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Homeless Man Dies in Greenpoint Park Amid Cuts to Local Shelter Funding

By Meredith Hoffman | November 19, 2013 7:04am
 A homeless man was found dead in McGolrick Park last Thursday.
A homeless man was found dead in McGolrick Park last Thursday.
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DNAinfo/Meredith Hoffman

GREENPOINT — A homeless man froze to death in a Greenpoint park last week, which advocates say highlights the area's dire need for a shelter this winter.

The man — who police said died of the cold in McGolrick Park on Wednesday when the temperatures hovered above freezing — was part of the neighborhood's chronically homeless Polish population, many of whom suffer from alcohol addiction and avoid city shelters since they don't speak English, according to advocates.

"I came here and found out our friend had died last night," a formerly homeless local named Stanley, who declined to give his last name, said last week in Polish via a translator.

"Sleeping in the park is dangerous...It's too cold."

The homeless man died amid failed attempts to open a winter respite for Greenpoint's vulnerable population this year, advocates and elected officials explained, adding that two years ago several homeless people died from exposure in the parks.

"It's absolutely unacceptable for Greenpoint and the city to see men die in our parks and not do anything about it," said local Councilman Stephen Levin. "Already we've seen a tragedy this year, and it's time for our community to come together to identify a space."

Last winter, Levin and the North Brooklyn Homeless Task Force were successful in getting a nightly refuge inside a local church through a program funded by the city. Two of the men overcame alcoholism while there, and the neighborhood did not have any homeless people die from the cold in parks that year, advocates said.

In 2011, at least one homeless person reportedly perished due to hypothermia in the parks. However, Levin and advocates claim the number of homeless deaths from exposure is even higher.

This year, the city again offered money to run a community shelter — but since no local group stepped up, the funding was not provided, city officials said.

"Due to lack of available space for a respite bed program, the funding was reallocated to stabilization beds in the borough," a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Homeless Services said.

Homeless advocates said this information was not relayed to them and that they had still been working to find space for a shelter.

Pat McDonnell, founder of North Brooklyn's Homeless Task Force, learned of the funding situation the same day the homeless man died.

"I went to bed praying," she said about her nervousness after she learned about the cut from DNAinfo. "And this morning I wake up with this call that someone's passed away. We had several people die two years ago. People forget this? I don't understand."

After learning of the death in the park, McDonnell blasted what she called the city's disregard for Greenpoint's homeless population.

"The city took the money away from us and said they were going to have beds, but where was it last night?" she said, claiming that last year's church shelter never had problems with crime or safety.

The Department of Homeless Services spokeswoman said the city would have gladly funded a space for a local shelter, had an organization offered to open one.

Last year, the city allotted $100,000 for the shelter, which opened first in the Greenpoint Reformed Church and then moved to the Church of Ascension after neighbors opposed the program.

"The agency dedicated a great deal of time and resources to the two respite bed spaces last year, and it is unfortunate that neither church will continue the program this year," the spokeswoman said. "After many months of fruitlessly searching for a partner, Homeless Services reallocated funding to stabilization beds reserved for the street homeless in the borough as we best saw fit."

McDonnell also lamented that no space had taken on the responsibility of hosting the shelter. Two years ago, the city also offered funding for a shelter but no space agreed to take on the task.

The Greenpoint Reformed Church's leader, Ann Kansfield, said she wished she could host the shelter again, but that her block's opposition had made it impossible after a group of neighbors took their concerns about the shelter to local officials.

"It’s a tragedy that anyone in our great city and our great neighborhood has to sleep outside in the cold," Kansfield said. "Every year up until last year at least one person died in our neighborhood. We really need to find a sustainable solution for this population that is uniquely connected to Greenpoint."

As for the Church of Ascension as a potential location, Rev. John Merz said his congregation was in no position to open the shelter this year.

"We were very happy to be able to offer the church as temporary space last year," he said, "and we have been supporting and participating in local efforts to find a more sustainable option for the longer term."

Councilman Levin, who has worked on the issue of local homelessness for years, said he had faith that if the neighborhood found a space, the city would restore funding for a local shelter this winter.

"Right now space is an even bigger challenge than funding," he said. "I'm still hopeful we're going to get funding for a program in Greenpoint."

When some residents began learning of the homeless man's death, they insisted the community needed to unite more than ever to find a new source of funding and a space.

"Councilmember Levin says one of his proudest achievements is that we had no deaths due to overexposure last winter, and I echo that. We need to solve this as a community," said resident Teresa Toro, who attributed part of the neighborhood's opposition to the Greenpoint Reformed Church's shelter to a lack of communication about the plan.

"Already this year we've seen a tragedy, so I think we need to collectively come together as a community, identify a space and get those guys a bed."