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A Look Inside Chelsea's Controversial Homeless Shelter

By Mathew Katz | August 22, 2011 7:32am

CHELSEA — At a community input meeting to discuss the Bowery Residents' Committee new homeless shelter and treatment facility, Executive Director Muzzy Rosenblatt said he knew things were getting out of hand when a parent asked him if he could guarantee that the facility's patients wouldn't rape her children.

"The real vitriol is disturbing and unsettling and unfortunate," he said. "I don't know what drives this perception."

At stake is the BRC's 12-floor, 328-bed new facility at 127 W. 25th St, which DNAinfo toured recently.

For months, the BRC's new shelter has come under attack from homeless advocates who say it's too big, and community members who don't want a shelter down the street. The latest to come out against it has been the City Council, particularly Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Last week, the council filed a legal memo opposing the shelter in a case against it.

"History has shown that super-sized shelters such as the one that BRC has proposed to operate at 127 W. 25 St. do a disservice to both the homeless and the community at large," Quinn wrote in a letter to her Chelsea constituents.

The BRC provides shelter and assistance to the homeless, particularly people with substance abuse problems and the mentally ill.

But the new facility has many of the amenities of a modern hotel — or at least a hostel. It's roomier than the BRC's current facility on Lafayette Street. The old shelter had much of the grit of the old Bowery area, with scratched hardwood floors and small rooms. The new one is bright, colorful, and sterile.

There are rooms for art therapy, yoga, and group therapy sessions. Clients can enjoy some downtime on the rooftop patio. Dorm rooms are outfitted with 'chisholms': small, lockable cubbies meant for cell phones, complete with electrical outlets.

Opponents of the shelter, including the City Council, cite a city law that limits the size of shelters to 200 beds to prevent overcrowding.

"It would be a huge step backward, moving toward large warehouse-style shelters," Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, said last month.

But Rosenblatt pointed out that the new facility has more space per bed. The BRC's chemical dependency crisis center on Lafayette had 24 beds in 4500 square feet. The new one is 32 beds in an 8000 square foot space. That part of Chelsea shelter has already opened, with the rest of the Lafayette facility transferring over in the next few months.

The shelter is nearly complete, with most beds already set up. It has a massive kitchen and cafeteria with a walk-in refrigerator and freezer. Staff monitor rooms and hallways 24 hours a day from computers that can access any security camera in the building.

The BRC's administrative offices will soon move to Chelsea as well. Rosenblatt says he relishes being among the people the organization helps. Partway through the tour of the new building, an angry client approched Rosenblatt to complain that his meals were being rushed.

Rosenblatt immediately put the tour on hold, sat down and spent several minutes reassurring the man that his complaints would be dealt with, and also counseled him on dealing with his anger.

While he said he didn't want to view the controversy surrounding the new shelter about the affluent neighborhood it's in, Rosenblatt admits that there's likely some NIMBYism in the opposition to it.

"It's a very small number of rich people fighting that which they don't know," he said.

In June, the BRC hosted a $600-a-plate fundraising gala called 'YIMBY' — for 'Yes in My Back Yard.'

New York Supreme Court Justice previously denied a preliminary injunction against the shelter, ruling that the City could invoke an exception in the 200-bed law. The case is still ongoing.

Despite facing opposition from one of the most powerful politicians in the city, Rosenblatt is confident the shelter will be able to move forward.

"In the end, I believe in blind justice," Rosenblatt said.