By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Around a dozen leaders of neighborhood groups, who’d been stunned to learn late last month that the city planned to open a “Safe Haven” shelter in Stuyvesant Square, finally got to hear from the shelter’s operator, BRC, at a meeting last week.
Those attending the meeting, which was specifically held for representatives of local organizations, seemed wary but open-minded about the new 28-bed facility that is supposed to open in a former Beth Israel AIDS hospice building at 327 East 17th Street. The meeting was held at Mount Sinai Beth Israel last Wednesday evening.
Representatives from the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association, the Stuyvesant Park Neighborhood Association and the Kips Bay Neighborhood Association were at the meeting and all wanted to know how the BRC, which runs the Safe Haven pilot program, would address safety concerns around the new shelter, especially because Safe Havens don’t have curfew requirements.
Safe Havens are aimed at helping chronically homeless people get off the streets and reintegrate into the community.
The takeaway message of the meeting, according to BRC (Bowery Residents Committee) CEO Muzzy Rosenblatt, was that the rules are actually less strict for residents of Safe Havens, than people staying at traditional shelters, but apparently, this is a more successful route with chronically homeless individuals.
For example, unlike at traditional shelters, Safe Haven clients don’t necessarily need to be sober to be included in the program. He said that giving clients more autonomy makes them more likely to succeed compared to programs at shelters with stricter rules. “Because we lowered the bar, clients were getting better because they could come in on their own terms,” Rosenblatt said. “In the last few years, we’re seeing lots more people who are unsheltered and they’re more fragile and more broken than those we’ve seen in a long time.”
Some community reps present at the meeting also wanted to know if the chronically homeless individuals who are already in the neighborhood would be able to participate in the new Safe Haven program.
“This is a quiet and accepting neighborhood and nobody bothers (the homeless in Stuyvesant Square Park),” SPNA member Ana Maria Moore said. “It would be nice to see some help for them.”
Rosenblatt said that there are specific requirements for qualifying for a bed in a Safe Haven shelter, such as being street homeless for at least nine months, but he said the programs would be able to give individuals from the community priority status.
KBNA member Karen Lee also noted that there are a number of homeless men who frequent the 30th Street Men’s Shelter who would likely benefit from the program but Rosenblatt said that because the Safe Haven program has specific requirements, those currently in the shelter system don’t qualify.
“Transfers from shelters to Safe Haven are rare,” he said. “There is a quantitative need (to qualify for Safe Haven), which requires nine months of street homelessness. Clients will sometimes self-select and live on the street for nine months to qualify and that’s tragic.”
STPCV-TA president Susan Steinberg asked Rosenblatt why BRC chose this specific location given the challenges of the space.
“Due to the restructuring with Mount Sinai Beth Israel, this facility might not be around in three years because the lease could end and the facility needs renovation,” she said.
Rosenblatt said that even if the shelter got kicked out of the space in three years, it would be worth it.
“It’s not ideal and we would prefer to find something longer but in three years we can help a lot of people,” he said. He added that given the scarcity of sites available, the renovations necessary on the building aren’t substantial.
“In the cost/benefit analysis, it tips the scales in a way that makes it worthwhile enough for us,” he said.
Concerning the strategy of the program, Rosenblatt said that many of their clients suffering from mental illnesses can benefit from stability and just having a bed, but over time also become more open to treatment options and rehabilitation. He noted that the rules at the Safe Haven shelters are more flexible because clients suffering from mental illness might not get the help they need if they’re turned away for breaking a curfew.
“We’re dealing with a fragile group of people and this isn’t (a walk-in shelter) but is for established residents,” he said. “It’s more conducive for keeping them in the program.”
He noted that because the shelter does not accept walk-in clients and assigns beds, the shelter is not likely to attract lines but if residents congregate in the neighborhood, the NYPD and staff at the shelter would work with the community to mitigate the problem.
Rosenblatt said that the opening day for the shelter depends on repairs, which include fixing an elevator in the building, but he noted that it will likely open after Labor Day.
The meeting at Beth Israel was also attended by Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh and Council Members Dan Garodnick and Rosie Mendez. It was organized by neighborhood groups with help from Community Board 6 though it wasn’t officially a CB6 meeting.
A member of CB6 explained that the community board frequently helps groups put together meetings like this when an issue is more geared to a specific neighborhood as opposed to the entire community board area, which runs from 14th to 59th streets on the East Side.