Three homeless men have driven one of Park Slope’s most liberal religious leaders to the very brink of what some would consider un-Christian behavior.
Rev. Daniel Meeter of Old First Reformed Presbyterian Church has gotten so fed up with the homeless people sleeping on the steps of his house of worship that he has begun throwing out their belongings — a move that has prompted a flurry of multi-denominational soul-searching in liberal Park Slope.
“It’s always been a simmering problem, but it heated up this summer,” said Meeter.
For years, the front steps of the church, at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Carroll Street, unprotected by a fence, have served as a de facto homeless shelter.
By this summer, three men in particular were finding refuge there: Robert Royster, who’d been an on-and-off visitor for years, Will Franklin, who drinks on the stoop and sleeps elsewhere, and Frank Silano. All three have substance-abuse problems, according to Meeter.
The church at first tried to help. In the spring, Meeter helped Franklin get a job at a local Key Food, but he soon lost it. Meeter gave the men leftover food from church affairs. He offered to help them get treatment (he said they refused). His deacon knitted them scarves.
But by July, according to Meeter, all three were getting worse.
“They started urinating in the area and they were losing self-control,” said Meeter. “They were making comments at passersby and they were playing the radio really loudly.
“There was a week in July when I said, ‘Hey guys, it’s over,’ and I started throwing their stuff out and chasing them away. Problem was, they’d come back — and now they were hostile.”
But Meeter said the final kicker was Sunday, Oct. 21, when he discovered that the men had hidden a steel bar behind the church wall.
“I saw the steel bar as a weapon. It was all beyond tolerance,” said Meeter. “The church was no longer [a] sanctuary; now they had a weapon.”
Last Tuesday morning, Silano, 64, was curled up in a blue flowered blanket on the Carroll Street side of the church, sound asleep. By 10 pm, he was lying on the front steps. He said he was sleeping off a particularly bad drunken bout, during which he’d slipped and badly bruised the left side of his face. His two companions had yet to arrive.
Silano said he enjoys his presence at the church about as little as the church enjoys hosting him.
“I don’t like nothing here,” said Silano. “I didn’t think that the church would bother us as much as they do. This ain’t the same country I remember from 20 years ago. … It seems like everyone is against the homeless that shouldn’t be.”
Silano, a lifelong Brooklynite, was born in Gowanus and spent nearly 50 years in Bay Ridge. He worked in construction and said that recently, his mother and he had to leave their Bay Ridge apartment. She ended up at his sister’s place, and he ended up on the street.
“I just want to be able to stay here and sleep at night,” said Silano. “Is there an answer to this?” he asked, shaking his head.
Meeter is looking for an answer, too. He wrote about the issue on Oct. 18 on his blog, www.oldfirst.blogspot.com, prompting a flurry of online suggestions ranging from putting up a sign asking passersby not to give the men money to erecting a gate.
Divine references were rife. Park Slope poet laureate Leon Freilich even chimed in with the following stanza: “The quality of mercy is not strained/But Lord, O Lord, it sometimes has you pained.”
Meeter also got an online response from another blogging clergyman, Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim, the Reform Jewish yin to Meeter’s yang in Park Slope.
“I read Rev. Meeter’s post late Thursday night and mulled over its implications while trying to figure out a practical response,” wrote Bachman on Oct. 20, before launching into an online rumination centered on the week’s Torah portion, “Parshat Lech Lecha.”
Bachman’s ultimate conclusion: “I propose a Community Clean-Up Crew. … In the spirit of Abraham, our forefather, we are all sleeping on the stoop of Old First. We are all asking for money. We are all in need of a little human dignity. Give us a day and we’ll help.”
Non-denominational organizations are also stepping up. The Park Slope Civic Council has offered its assistance, as has the elite Berkeley-Carroll School, just down the block from the church.
Meanwhile, police from the 78th Precinct have tried to convince the men to accept help, or at least move on.
But there’s only so much the cops can do.
“We can just offer, but we cannot insist,” said Officer Nybia Cooper. “One of the reasons we’re not getting rid of them is because everyone is giving them money.”
For his part, Silano, raised Catholic, professes bewilderment that he can’t continue to seek refuge at a house of worship, of all places.
“I’m not a holy roller, but I do believe in God, Jesus Christ,” said Silano.