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George Washington High School Shelter to House Homeless When It Reopens

By Carla Zanoni | November 7, 2012 7:06am

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Students at George Washington High School will have to wait at least another day before returning to school as the city continues to use the building as a shelter in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

The Department of Education said the school would remain closed Wednesday, marking the eighth day it has remained shuttered since Sandy swept through the city last week.

The five high schools that operate out of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School and John Jay Educational Campus in Brooklyn will also remain closed Wednesday, the DOE said, while officials sort out issues including a viral stomach outbreak and too many evacuees housed in one shelter.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the DOE is working to consolidate people who need shelter. The department plans to reopen the school as soon as possible, he added.

"We have a responsibility to provide these individuals with a roof over their heads," Walcott said during an interview on NY1 Tuesday night.

The shelters, he added, house people "who need to have a shelter over their head, but also won’t be a threat to our students."

"I have a certain threshold that I have to have met to have students go back to these buildings,” Walcott continued, adding that he has been working with school principals “to ensure there are separate entrances and separate spacing."

The decision to keep students out of the GWHS campus was announced after approximately 85 men, women and children were brought to the school early Tuesday.

The campus, which houses four smaller high schools and a total student body of approximately 3,000 students, had hosted around 250 people over the weekend, but was empty by 9 p.m. Monday night and expected to close shortly thereafter, community leaders said.

Instead, the school has continued to be used as a shelter for people who had been homeless before the hurricane. The school had been originally used to shelter evacuees from the storm along with several homeless people from the city’s many homeless shelters.

Democratic District Leader Mark Levine said the city chose to make the school a shelter for those who had been homeless prior to the storm because of the complex issues that need to be handled in that community.

“George Washington High School is now only going to be used for the previously homeless to avoid the mixing,” he said. “A few of the residents had to be expelled from the shelter because of violent or disruptive behavior, and there were a number of times where there were security concerns.”

Levine said it is exactly those issues that should raise concerns about the city’s decision to bring school back in session when it still acts as a shelter.

“George Washington High School is only going to be used for homeless to avoid the mixing,” he said.

“This is a huge problem,” he added. “This is a school with 3,000 kids no less. I think there is real cause for concern if the homeless population grows more significantly.”

A spokeswoman from the Department of Homeless Services countered Levine’s concerns, saying crime was not a concern.

“Each hurricane shelter is staffed appropriately with security staff,” wrote Heather Janik, press secretary for DHS, in an email.

Concern about safety at the shelter is compounded by the fact that GWHS was named an Impact School earlier this year, meaning that crime had risen so much that additional NYPD school safety policing was implemented throughout the school.  

“We will have additional staff on hand to make sure that shelter residents remain in the designated shelter areas and do not have access to other areas of the school buildings,” wrote DOE spokeswoman Erin Hughes.

The DOE announced Tuesday that Brooklyn Tech, Hillcrest, Graphics, Susan Wagner and Tottenville high schools, which had been serving as shelters, will open for students Wednesday.  

Carolyn “CC” Blackburn, a volunteer at the high school, said that DHS had planned to close the shelter Monday night, but brought in 23 homeless men from downtown homeless shelters about 2 a.m. Tuesday.  

“The situation keeps changing,” she said, “but it seems that if your ultimate goal was to get back open you would try to find another facility to accommodate these folks so they can be kept longer.”

Blackburn said that confusion at the site points to a breakdown of communication between city agencies and difficulty deciding how to handle the influx of homeless people.

“The special workers have done a great job in trying to get them placed in more permanent homes, but right now we have a lot of vulnerable people who are even more vulnerable,” Blackburn said.

“It’s sad to see the homeless families coming in with little kids," she said, describing a family with scabies that had to be quarantined while treated. "Some are sick and don’t feel good.”

“Everyone is trying to help,” she added, referring to social workers, mental health professionals and community outreach specialist who have donated their time.  

“You have people who are in a tenuous mental situation. Some are down on their luck, but some have issues,” she said. “Workers are in there doing triage and trying to figure out who goes where.”