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In Out Of The Cold: Offering The Homeless A Warm And Safe Place To Sleep

by Lynda Crawford, Jan 01, 2001
 

"Did the weather come on yet?" one of the men asked. CNN was on in the hospitality room of BJ's place, a homeless shelter for ten men in the basement of the Community Church on East 35th Street. The men ate sandwiches, cookies and ice cream from a buffet spread and watched an endless parade of talking heads on television discuss politics.

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A few of the men expressed their own opinions, but it wasn't the news that really interested them. It was the weather. Silence came over the room as the cheery meteorologist spoke of temperatures going down to freezing that night.

BJ's Place at the Community Church is one of 140 shelters in the five boroughs coordinated by the Partnership for the Homeless which provides a warm and safe place to sleep for about 1400 men and women on any given winter night.

The majority of shelters take their guests from nine drop-in centers in the city that are funded by the Department of Homeless Services and mandated to take in anyone who would otherwise be out on the street. Once inside the drop-in center, it can take up to two weeks before getting a shelter placement. There are screenings for contagious diseases such as TB or infectious hepatitis, as well as psychiatric evaluations, and counseling. While waiting for a shelter placement, a guest can stay overnight at the drop-in center, but there are no beds. They can also go to one of the city's shelters, but many would rather not. Perhaps they were mugged there in the past. City shelters have improved in recent years but some of the homeless would rather wait for a private shelter or take their chances on the streets.

Outreach Team

"Homeless people are not freezing to death but a lot of them remain out there freezing," said Bill Appel, Executive Director of Emergency Services for the Partnership for the Homeless.

The Partnership for the Homeless has an outreach team called First Team that approaches homeless people on the street and encourages them to go to the drop-in centers. And First Team will keep track of those that don't come in to make sure they are alright.

"Starting in September, we come up with a list of people that are out there, vulnerable to elements," said Appel. "We note the different locations and check on them on a regular basis. There's a new location now on the West Side Highway from the lower West Village to about 20th Street where there are these large cement pillars in the middle of the street to redirect traffic; in between these tall pillars, some homeless people are staying. Even cars going by wouldn't notice that three or four people are existing within five feet of them."

First Team makes contact with the homeless, offering to give them a ride to a detox, a drop-in center or a hospital, depending on what they deem most helpful. But they do not bring clothing or food. "We do not try to enable people to remain on the street," said Appel. "Our objective is to get them inside. And if they are in danger of freezing, if it is below 32 degrees and they don't have shoes or a coat, if they appear to be mentally impaired, we call 911 to pick them up."

Residents to BJ's at the Community Church all came in out of the cold, either voluntarily or through the efforts of First Team, to a drop-in center on West 23rd Street known as Peter's Place, the only drop-in center in the city geared for the elderly and frail reclusive homeless people. "A lot of them were out there for years," said Bill Appel. That would be hard to tell by looking at them now.

A Night At BJ's

The ten guests arrived at BJ's about 8:30 in the evening. They had just had a hot meal at Peter's Place and were transported from there by yellow school bus. They entered cheerfully, as if happy to be home, and were greeted warmly by two women volunteers. The men were neatly dressed (donated clothing is available at the drop-in centers, some of it brand new) and polite.

They will get to return to BJ's every night for the rest of the week, Monday to Saturday. On Sunday the church has other uses for the room and they are sent elsewhere-if there is space. One of the men mentioned to the volunteer that he spent the previous night in a chair.

But tonight they are feeling good with a roof over their heads, a bed, clean linen, clean towels, and a welcoming atmosphere. The rules are few: They must sign in. No alcohol or drugs. Lights out at 10:30, up at 5:30. But there is one hard rule: even though they will be returning for the rest of the week, they are not allowed to leave any belongings behind.

PROFILE OF THE GUESTS AT BJ'S

Volunteer Sue Kistler drew up a profile of a few of BJ's recent guests:

PAUL, who has since found an apartment, was a scriptwriter for Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl, and Lenny Bruce, among others. He kept us in stitches with a steady stream of jokes--some good, some terrible.

GUY, born in New York in 1939, is a maintenance man who can always get our TV to focus. He has two daughters and a son, none of whom live nearby. Guy hopes to return to school when he finds a place to live. He is interested in the paranormal and wants to study electronics with the idea of finding connections.

MANUEL, born in Colorado but a New Yorker for many years, is an actor in TV, film and radio. A Native American, he finds himself inevitably typecast in films. Doing radio or voice-overs, however, his cultured tones evidenced years of theatrical training.

JOSEPH, born in Queens, lived there all his life until last year when his landlord raised the controlled rent by $25, which Joseph couldn't afford on his SSI. He has severe diabetes and is on disability, but is always smiling and willing to help.

"They'd like to leave something to say this is my place," explained volunteer Sue Kistler.

