Homeless advocates get contentious welcome


What’s good for Kingsbridge should be just as good for Riverdale.

That was the takeaway for the more than 100 people gathered at the Episcopal Church of the Mediator last week. Except that wasn’t the message officials from the city’s homeless services department wanted to convey. 

Designed to put a face on homelessness for a community embroiled in a debate over whether to allow a transitional homeless facility at 5731 Broadway, instead those opposed to the proposed shelter interrupted and shouted down panelists that included a former homeless woman, Theresa Jordan, and one of the managers of the city’s homeless families intake unit, Cassandra White. And they were determined to make their voices heard.

“How do we keep track of (future homeless shelters) so that we don’t end up inundated with them in Kingsbridge,” asked Marie O’Shea, who has been a foe of 5731 Broadway since it was revealed. “Our Riverdalian neighbors think it’s a great idea, but they don’t have to live with it.”

O’Shea’s complaint centers on the city’s focus “down the hill” when it comes to helping take homeless people off the street. The Van Cortlandt Motel, less than a mile away on Broadway, has housed some scattered homeless families since last year. Although the homeless services department says it will close services at the motel by the end of the year, the fact that no shelters have been announced for Riverdale “up the hill” has especially bothered O’Shea. 

“We’ve obviously had a realization that there are communities in our city that have been oversaturated with shelters, while there are others that have little to no shelters,” said Lori Boozer, an attorney and housing law advocate that works with the city. “That’s the root of our current plan. We’re trying to correct the way those shelters are distributed across the city.”


‘Scatter sites’

Before Mayor Bill de Blasio revamped how the city dealt with homelessness, those seeking longer-term shelter were placed in what were known as “scatter sites.” These would be individual apartments or hotel rooms throughout the city that would be offered individually. 

Scatter sites were problematic for city officials because they couldn’t control the conditions of the apartment building or hotels, and it was difficult to get necessary social services to those sheltered residents, like job placement, child services and security.

The new system has homeless services taking over entire buildings, as it’s planning to do with 5731 Broadway, turning all 83 units into transitional housing, and centralizing those services to where they are on-site.

That program is still in its early stages, Boozer said, and whether or not Riverdale will end up with a similar shelter is yet to be seen.

“I can’t say offhand if there is a particular site coming,” she said. “But at the root of this plan is making sure that we are distributing shelters across the city.”

A lot of fear accompanies the opening of a shelter, typically centered around a perception that crime increases and that the lives and livelihoods of residents would be threatened in some way. But focused shelters like the one planned for Broadway is key to helping someone who found themselves homeless work their way back into a world where they have a roof over their head.


Positive experience

Theresa Jordan, one of the panelists at the Church of the Mediator meeting, works at Siena House, a shelter designed for families and pregnant women on West 168th Street in Highbridge. But less than two decades ago, she was part of Sienna House in a much different way — she was a mother seeking shelter.

“I became homeless in 1998,” Jordan said. “I was pregnant. I had a good job, worked for many years. But I lost my job, just like that.

“Siena House gave me structure, and I had everything I needed there so I could make sure I would not become homeless again. It’s sad to see so many people homeless, but it happens so fast. It can happen at the bat of an eye, and at any given moment, and we need options like Siena House.”

While many might think of homelessness as an individual problem, more and more it’s affecting families, said White, who manages the family and intake center for the city’s homeless services department.

“We’re revving up to meet demand,” she said. “The lack of affordable housing has been an issue, but there are many reasons why families might find themselves on the street.”

Nearly a third of families White sees are homeless because of eviction, she said. But at least a quarter of them are escaping domestic violence — a situation that could leave victims feeling trapped, especially if they’re not the breadwinner in the family, and can’t support their family on their own.

“When they get to us, they are broken,” White said. “We try to figure out why they are here, and what we can do at the front door to put things back in place, and to return them as productive, vibrant members of the community.”


Improving dialogue

While some residents might not be convinced the 5731 Broadway facility is right for the community, leaders with Community Board 8 expressed a willingness to work with the city to help address homelessness, while at the same time improving communication so that the community isn’t again shocked by an announcement of a new shelter like it was for Broadway.

“We want to have an open, collaborative process,” said Paul Ellis, CB8’s vice chair. “We hope that in the future, there will be an opportunity for Community Board 8 to be involved much earlier is how the homelessness situation is addressed in this area, so that we can be more collaborative and bring different points of view earlier in the process.”

Homeless services has established a community advisory board that will include various neighborhood leaders moving forward, a move Ellis welcomed.

Although the contract to establish 5731 Broadway was approved in August, it still has not been signed and executed, according to Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for the city’s homeless services department. He offered no timetable on when that might happen.