Despite housing less than one percent of the city’s homeless population, a group of Brighton Beach demonstrators protested on Sunday outside the mayor’s Gracie Mansion home against an incoming shelter for the unhoused — saying their neighborhood couldn’t handle the influx of displaced New Yorkers.
“Of course the homeless need to be dealt with compassion and care,” said Republican City Council candidate Inna Vernikov, who’s running for the Brighton Beach seat currently held by term-limited Councilman Chaim Deutsch. “But we cannot accomplish helping the struggling while hurting our children and our neighborhood.”
Brooklyn’s Community Board 15, which encompasses Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay, Gravesend, and Gerritsen Beach is home to just 0.4 percent of shelter beds in New York City, despite representing 1.69 percent of the total population within the Five Boroughs.
The proposed Brighton Beach shelter comes as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Turning the Tide” initiative, which seeks to spread New York’s homeless shelter capacity evenly across the city, rather than clustering unhoused city dwellers in low-cost neighborhoods, as Hizzoner’s predecessors often did — all in an effort to rehabilitate those who have fallen into poverty by providing them with services focused on getting people back on their feet.
Still, the 170-bed men’s shelter proposed for 100 Neptune Ave. near Brighton 10th Street has sparked controversy since it was announced in late December. Some critics have argued that the site is not fit for housing, since the land may be contaminated by an auto shop and garage that operated on the site for years, while others have found fault with the shelter’s service provider, CORE, which has been issued violations for some of its other shelter facilities.
Locals have also criticized the homeless people the shelter would house, arguing at a heated community board meeting in January that the facility would lower property values and pose a threat to children who attend nearby schools.
Local Councilman Chaim Deutsch, who has echoed some of these concerns, started a petition shortly after the proposal’s announcement that calls on the city to scrap the plan in part because “the proposed site is mere steps away from half a dozen schools, as well as within a five minute walk of two city playgrounds.” But during Sunday’s protest outside Gracie Mansion, the outgoing councilmember changed his tune, focusing instead on how the shelter system allegedly fails the homeless.
“These congregate shelters are not the solution, are not the answers for homelessness,” said Deutsch, who represents Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay, Midwood, and Marine Park. “I spoke to the people who are in these homeless shelters, and they told me the resources aren’t there, the services aren’t there.”
Deutsch, who organized Sunday’s protest, said that he proposed a plan to Mayor Bill de Blasio six years ago that would expand permanent housing for homeless seniors, but that the mayor has not implemented it. Instead, the administration has opened “congregate shelters,” temporary housing that offers homeless residents social services, job training, and a private room with shared facilities.
“When the city doesn’t move on permanent housing plans, and all of a sudden they come in with congregate shelters, it’s unacceptable because the first option — and the best option — is permanent housing,” Deutsch told Brooklyn Paper. “Many of the homeless don’t want to be in these congregate shelters because it’s not healthy for them.”
Deutsch said he wouldn’t protest if the city signed a short-term lease for a new shelter, but stressed that the mayor’s decision to open 90 community-based shelters by the end of the year now ties the hands of a future administration seeking to reform the system.
“We’ll let the next administration come up with their own plan,” he said.
Deutsch’s district currently contains rent-subsidized Mitchell-Lama housing, but Deutsch said he was not aware of any permanent housing for the formerly homeless.
More than 100 protesters attended the March 7 demonstration, including locals from Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach, and the Upper East Side against the incoming congregate shelters near them, as well as several Council candidates vying for Deutsch’s District 48 Council seat.
Councilmembers Robert Cornegy and Robert Holden, who were slated to attend the protest, did not show up. Deutsch said he didn’t know why they didn’t come, and their representatives did not respond to requests for comment. Reverend Kevin McCall, founder of Brownsville’s Crisis Action Center, who was also advertised to speak on the event poster, apparently did not attend because of a medical emergency, Deutsch said.
One attendee from Brighton Beach said he would support the shelter if it provided permanent housing, and added that he didn’t believe people in the city’s shelter system are treated well.
“Back in Russia, I was almost homeless,” said Paul Kptsam. “I would never want them to live like that and put them in like a prison. It shouldn’t be in a place where they will not be treated like human beings.”
Another local, however, said he was primarily worried that the shelter would hurt the neighborhood.
“Wherever there is a homeless shelter, there is always something happening. It brings crime to the neighborhood” said Alexander Katsnelson, who said he runs a hardware shop in Midwood and lives in Sheepshead Bay. “We don’t want our kids to be exposed to this stuff.”
A spokesman for the Department of Homeless Services said that claims that shelters treat residents poorly or cause spikes in crime are false and serve to perpetuate discrimination against New Yorkers experiencing homelessness.
“These egregious claims are simply not true – in fact, not only are they false, but they further actively stigmatize the experience of homelessness and mislead the public about the important work that service providers do to help New Yorkers in need get back on their feet every day,” said Isaac McGinn.