the group at email@example.com.
“They’re kids, so they’re not always coming up and saying thank you,” Braun said. “But they’re clearly having a good time, and when we talk to parents, they really enjoy the support in making the holiday a little special.”