Volume 74, Number 20 | September 22 - 28 , 2004

New policy is blamed for problems at shelters

By Ronda Kaysen

Villager photo by Robert Stolarik

Entering the Renewal on Bowery homeless shelter on E. Third St.

East Village residents see a new future for their neighborhood and it looks suspiciously like the notorious Bowery of the 1980s. Recent changes in the city’s homeless services policies have had a paralyzing effect on two neighborhood men’s shelters that specialize in drug and alcohol treatment, hindering the shelters’ ability to treat their clients and creating an intimidating environment in the neighborhood, according to homeless advocates and community residents.

Following the launch of Mayor Bloomberg’s new homeless policy — which, among other things, prevents care providers from transferring clients to other shelters — neighborhood residents singled out two Project Renewal-run drug and alcohol treatment shelters for men as the source of an increase in loitering, intimidation and crime.

“It’s been nightmarish,” said Stasia Micula, an E. Third St. resident for 26 years and chairperson of the E. Third St. Coalition, which was formed last year in response to mounting shelter concerns. “They [the shelter residents] intimidate you by crowding, using gang-like intimidation and walking on your heels. A couple of guys used to run out on the street and harass taxi drivers.” Micula has also witnessed men doing exchanges, “of what looks like drugs at night.”

Indeed, neighborhood crime rates are on the rise. Rape has increased by 36 percent since last year and burglaries have increased by 33 percent in the Ninth Police Precinct. Many neighborhood residents attribute the increase in crime to the men loitering about Renewal on the Bowery, a men’s shelter and drug and alcohol treatment center run by Project Renewal at 8 E. 3rd St, and Kenton Hall, another Project Renewal center around the corner at 333 Bowery.

George Payne, Renewal on the Bowery’s program director, balks at the allegations. “To say that the increase in robbery is due to the shelter isn’t fair,” he said. “There are so many programs in this neighborhood, to say that all of it is attributable to Project Renewal’s shelter is unfortunate.” Payne attributes the increase in crime to a denser — and more affluent — neighborhood population.

The Ninth Precinct did not respond to The Villager’s calls for comment by press time.

Project Renewal, a nonprofit homeless services provider, took control of the shelter at 8 E. 3rd St. in the early 1990s when it was known as the Third St. Men’s Shelter and was a homeless processing center for the entire city. At that time, 2,000 homeless adults passed through the shelter every day to receive food and wait for buses to shuttle them to other shelters throughout the city. “It was unbelievably out of control, all the unintended evils were concentrated around Third St.,” said Howard Hemsley, an E. First St. resident for 30 years and one of the founders of BASTA, a neighborhood coalition that helped transfer control of the shelter to Project Renewal.

Until Project Renewal took control of the facility and renamed it Renewal on the Bowery, the city had never ceded control of one of its homeless facilities to a nonprofit organization. “We got Third St. switched from a processing center to a fully serviced, self-contained residential center, which for years was a model of success and neighborhood cooperation,” said Hemsley. In addition to the 200-bed Renewal on the Bowery facility, Project Renewal now also runs a 100-bed facility for men, Kenton Hall, which, despite neighbors’ concerns, added a methadone clinic two years ago.

Project Renewal’s history in the Bowery community is a long one. In 1967, the organization founded a 48-bed alcohol detoxification program at the then-notorious Third Street Men’s Shelter, one of the nation’s first successful treatment programs for homeless alcoholics. With 12 centers throughout the city, Project Renewal is, according to its Web site, “the only organization in New York that provides everything homeless people need to move from the streets to independent living.”

The community was relieved the shelter had finally been brought under control. But, according to residents, something has recently changed at the E. Third St. center. “The Project Renewal we knew before looked like a military camp without uniforms,” said Micula. “You would see people go in disheartened. There would be support-group meetings out in the garden and cooking classes and then they would have these graduation parties and you would see people change. None of that is happening anymore. They don’t run a program anymore, they run a shelter.”

The changes taking place inside Renewal on the Bowery are the result of orders from above, according to Payne, the facility’s project director. “One of the changes happened a few months ago,” he said. “They [the city] made it more and more difficult to transfer people. We can’t screen and we can’t ask [clients] to leave if they don’t follow our rules.”

Payne is referring to an aspect of Bloomberg’s new homeless policy, which makes it more difficult for shelters to transfer clients to other facilities. The new policy is intended to encourage providers to work with clients rather than send them to another facility. Treatment providers can still issue transfers for individuals who are clearly in the wrong facility — such as a person with a severe mental disability who has inadvertently landed in a drug and alcohol treatment facility — but the new policy makes all other transfers more difficult.

