Fight against Gravesend homeless shelter comes to City Hall

rally against shelter in gravesend city hall
Crowds packed the steps in front of City Hall, led by Council Member Susan Zhuang and Assembly Member William Colton.
Adam Daly

Southern Brooklyn pols took their opposition to a planned homeless shelter in Gravesend to the steps of City Hall Thursday, calling on Mayor Eric Adams to fix what they say is a “failed policy” in dealing with homelessness.

Led by Assembly Member William Colton and Council Member Susan Zhuang, hundreds of protestors from across the city’s boroughs turned out for the rally, flooding City Hall Park with signs decrying what will be the first shelter in the district, at 86th Street and 25th Avenue. 

“It’s a failed policy. It makes money for the very wealthy, and it does damage to everybody else, including the homeless, people who we have to sympathize with and try to find ways to help,” Colton said, saying the city needs to rehaul its current policy to deal with people in need of shelter on a case-by-case basis.

gravesend shelter rally at City Hall
Council Member Susan Zhuang joined in the chants of “No Homeless Shelter.” Photo courtesy of Assembly Member William Colton

Speaking to Brooklyn Paper after Thursday morning’s rally, Colton suggested that the city could establish one large intake shelter, possibly at Rikers Island, with the goal of “immediately getting them into permanent housing or into treatment that will lead to permanent housing.”

Colton and Zhuang have led several protests against the Gravesend site, largely due to its location near schools, daycares and senior facilities.

“This is a reckless and dangerous decision by the city,” said Zhuang. “We must work to address homelessness by building more affordable housing, creating jobs and developing programs that help rehabilitate those who are unhoused, not send them to a human warehouse that will use taxpayer dollars to fund illegal substances for individuals suffering from addiction.”

The Department of Social Services first notified residents of the planned shelter back in November and said it remains committed to notifying communities at least 30 days ahead of the potential opening of new traditional shelter locations.

The 86th street facility, which is planned to be operated by Bronx-based VIP Community Services, is being developed by 86th Street NY LLC, and could house up to 150 single men experiencing homelessness, including those experiencing mental health challenges.

VIP will be providing an array of on-site services and off-site service such as case management, individual and group counseling, permanency planning and housing placement assistance, on-site medical, support groups, independent living and life skills workshops, and supports in finding and securing employment.

To address the safety concerns of local residents, it said there will reportedly be on-site security around-the-clock, promising a minimum of seven security staff per shift, with a total of 74 security cameras expected to be installed throughout the building and across the shelter grounds.

rally in gravesend
Protesters flooded the intersection of 86th Street and 25th Avenue to rally against the shelter on March 16. Photo ourtesy of Assembly Member William Colton’

In the face of Thursday’s protest, a DSS spokesperson said the agency looks forward to bringing this “vital resource” to the Gravesend community and is confident that when the shelter opens later this year that “these New Yorkers, who deserve the same dignity and compassion as stably-housed community members and every other New Yorker, will be warmly welcomed at the first-ever shelter in this community.” 

“Working together with our not-for-profit provider-partner VIP, we will be providing robust wraparound supports as dedicated staff work closely with shelter residents to help them stabilize their lives and move into permanent housing,” the spokesperson continued. “As we have always done, we will continue to maintain open lines of communication with the community and remain committed to ongoing engagement as we work collaboratively to support our neighbors in need.”

The Fair Share provision of the New York City Charter requires the city to equitably distribute services and facilities across all five boroughs – from libraries to facilities such as homeless shelters.

An audit by the Comptroller’s Office last year found that some neighborhoods have far more than their share of homeless shelters, with 40% of DSS shelters being located in community districts that already had a high concentration of shelter beds to the population living in the district. The analysis also shows that shelters have been consistently over concentrated in certain communities of color such as the South Bronx and East Brooklyn.

There are currently no shelters of any kind in Brooklyn Community District 11, where the 86th Street shelter would be located.

When asked about the absence of shelters in his district, Colton said that “the reality is that it is not fair to spread something bad.”

“They’ve spread it all over, and it doesn’t help the problem of homelessness. Let’s do something bold. Let’s do something different. Let’s try to help homeless people for a change,” said Colton. “If it brings about evil, no one should have it. So let’s stop opening new ones. And let’s start closing the ones that are there.”

“I don’t want to hear arguments by somebody saying, ‘Oh, you have to share it with everybody in the city.’ You don’t share evil things. You don’t share bad policies, you change them, you stop them and you change them. That’s what you need to do. And that’s what we demand happens here,” he added.

DSS said it is important that every community comes together to address the citywide challenge of homelessness by ensuring there are “safety net resources” across the city because “we know that New Yorkers experience homelessness in every community and many households are just a pay check away from falling on hard times.”

“We look forward to continuing to deliver on our mission to address homelessness with transitional housing programs like this which are vital to helping vulnerable New Yorkers stabilize their lives as dedicated staff work closely with clients to address their unique needs while making vital connections, including rental assistance and health supports, to position them for long-term housing stability,” a DSS spokesperson added. 

According to the Department of Homeless Services’ daily census, over 86,000 people slept in New York City shelters on the night of May 23. More than 14,000 of them were single adult men.

Hundreds waited outside the gates of City Hall during the morning press conference, Assembly member Colton joined them for a march around the park afterward
Hundreds waited outside the gates of City Hall during the morning press conference. Photo by Adam Daly

Colton previously led protests against a now-scrapped homeless shelter on Bath Avenue in 2021 — which was set to be built by the same developer behind the new 86th Street shelter, Tejpal Sandhu of The Sandhu Group.

Sandhu purchased the site at 2501 86th St. in Feb. 2023 for $4.8 million, and filed permits to build a 32-room hotel on the site last October. Colton accused developers of making a practice of building “so-called hotels in unexpected locations then leasing them to the city.”

When it comes to opening shelters, the DSS signs contracts for shelter sites with not-for-profit provider-partners, rather than the property owners or landlords. The department said it evaluates proposals submitted by not-for-profit service providers for use of specific locations as shelter to the DSS through an open-ended request for proposal process.

In case of the 86th Street shelter, the city is dealing only with VIP Community Services, rather than the developer.

Despite this, some developments with the intention of being shelters are moving ahead prior to the City officially signing off on them – to the dismay of locals who feel out of the loop. 

In the Greenwood Heights section of Sunset Park, residents have been banding together since construction began earlier this year to turn a hotel into a 300-bed men’s homeless shelter.

Documents filled by developers with the Department of Buildings suggest the site at 225 25th St. will be a “lodging house” operated by a not-for-profit and sponsored by the Department of Homeless Services. The DSS told Brooklyn Paper that this facility is not currently in their shelter pipeline.

Despite this, the Greenwood Heights Association is convinced that the site will end up being a shelter and launched a petition to fight the ongoing construction, saying it will place a disproportionate burden on Community District 7 which hosts an estimated 14 shelters.

“Our community, which already supports a significant number of shelters within one mile of this location, thinks that the addition of a 300+ bed facility will strain our neighborhood’s resources and infrastructure beyond capacity,” the group wrote in a letter to Mayor Adams.

Their calls to City Hall and their elected officials have so far gone unanswered they say, as they seek “meaningful engagement” on the issue.