PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Nearly a month ago, a women's homeless shelter opened in Brooklyn — and hardly anyone noticed, including many of its neighbors.
The reaction is in stark contrast to other areas in the city including Crown Heights where residents are pushing back hard — at public rallies and in the courts — to keep any of the 90 new shelters planned by Mayor de Blasio's administration from opening nearby.
Two proposed homeless shelters in the area, one for 132 families on Rogers Avenue and another for 104 men on Bergen Street, are among the first five shelters to open under the mayor's plan to overhaul shelter facilities. And each has been met with stiff resistance from locals in the six weeks since the city's announcement.
But amid the controversy, dozens of homeless women quietly moved in to a new facility in nearby Prospect Heights, without a peep of protest or pushback from neighbors.
In fact, residents on the block hardly noticed the shelter for 90 women with mental health issues at 174 Prospect Place, which on March 17 became the second to open under de Blasio’s shelter plan. Multiple people living on the tree-lined street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues weren’t aware the handsome limestone apartment house was a shelter. Others had heard about the opening through a block association.
But, either way, everyone seemed quite unconcerned.
Jill Fenichell, an antiques dealer who lives with her husband, son and 91-year-old mother across from 174 Prospect Place, said she's had no issues with the shelter, which had formerly been used for years as a drug rehabilitation center under a separate nonprofit, Phoenix House.
She said she thinks there’s a stereotype that homeless people may be “dropped from the sky without any oversight,” but “it’s very obvious that’s not what’s going on” on her block.
“It’s New York. Everyone’s got a NIMBY thing. But this doesn’t seem to be a problem,” she said.
“I didn’t notice any difference,” said one woman who has lived next door to 174 Prospect Place for years, but didn't want to give her name.
Laini Lane, another neighbor, didn't notice the opening either, she said as she stood outside her Prospect Place home of seven years. Other than seeing a few new female faces on her block lately, she hadn't seen any change since the shelter's opening and was encouraged by its mission.
“There’s too many people out on the streets,” she said. “We need more facilities where people are taken care of instead of just being tossed out … with the mental health issues, especially.”
A large majority of New Yorkers living on the street have mental health issues or other health problems, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. Within shelters, about 70 percent of residents are families with children, of which a vast majority are headed by single women, according to the DHS. Currently, about 6 percent of the record-high 62,000 people in shelters are single women without children, Coalition statistics show.
On Prospect Place, residents have been empathetic and, for the most part, open-armed to their new neighbors, according to Lee Warshavsky, a block association member who has lived on Prospect Place since 1995. Last May, Warshavsky hosted a meeting between residents and the shelter’s operator, the nonprofit Center for Urban Community Services, in his living room when CUCS first approached the block about the project.
The mood then “was a combination of welcoming and asking questions,” said Warshavsky, who also works as the general counsel at Settlement Housing Fund, which operates a shelter on St. Johns Place in Crown Heights.
One or two people were wary, he said, but overall residents were open to the idea — and some asked how they might volunteer there.
“At the end of the meeting, everyone basically said ‘Great. We’re all in support and let’s send a letter to Community Board 8,’” he said.
Tony Hannigan, president of CUCS, said that first conversation ended with residents asking “how they could be helpful,” including pitching in with gardening the shelter’s backyard.
“It’s completely civic-minded,” he said.
The reaction is notable to those keeping track of the rollout of de Blasio’s Department of Homeless Services overhaul, particularly in central Brooklyn where the controversy is most heated.
Local critics frequently say their neighborhood is already oversaturated with shelters. But the city counters with the fact that Community Board 8's area — where 174 Prospect Place and 1173 Bergen St., the controversial men’s shelter now embroiled in a lawsuit, are located — will see a net reduction of 100 beds with the closure of seven shelter sites by 2021, DHS said.
Human Resources Commissioner Steven Banks told DNAinfo New York on Wednesday, it’s important the city place people in shelters close to where they last had an address so they can be near family, schools, churches and other support networks, he said.
“As you see from Prospect [Place], there’s no change for neighbors. There’s a significant change for the clients that are going to be housed in the communities, in the boroughs, from where they lost their housing,” he said.
Residents on the Prospect Heights block are sympathetic to the sentiment. Warshavsky encouraged those with concerns about shelters to “ask hard questions,” but said he thinks "we all have to help."
“I read statements by community board members — not here, but in other parts of the city — saying ‘Don’t even think of putting a shelter in our community.’ And I think, how can you be so selfish? There are homeless people coming from all over the city,” he said.
According to Sara Clark, another Prospect Place resident, the block actually feels more safe with the shelter there because of its 24-hour security. Overall, she is welcoming of the new facility and keeps in mind its residents with mental health issues “don’t choose that.”
“These people don’t want to be mentally ill and institutionalized. So, you know, you have to open your heart,” she said.
Banks said, overall, even where there are controversies at new shelters, they ultimately "become non-issues" as they become integrated into the community. And while some planned shelters become notorious — like the facility in Maspeth, Queens that folded under community pressure last year — there are far more that become part of a neighborhood without a fight, he said.
For example, he said, as the battle raged in Maspeth, the city opened eight other shelters without controversy last year.
“I think there’s altogether too much focus on disputes and not enough focus on the fundamental compassion of New Yorkers," he said.