A retired teacher and editor, Sue Kistler has been a volunteer at BJ's for the last eight years, leaving her apartment in Murray Hill one night a month to stay overnight with the guests. She says she was bothered by seeing the homeless on the street ever since moving to the city nine years ago, but the day she came across a man who had frozen to death, she felt she had to do something. "He was lying right on the street," she said. "They had just found him."

Ms. Kistler admits she was nervous the first night she volunteered, but says she doesn't feel threatened at all now. Volunteers work in pairs, and they get their own room and bathroom. According to the Partnership for the Homeless, there has never been a threatening incident in the 18 years they have been coordinating the shelters. Interestingly, about 85 percent of the people on the street are men, and 85 percent of those who volunteer at the shelters are women.

"It is the only thing I'm doing that's useful," says Kistler. A few of the men stayed up after their snack and watched Monday night football, read the paper, talked or played scrabble with the volunteers. There's a little porch upstairs where they can go outside for a smoke. But most of them were eager just to go to bed.

BJ's Place was named after BJ Knowlton, a sailor who traveled all over the world but ended up homeless as a result of alcoholism. He went through the shelter system, sobered up, and was one of the first guests to stay at the Community Church in the early 80's. Before long he was running the shelter, keeping everything ship-shape and living there with the men, until he died two years ago at the age of 82.

The Way Back

The men are up early, having coffee and a light breakfast. A hot meal awaits them at Peter's Place. The morning news on CNN blares on about the Florida votes and the falling stock market. Meanwhile, the weather picture for the following night predicts wind chills in the minus numbers. The bus is there at 6:30 for their return trip to Peter's Place.

Some of the men work at jobs, but they don't earn enough to put together a deposit and a monthly rent. Some are enrolled in NetWork, a job training and placement program run by the Partnership for the Homeless. One of them mentions he will soon be moving into permanent housing.

"The objective of the drop in center is to move people into a living situation within nine months," said Bill Appel," and Peter's Place has a good record of doing that. But you're not going to be able to bring someone who has been out there five or ten years into permanent housing in five or ten days" says Appel. "There's a lot of mental illness, drugs and alcohol. They need extensive case management and networking with other agencies. It doesn't happen over night." vOver the years she has volunteered, Sue Kistler has seen many of the men at BJ's move on. "We don't have the same ten guys staying here this year that we did last year. But we do have several of the same ones we had in October.

"It's a very slow turnover," says Kistler. "But there is a turnover."

Related Resources:

(Jan '01) "Did the weather come on yet?" one of the men asked. CNN was on in the hospitality room of BJ's place, a homeless shelter for ten men in the basement of the Community Church on East 35th Street. The men ate sandwiches, cookies and ice cream from a buffet spread and watched an endless parade of talking heads on television discuss politics.

A few of the men expressed their own opinions, but it wasn't the news that really interested them. It was the weather. Silence came over the room as the cheery meteorologist spoke of temperatures going down to freezing that night.

BJ's Place at the Community Church is one of 140 shelters in the five boroughs coordinated by the Partnership for the Homeless which provides a warm and safe place to sleep for about 1400 men and women on any given winter night.

The majority of shelters take their guests from nine drop-in centers in the city that are funded by the Department of Homeless Services and mandated to take in anyone who would otherwise be out on the street. Once inside the drop-in center, it can take up to two weeks before getting a shelter placement. There are screenings for contagious diseases such as TB or infectious hepatitis, as well as psychiatric evaluations, and counseling. While waiting for a shelter placement, a guest can stay overnight at the drop-in center, but there are no beds. They can also go to one of the city's shelters, but many would rather not. Perhaps they were mugged there in the past. City shelters have improved in recent years but some of the homeless would rather wait for a private shelter or take their chances on the streets.

Outreach Team

"Homeless people are not freezing to death but a lot of them remain out there freezing," said Bill Appel, Executive Director of Emergency Services for the Partnership for the Homeless.

The Partnership for the Homeless has an outreach team called First Team that approaches homeless people on the street and encourages them to go to the drop-in centers. And First Team will keep track of those that don't come in to make sure they are alright.

"Starting in September, we come up with a list of people that are out there, vulnerable to elements," said Appel. "We note the different locations and check on them on a regular basis. There's a new location now on the West Side Highway from the lower West Village to about 20th Street where there are these large cement pillars in the middle of the street to redirect traffic; in between these tall pillars, some homeless people are staying. Even cars going by wouldn't notice that three or four people are existing within five feet of them."

First Team makes contact with the homeless, offering to give them a ride to a detox, a drop-in center or a hospital, depending on what they deem most helpful. But they do not bring clothing or food. "We do not try to enable people to remain on the street," said Appel. "Our objective is to get them inside. And if they are in danger of freezing, if it is below 32 degrees and they don't have shoes or a coat, if they appear to be mentally impaired, we call 911 to pick them up."

