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Trading down: Williamsburg biz worries new homeless refuge will repel customers

Gimme shelter: The city is converting a chic Williamsburg hostel into a shelter for homeless men over 55 years old.
Community News Group / Dennis Lynch

Call it a shelter tax.

A new homeless men’s refuge opening in Williamsburg next month will attract crime and repel customers, undoing the hard work neighborhood entrepreneurs have put into turning a once sketchy area into a successful hub of commerce, a local business leader told city officials at a heated community meeting about the incoming facility on Tuesday night.

“Things are getting so much better now, why would you want to destroy what we’ve worked so hard to build up?” said Betty Cooney, executive director of the Graham Avenue Business Improvement District, who was born and raised in East New York and has lived in Williamsburg for 14 years. “I think you are doing a real disservice to this community.”

Around 75 people showed up to the meeting to grill local pols, city officials, and reps from shelter operator Project Renewal, which is turning the New York Loft Hostel on Varet Street, between Bogart and White streets, into a 140-bed refuge for men over 55 in September.

The city has pledged that the facility will have security guards there around the clock, a 10 pm curfew, a ban on sex offenders, and employ 24 locals, but some neighbors worry it will still cripple their trade.

The owner of one business next door claimed he had already lost a $15,000 event reservation because the would-be client read a news article about the shelter moving in, and he and other local traders demanded the city come up with a plan to compensate them for any losses or otherwise ensure it would not drive away business.

The reps countered that there is plenty of evidence that the two can coexist, citing economic booms in Harlem despite many facilities there, and in the Bowery, where Project Renewal opened its first shelter.

Other attendees berated officials for giving short-to-no notice of the shelter’s arrival — the city said it invited them to a meeting in July, but many say they only heard about it through the media last week — and asked how they can trust that the city really cares about the neighborhood when it did such a poor job of community outreach.

“You’re asking them to trust you and under circumstances where this was basically a done deal before most stakeholders in the area found out about it,” said former local Councilman Ken Fisher, to much applause. “It’s hard to establish any degree of trust.”

Not everyone was upset about the new addition to the nabe — several encouraged the community to show compassion for those in need, and one long-time community leader said people were freaking out prematurely by assuming their new neighbors will be criminals instead of regular citizens going about their days.

“The fact that they are coming here does not mean that the area will go down [and] crimes will go up,” said Lohoma Shipman, president of the resident association at the nearby Bushwick Houses public housing complex.

But others claimed the area is already housing its fair share of the city’s homeless population. There are four shelters across Greenpoint and Williamsburg, according to a 2015 DNA Info report — which is more than many Southern Brooklyn districts, which have zero, though far fewer than nearby Bedford–Stuyvesant’s 14 or Bushwick’s seven.

Councilman Antonio Reynoso (D–Williamsburg), who co-hosted the meeting, said he will support the shelter, but does want the city to spread facilities more evenly across the borough.

“Once the mayor puts forth a plan regarding equity — all kinds of equity — I think people would be a lot more accepting of these facilities,” he said. “But I am, because I know we are doing our part.”

Reach reporter Dennis Lynch at (718) 260–2508 or e-mail him at dlynch@cnglocal.com.

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