Dozens of Crown Heights residents gathered on Bergen Street on Saturday afternoon, outside of an empty, 104-bed shelter for senior men that the city hoped to debut last month. A Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge blocked the opening two weeks ago, stalling one of the first new shelters outlined in Mayor de Blasio's controversial new plan to decrease homelessness.
Bolstered by their victory in court, neighbors marched through the neighborhood demanding a fair distribution of shelters across the city. They carried handmade "Tale of Two Cities" and "Crown Heights Is #Woke" signs, criticizing the Mayor for what they deem a saturation of shelters in low-income communities of color. Three of five recently-announced shelter facilities are slated for Crown Heights and Prospect Heights. In addition to the battle on Bergen, a new combination shelter-affordable housing complex planned for nearby Rogers Avenue is facing stiff opposition.
"Our community has been targeted, because it's a minority community, and that's unfair," said Ronald Straker, 58, who lives one block away from the 1173 Bergen Street shelter. "We're not saying we shouldn't get shelters, but not more than other communities. We're already oversaturated, and some communities don't have even one shelter."
According to city data, there are currently 15 shelter facilities in Crown Heights's community district eight. (Some residents cite 19 shelters, including part of neighboring community district nine in the count.) For context, district one, which covers lower Manhattan south of Canal Street, has two shelter facilities. District eight is 67.5 percent black, with a 26 percent poverty rate, according to the Daily News. District one is 79.9 percent white, with an eight percent poverty rate.
The Bergen shelter lawsuit argues that the city should be required to review "Fair Share" criteria in the City Charter, which mandates equal distribution of city services. The city has countered that it has completed the necessary Fair Share analysis, a process that does not require public input.
DNAInfo reports that Judge Katherine Levine acknowledged neighbors' concerns in court. "Why wouldn't they [the city] show good faith and decide to put one in Park Slope or Carroll Gardens?" she asked.
Park Slope's community district six has 267 shelter beds, according to the city, compared to district eight's 679.
Shelters decrease safety and quality of life, some neighbors have argued. "Can you guarantee us that none of these men ever sexually abused somebody?" Kimberly Riddick, 63, a Bergen Street resident of 31 years, asked Gothamist last month. Council Member Robert Cornegy, who says he's against the shelter at least until the city provides him with more context, has also accused the city of "not respecting their property values."
In an effort to keep homeless families close to their communities—schools, churches, friends—the mayor's plan hinges on distributing shelters proportionally to the number of people entering the system in each neighborhood. A DHS spokesman called the approach "better for our homeless neighbors" who can "stabilize their lives faster."
"Why are people who are from the community, who cannot afford rent, being punished?" said Dienane Fleurival, 29, at a recent meeting about the Bergen shelter. Fleurival works at a church across the street from the shelter, and accused some neighbors of being complicit in the gentrification that exacerbates homelessness. "This is their community, too."
According to DHS, the city plans to close five shelter sites in district eight, with 80 people across them, before year's end. Another two sites will close over the course of de Blasio's five year plan, serving 220 people. Taking into account a second new shelter planned for the district, at 174 Prospect Place, the city estimates a net loss of 100 shelter beds over five years.
But many neighbors remain skeptical. While the city insists that it provided adequate notice for Bergen Street, locals say the project was sprung on them, and that requests for community input ring false.
"What they don't realize about Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant is we're an educated electorate and we don't take things on face value," said Taio Belle, a Pacific Street resident. "We work hard, and we want the best for our community."
"This issue is complicated to say the least," she added. "A lot of us pride ourselves in this community as progressive individuals that care about social justice and being committed to our neighbors whether we know them or not. So when we see reporting that we're anti-homeless and anti-shelter, that hurts us to our core."
DHS spokesman Isaac McGinn stated on Sunday that the neighbors' lawsuit has "forced" the city to rent additional hotel rooms as temporary shelter, which have a reputation for inadequate services and poor security.
"Right now, at 1173 Bergen Street, there are 104 beds sitting empty that would give homeless seniors from Brooklyn the opportunity to be sheltered closer to the community they called home," he said. "And because we cannot use these beds, we've been forced to rent commercial hotel rooms."
"We remain committed to opening this facility as soon as possible," McGinn added.
Additional reporting by Scott Heins