GREENPOINT—When the winter cold reaches brutal levels, St. Anthony of Padua Church swings open its doors and shepherds in shivering homeless people.
The emergency shelter is Slwek Mekola's one respite from 12 years of sleeping on Greenpoint Avenue — other than occasional hospital admissions for alcohol detoxification.
"I want to stop drinking," a watery-eyed Mekola said in Polish Monday night as he shoveled down chicken and rice in the church on 862 Manhattan Ave. "But whenever I get out of the hospital, I go back to the street and start again."
To combat Greenpoint's homelessness, the Department of Homeless Services has offered $100,000 to a church that would provide nightly accommodations.
But in six months, no congregation has stepped up.
Advocates say a permanent housing option for the area's homeless men and women — who can often be found hanging out in the northwest pocket of McCarren Park, among other spots — would help them battle their addictions. Almost all of the estimated 30 people are chronic alcohol or drug users, said Pat McDonnell, a coordinator with the Outreach Project for substance abuse.
McDonnell said most of them only speak Polish, so they fear leaving the neighborhood for another housing option.
But local churches say they have insufficient space or resources for a shelter.
"We're a really small congregation, we just can't take this on," said Pastor Ann Kansfield, whose Greenpoint Reformed Church, which runs a soup kitchen to feed the homeless, received the written offer of $80,000 to $100,000 for staffing and communal expenses for a year-long pilot program.
Kansfield and McDonnell said they then went to other churches, including the Church of Ascension, the Church of Divine Mercy, St. Stanislaus, St. Cyril and Methodius Church, St. Anthony of Padua, and Mt. Carmel.
All rejected the offer.
"We don't have space for a shelter," said Tadeusz Maciejewski, Pastor of St. Cyril and Methodius Church. He would not confirm he had received the proposal.
A staff member at St. Stanislaus, who asked not to be named, said they rejected the offer since they were "afraid because the church has a lot of valuables, because of theft and vandalism."
She also emphasized that their space was devoted to programs for children, and noted the work they do with Pro-Life Homeless, a group that provides the needy with blankets and warm clothing.
Local churches are indeed working with populations in need, McDonnell said, like Mt. Carmel, with its free daily bag lunches and a host of other services.
She said that Divine Mercy — a grouping of the parishes of St. Cecilia, St. Nicholas and St. Francis of Paola — seemed to have the most extra resources to take on the project, but rejected the offer.
A staff member from Divine Mercy did not immediately return requests for comment.
Council Member Stephen Levin, who has worked with the DHS on tackling homelessness in Greenpoint, said he could understand churches' hesitancy to open a full-time shelter.
"There's a lot of liability and responsibility taken on when a group agrees to do this," he said.
"That's why churches tend to be a logical partner, in that they have a mission cause, they focus on charity and looking after the most vulnerable in the community."
The city is still working with the community to identify an appropriate partner for the shelter, a DHS official said.
Currently the only stable housing option for the Greenpoint homeless population is through the organization Common Ground, said McDonnell. The group's 30 beds at the Greenpoint Hotel are all currently full, said Doug Becht, the program director of Common Ground's Street to Home program.
Additionally, residents must meet requirements of spending at least nine months on the street in the past two years.
DHS' proposed small project, however, would have no requirements for the local population to enter. McDonnell said that while many shelters require people not to be drunk or high if they want permission to stay, the local option would allow people under the influence to have a safe haven — a much-needed respite, but a significant challenge for the space and staff.
A longtime volunteer with the Greenpoint homeless, Eryka Volker said she wished the DHS would work to find the space, rather than leaving the task to the churches.
DHS has purchased a large building on McGuiness Boulevard where it is trying to open a 200-bed shelter that would serve homeless people from all over the city.
The shelter has met opposition both for residents' safety concerns and for the fact it could neglect homeless people living in the neighborhood.
"DHS could have done more than this for the local population," said Volker about the agency's offer. "They're depending on us, volunteers, to look around and find a place."
The occassional volunteer work at St. Anthony, which opens its shelter when temperatures drop below 24 degrees, is already taxing, said Roman Godlewski, who does the overnight shift.
Godlewski barely sleeps to keep vigilant watch of the group resting on the floor. He calls the operation a "survival shelter" to prevent another winter death in McCarren or McGolrick Park. Five homeless people died in the parks over a recent 15-month stretch.
"I always have to check on them, they have problems with alcohol, cigarettes," said Godlewski Monday night. "I sleep on the table like a soldier, with one eye closed and the other open."
For Mekola, the shelter provides a much needed break from the street, but until he beats his addiction he sees no long term hope.
"Alcohol killed my dream," he said, as he prepared to stretch a borrowed sleeping bag on the basement floor.