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Living on a prayer! Old First Reformed opens a homeless shelter

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Call it the undercover homeless shelter.

Park Slope’s Old First Reformed Church has quietly begun providing beds and showers to homeless men after allowing them to sleep in front of the Seventh Avenue church for years.

Rev. Daniel Meeter has long sought a balance between compassion and boundary-setting with the vagrants who sometimes turn his church steps into an encampment. This time, he says, he’ll find that balance through screening and rule-setting.

“These are not ‘street’ homeless guys; they are clean men who are trying to make their lives better,” said Meeter, adding that his clients are men who have recently lost jobs. “We want to help them.”

That’s not what he was saying four years ago after he discovered four homeless men drinking and even hiding a weapon behind a church wall, then angrily tossed out their possessions.

Meeter first tried to help the men — who he said had substance-abuse problems — by offering them food, drug treatment and jobs. He later felt betrayed after they lost control, began urinating, playing loud radio and making comments at passers-by.

It will be different this time, he said, because his shelter-goers must follow a curfew and an “early-to-bed/early-to-rise” regimen and prove to officials they are not dangerous.

The new lodging has some neighbors celebrating Meeter’s social activism while others are worrying about the safety of their kids near the church, which is within three blocks of eight schools and has a summer camp operating inside it.

“It’s nice to help people in need — but the problem is, where are they gonna go during the day?” said Erica Lee, who was walking by the church with her kids. “Are they going to hang around and drink in the park?”

Forty-five–year resident Fernando Perez agreed, saying there’s a fine line between turning the church into a shelter and the whole block into a bum hub.

“People don’t want the neighborhood to go down the drain again,” Perez said. “You open something like that and there could be trouble.”

Meeter addressed some of those concerns, saying the program operators won’t tolerate substance abuse and that they opened the shelter not to prevent people from sleeping on the steps — in fact, none of them are former stoop squatters — but to give the ones with a stronger chance of holding down jobs more opportunity.

The church had conversations internally about opening the shelter — but not with the community, in part, because leaders knew it might not go over well.

“We did it out of religious conviction — not to be popular in the community,” Meeter said. “We care more about what God thinks than what neighbors think.”

Indeed, while most of the men are from Brooklyn, only one is from Park Slope — a fact that irks some longtime homeless folks.

“What they doin’ is great, but they should cater more to the local ‘bums,’ as some people call us,” said Derrick McGlashen, a war vet who sometimes sleeps on the steps.

Meeter said any homeless person can get a bed, as long as he goes to the Drop-in-Center on Atlantic Avenue and goes through the proper procedures.

Meeter also said he was inspired to open the church shelter — which has passed inspections by the city and can skirt some building usage rules because it’s a place of worship — after getting frustrated with the lack of permanent solutions for the neighborhood’s homeless population.

That’s why he contacted Councilman Brad Lander (D–Park Slope), who hooked him up with the Church Avenue Merchants Businesses Association, which offers social services such as employment.

Officials at the agency — which also runs the women’s shelter at the Park Slope Armory — will screen participants to determine whether they are “a risk to themselves or others.”

A spokesman for the association did not return calls inquiring about the screening processes — or if standards would be different from its woman’s shelter on Eighth Avenue, where cops are often called and disturbing scenes frequently play out in public.

Lander apparently doesn’t think the smaller shelter will have the same challenges, voicing support via written statement.

“In such a great neighborhood, in one of the best-off cities on the planet, we have an obligation … to end poverty and homelessne­ss,” he said.

The church will offer 12 rollout beds in a hostel-like setting along with showers and dinner, at the towering stone building at Carroll Street on weekdays through the end of the summer.

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Reader Feedback

Benjamin Solotaire from Park Slope says:
This is a misleading article seemingly written to scare the people of Park Slope about the 'threat' of the homeless person. This is not a homeless shelter, it's a respite bed program. It's temporary lasting only until the beginning of September, and the men are only there for a few hours each weeknight, when I'm sure most people, especially the men themselves, would prefer they were off the streets.

I've spent two nights there and know for a fact that these men are happy to have a place to be even if only for a few hours.

This is a fantastic program staffed by generous volunteers from all over the neighborhood, not even mentioned, helping out some folks who are down on their luck for a variety of reasons. We should be more worried about what will happen to these men when the beds are gone and they have to go back to the streets.
July 28, 2011, 7:43 am
Sloper from PS says:
Welcome to the world of Natalie O'Neill, where even free ice cream cones would be a controversy.

It's sad that this community newspaper isn't interested in serving its community.
July 28, 2011, 8:35 am
David Greenberg from Park Slope says:
I am writing to echo what Benjamin Solotaire says about Rev. Meeter's program and this article. I stayed overnight at the shelter earlier this week, and the men were affable, appreciative and a pleasure to spend time with. Rev. Meeter has supported the cause of helping the homeless in New York City in various, constuctive ways for a number of years now and only deserves praise for what he has done. He is a wonderful member of the Park Slope community.
July 28, 2011, 9:19 am
Charles Sibirsky from Park Slope says:
Thank you Rev Meeter. As usual, you are really doing wonderful things in the Park Slope community. Do you recall I put together some jazz concerts at your church some years,decades?, ago to benefit the homeless? I'm willing to do it again. I'm reachable at slopemusic@gmail.com.
July 28, 2011, 9:37 am
Eric McClure from Park Slope says:
Reverend Meeter, the congregants of Old First, and the other organizations and volunteers working on this program deserve our support and appreciation. Homelessness is a serious, systemic problem that many of us fortunate to live securely in Park Slope don't have to confront.

Rather than worrying about whether homeless people are going to "drink in the park" or whether "there could be trouble," we need to be supportive of this noble venture. We have enough challenges to go around without inventing new problems.
July 28, 2011, 11:33 am
ReggieB from Park Slope says:
The homeless in park slope are a menace, urinating in public, hassling you outside of every grocery store for change. Opening up more beds for the homeless cant be a good thing. There are plenty of open beds in less desirable neighborhoods they can trek off too. If they spent half as much time begging for change as they did looking for a job or utilizing the existing programs they wouldn't be homeless. bums..
July 28, 2011, 12:23 pm
Tom from Park Slope says:
The above comments are naive. Follow the links to the issues at the womens shelter in the armory or the issues the church itself had dealing with the homeless only last year. The homeless are there for your handouts, frequently reject help and bring blight and trouble wherever they stay.
July 28, 2011, 12:29 pm
P from park slope says:
If you want an accurate description of what is happening at Old First, check out this Patch article:
http://parkslope.patch.com/articles/a-new-respite-for-homeless-at-old-first
July 28, 2011, 12:51 pm
R from Park Slope says:
did the author of the article even visit the respite shelter or even bother to learn what it really was? or does she just spit out spin to fire people up in the neighborhood?

read the patch description, they appear to have actually visited the respite shelter.

i have been there a couple of times and will add that most of the men who stay there have jobs but have fallen on hard times lately. i would be shocked if any of them loiter in prospect park or that you'll even find one in the area by 8 am.
July 28, 2011, 8:53 pm

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