“Client responsibility is leading to safer shelters and better outcomes for homeless individuals,” said Jim Anderson, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services. “We think that it is leading to safer environments in which the clients and the providers share responsibility for as expeditious a transfer to permanent housing as possible.”

Payne sees very different results happening at his shelter. “We have to tolerate more behavior. If there’s a street fight, we can’t say, ‘That’s it.’ Now we have to work with that person,” said Payne, who has been the center’s director for three years. “One of the tools — to send him elsewhere — has been taken away.”

Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for Coalition for the Homeless, sees the changes in transfer and selection policies as highly problematic. “Now the shelter gets sent residents whether or not they’re appropriate or whether or not they’ll agree to comply with the rules of the shelter,” he said. “If there is someone at the shelter who is not appropriate, [the providers’] hands are tied. Their backs are being forced against the wall.”

D.H.S.’s Anderson disagrees. “Shelter providers have a powerful tool to ensure appropriate behavior in shelters,” he said. “At its core, this new tool relies on caseworkers and social service staff engaging clients and transitioning them to permanent housing.”

The city has given shelters the option to evict unruly residents — providing the temperature does not drop below freezing — a policy that has outraged homeless-rights advocates, including Markee. However, according to Project Renewal’s Payne, even that option is almost unenforceable. “That’s quite a process,” he said. “You’re warned, you go to court, and you can appeal it.”

Community Board 3 recognizes Payne’s limitations and holds the city accountable for the deterioration of his shelter. “George [Payne] is doing the best that he can. He’s a seasoned professional, but he’s between a rock and a hard place,” said David McWater, chairperson of C.B. 3. “He has no disciplinary measures that he can take. If someone is physically violent, there is nothing he can do. He can’t throw him out; he can’t transfer him. If he’s not allowed to transfer a violent offender, he’s got almost no options, except to be beaten up.” Renewal on the Bowery employees have been physically assaulted by clients, according to McWater, although The Villager was unable to confirm the claim with Project Renewal.

The real problem is the city, according to McWater. “D.H.S. has refused to talk to C.B. 3. Only once did they ever send a representative to a community meeting and that person acted like he didn’t know anything about the controversy. I don’t know how you’re going to fight a city when the agencies won’t even respond to the community board.”

With the number of single adults in the shelter system nearing 8,500 — of those, nearly 6,500 are men — D.H.S is under increasing pressure to address the mounting homeless problem. Bloomberg’s five-year action plan calls for a two-thirds reduction in the homeless population over the next five years.

Lauren Bholai-Pareti, executive director of Council on Homeless Policies and Services, a coalition of nonprofit agencies that provides services to the homeless in New York City, supports the mayor’s vision, but also recognizes its limitations. “We’ve got to let the shelter programmers do their programs,” she said. “If you take somebody who’s not ready to deal with his addiction and you put him in a clean-and-sober program, he’s not going to benefit from the program and his presence is going to be a detriment to other members of the shelter.”

According to Bholai-Pareti, the new transfer policy has handicapped providers like Payne. “I’ve heard from shelter providers that the change in the transfer policy has made it really difficult for them to meet the needs of the people that their program is there to serve,” she said.

Some community advocates hold Project Renewal — in addition to the city — accountable for recent problems. “Project Renewal is the willing accomplice of the city,” said Hemsley of the former BASTA group. “City agencies are always looking to places to put unpopular programs. Project Renewal has a choice of accepting or not accepting contracts. They have a choice in appealing to the elected officials in the neighborhood in getting contracts modified.”

Project Renewal’s executive director, Ed Geffner, is committed to working with the community to keep his program effective. “Project Renewal has a longstanding commitment to the East Village community,” he said in an e-mail. “Over the years, we created a model program at Third St. and in the process we worked hard to build a strong and trusting relationship with the community — a relationship we are committed to sustaining. If there are currently some problems, our neighbors can rest assured that we are working to solve them.”

According to Payne, his center has increased staff, made the staff more visible, added lights in the yard and encouraged the Ninth Precinct to step up police presence. Despite all these changes, Payne sees his center and the clients who move through it as a vital — and longstanding — component of the East Village community. “The Bowery was there a long time ago,” he said. “It had alcoholics there before these stores with outdoor cafes opened up. These people exist in the city, there are homeless people in the city. Where else would these homeless people go?”

With additional reporting by Melanie Wallis

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