Park Slope and the Homeless: Looking Back to Look Forward

Park Slope and the Homeless: Looking Back to Look Forward

Classic Christmas carols filled the room as shelter clients, community members, and friends shuffled into the Park Slope Women’s Shelter on a Thursday in early December. The crowd congregated for the shelter’s 21st Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony.

CAMBA, a non-profit agency, took over the Park Slope Women’s Shelter from the Department of Homeless Services in 1996. The 100-bed shelter is home to women who “experience psychiatric illness, substance abuse, and other issues,” according to the agency’s website.

In the years since, New York’s homeless population has reached a record-high 60,000 people, according to the Department of Homeless Services. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his five-year plan to “confront homelessness head on” by eliminating cluster sites and hotels—and building 90 new homeless shelters across New York City. Park Slope will likely be asked to carry its share of the load.

The mayor’s new plan calls for support from all community advisory boards, and he specifically cited Park Slope’s. “Every community has to be part of the solution,” de Blasio said recently on WNYC. “In fact, the community board I come from—Community Board 6 in Brooklyn—under our plan will see an increase in homeless shelter capacity, to align to the number of people who come from the community board who are in our shelter system.” Community Board 6 includes the neighborhoods of Park Slope, Carrol Gardens, Cobble Hill, Columbia Waterfront, Gowanus, and Red Hook.

With more homeless shelters on the way, one way to examine how de Blasio’s initiative will shake out in Park Slope is to look at how the neighborhood has fared with its existing shelter, the Park Slope Women’s Shelter.

The Women’s Shelter was originally a 70-bed facility. In 2013, it expanded to include 100 beds, and the announcement was met with some pushback from concerned neighbors. Park Slope residents feared that the Women’s Shelter staff did not have the capacity to accommodate the expansion, and that it would thus pose a risk to neighborhood safety. “The community voiced its opinion to the Department of Homeless Services, in conjunction with CAMBA,” said Carol Rubenstein, Vice President of Single Adult Shelter Services at CAMBA. “We had open dialogue with the community and talked to them about why the expansion was needed, what we would do, and how we would increase staffing to accommodate the expansion.” The conversation, some who took part in it say, was vital to getting neighbors get on board with the expansion.

Twenty-one years later and the Park Slope Women’s Shelter still strives to communicate with the community. Each month, CAMBA hosts a Community Advisory Board meeting, in which community members and local business owners can voice issues or concerns dealing with the shelter’s clients, and also hear about the shelter’s initiatives. The Women’s Shelter administration, representatives from the Department of Homeless Services, and the New York Police Department are all present during the meetings.

When issues arise, shelter officials say, the community members seem to want to resolve issues, but not to push shelter clients out of the neighborhood. “We’re fortunate to be in a community that welcomes the homeless,” said Rubenstein. “The Park Slope community has never said, ‘We don’t want you here,’ as compared to other communities that have said that.”

In October, neighborhood residents who live near the Park Slope Women’s Shelter organized a meeting to discuss what they called an upsurge of issues. According to the Bklyner news site, Barbara Barran, one of the residents who organized the meeting, said that the shelter  “has always been a good neighbor but that incidents of shelter residents aggressively panhandling, harassing residents and business owners, shoplifting, urinating on the streets and in the subway stations, and sitting on stoops and smoking marijuana have suddenly started to occur within the past several months.”

Park Slope Women’s Shelter 21st Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony | Photo by Chinyelu Onuora for The Brooklyn Ink

Additionally, some neighbors expressed concern about shelter clients “hanging out in the street” when they walk their children to school in the morning.

In response, the Park Slope Women’s Shelter  developed a plan, which includes posting security guards at the corner of its property. “We want to be good community members and respond to neighborhood complaints,” said Rubenstein. In addition, the shelter’s security team has begun patrolling surrounding streets every 15 minutes, recently increased from every 30 minutes, according to the Bklyner. Community members also have 24/7 phone access to the homeless shelter’s staff, including the directors.

More recently, when approached by The Brooklyn Ink, Park Slope residents have expressed neutral to positive sentiments regarding the Women’s Shelter. “I have lived near the shelter for many years and have been asked for a dollar on a few occasions,” said Val Stevenson, a Park Slope resident. “It’s no different from being asked for money in any part of the city or on the subway.”

“The increased patrols add a layer of safety and have eased my safety concerns,” said Beth Smith, 32, Park Slope.

The feedback CAMBA receives regarding the Women’s Shelter is not always focused on neighborhood complaints, according to Rubenstein. “We also receive accolades from the community,” she said. “They have said, ‘things have been quiet, you’re doing a good job.’”

And some community members, she said, seem to appreciate opportunities to help women in need. Community members volunteer at the shelter throughout the year. “We have volunteers who teach yoga, volunteers who help train clients for housing interviews and applications, and church programs that serve food and lead therapeutic groups,” said Rubenstein. “During this time of year, we have a lot more community members who want to donate.”

At the annual tree lighting ceremony, community volunteers were honored for their long-time commitment to supporting the shelter and its clients, such as Alice Braziller, who has been teaching a poetry workshop at the shelter since 2009. The shelter staff and clients also expressed gratitude for Sydelle and Stephen Gansl, who have shown support through donations as well as facilitating activities such as art and crafts.

The Women’s Shelter and Park Slope residents have experienced bumps along the road, but both parties seem to have been good neighbors for the better part of the last 21 years. Now comes the next step.

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