By Tara Kyle
CHELSEA — The Bowery Residents Committee offered Chelsea stakeholders a tour of its controversial West 25th Street homeless shelter, now slated to begin moving in clients around July 1.
The new multi-service facility contains a 200-bed program for homeless men with histories of mental illness, a 32-bed chemical dependency crisis center and a 96-bed reception center for homeless men and women.
For nearly a year now, the project has inflamed passions around the neighborhood, with opponents arguing its bed count is out of scale with its East Chelsea surroundings. In the past few weeks, a group calling themselves Chelsea Moms has held several street-side rallies, with the latest scheduled for Thursday evening.
On Wednesday afternoon, BRC executive director Muzzy Rosenblatt walked stakeholders including members of Community Board 4, representatives of elected officials and staff from the Fashion Institute of Technology through the 12-story building.
The facility's residences, which will house up to 328 people in total, are divided into dormitory-style rooms, mostly of 24 or 25 beds each. Members of the press were not permitted to photograph the dorms, which face the back of the building and feature wood-framed twin-size beds divided by partial barriers into two-person sections.
“We want people to be able to sleep comfortably and safely,” Rosenblatt said.
Each bed comes lockable storage drawers beneath and adjacent to it. Clients also get a small locker featuring an electrical outlet, so they can sleep while charging their cell phones without worrying about theft. Windows open only three inches, in order to increase privacy for both clients and neighbors.
At present, the central concerns of CB4 include better understanding BRC's security plans, which include a video surveillance system and nearly 80 staffers assigned to security but also other duties. Rosenblatt promised that staff would conduct safety patrols of the block “with regularity, and with a certain lack of predictability.”
The Board is on record as supporting the reception and chemical dependency crisis centers, but not the 200-bed program. Last month, they held a turbulent community meeting attended by many members of the Chelsea Flatiron Coalition, a group opposing the shelter.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has also repeatedly called the facility too large for this corner of East Chelsea.
For his part, Rosenblatt has pointed to the help the organization provides to individuals like Julio Wharton, 53, who BRC outreach staffers met panhandling on a Chelsea block last winter. Wharton descended into homelessness and excess drinking last spring, after losing his wife, Catherine, to emphysema.
Today, Wharton lives at a BRC safe haven in Washington Heights. He said he has stopped using drugs completely, but while the drinking is down, he's still battling to eliminate it.
He'd like to visit his grandchildren in Florida, and get back to the "positive habits" he used to enjoy — fishing on the beaches of Rockaway, and cooking Spanish food like rice and beans, chicken and dumplings.
"I'm doing a little better… there are a lot of challenges out there for me," Wharton said. "I do need help, the groups and positive people to be around."