Residents to BJ's at the Community Church all came in out of the cold, either voluntarily or through the efforts of First Team, to a drop-in center on West 23rd Street known as Peter's Place, the only drop-in center in the city geared for the elderly and frail reclusive homeless people. "A lot of them were out there for years," said Bill Appel. That would be hard to tell by looking at them now.

A Night At BJ's

The ten guests arrived at BJ's about 8:30 in the evening. They had just had a hot meal at Peter's Place and were transported from there by yellow school bus. They entered cheerfully, as if happy to be home, and were greeted warmly by two women volunteers. The men were neatly dressed (donated clothing is available at the drop-in centers, some of it brand new) and polite.

They will get to return to BJ's every night for the rest of the week, Monday to Saturday. On Sunday the church has other uses for the room and they are sent elsewhere-if there is space. One of the men mentioned to the volunteer that he spent the previous night in a chair.

But tonight they are feeling good with a roof over their heads, a bed, clean linen, clean towels, and a welcoming atmosphere. The rules are few: They must sign in. No alcohol or drugs. Lights out at 10:30, up at 5:30. But there is one hard rule: even though they will be returning for the rest of the week, they are not allowed to leave any belongings behind.

PROFILE OF THE GUESTS AT BJ'S

Volunteer Sue Kistler drew up a profile of a few of BJ's recent guests:

PAUL, who has since found an apartment, was a scriptwriter for Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl, and Lenny Bruce, among others. He kept us in stitches with a steady stream of jokes--some good, some terrible.

GUY, born in New York in 1939, is a maintenance man who can always get our TV to focus. He has two daughters and a son, none of whom live nearby. Guy hopes to return to school when he finds a place to live. He is interested in the paranormal and wants to study electronics with the idea of finding connections.

MANUEL, born in Colorado but a New Yorker for many years, is an actor in TV, film and radio. A Native American, he finds himself inevitably typecast in films. Doing radio or voice-overs, however, his cultured tones evidenced years of theatrical training.

JOSEPH, born in Queens, lived there all his life until last year when his landlord raised the controlled rent by $25, which Joseph couldn't afford on his SSI. He has severe diabetes and is on disability, but is always smiling and willing to help.

"They'd like to leave something to say this is my place," explained volunteer Sue Kistler.

A retired teacher and editor, Sue Kistler has been a volunteer at BJ's for the last eight years, leaving her apartment in Murray Hill one night a month to stay overnight with the guests. She says she was bothered by seeing the homeless on the street ever since moving to the city nine years ago, but the day she came across a man who had frozen to death, she felt she had to do something. "He was lying right on the street," she said. "They had just found him."

Ms. Kistler admits she was nervous the first night she volunteered, but says she doesn't feel threatened at all now. Volunteers work in pairs, and they get their own room and bathroom. According to the Partnership for the Homeless, there has never been a threatening incident in the 18 years they have been coordinating the shelters. Interestingly, about 85 percent of the people on the street are men, and 85 percent of those who volunteer at the shelters are women.

"It is the only thing I'm doing that's useful," says Kistler. A few of the men stayed up after their snack and watched Monday night football, read the paper, talked or played scrabble with the volunteers. There's a little porch upstairs where they can go outside for a smoke. But most of them were eager just to go to bed.

BJ's Place was named after BJ Knowlton, a sailor who traveled all over the world but ended up homeless as a result of alcoholism. He went through the shelter system, sobered up, and was one of the first guests to stay at the Community Church in the early 80's. Before long he was running the shelter, keeping everything ship-shape and living there with the men, until he died two years ago at the age of 82.

The Way Back

The men are up early, having coffee and a light breakfast. A hot meal awaits them at Peter's Place. The morning news on CNN blares on about the Florida votes and the falling stock market. Meanwhile, the weather picture for the following night predicts wind chills in the minus numbers. The bus is there at 6:30 for their return trip to Peter's Place.

Some of the men work at jobs, but they don't earn enough to put together a deposit and a monthly rent. Some are enrolled in NetWork, a job training and placement program run by the Partnership for the Homeless. One of them mentions he will soon be moving into permanent housing.

"The objective of the drop in center is to move people into a living situation within nine months," said Bill Appel," and Peter's Place has a good record of doing that. But you're not going to be able to bring someone who has been out there five or ten years into permanent housing in five or ten days" says Appel. "There's a lot of mental illness, drugs and alcohol. They need extensive case management and networking with other agencies. It doesn't happen over night." vOver the years she has volunteered, Sue Kistler has seen many of the men at BJ's move on. "We don't have the same ten guys staying here this year that we did last year. But we do have several of the same ones we had in October.

"It's a very slow turnover," says Kistler. "But there is a turnover."

Related Resources:

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