A House Full of Grandpas

Not too long ago, a lot of people in my community were angry. The City was renovating a small building with plans to turn it into a 110-bed homeless shelter. People were angry because the City seems to think the nickname for this community is “home for the homeless.” We have a disproportionate number of shelters here. This is especially glaring when viewed in comparison with the number of shelters being added in our Mayor’s home nabe: ZERO.

I understood my neighbors’ concern and—because the new shelter was being set up less than a block from my house—I understood the heightened concern of my most immediate neighbors. And to a degree, I shared their worries.

Almost 30 years ago, I worked at a homeless shelter. By interesting coincidence, it was in this neighborhood—Crown Heights, Brooklyn—not too far from where I now live. It was a large facility and was what is called a Tier 2 shelter, which meant it was for families and provided apartments rather than barracks- or dorm-style accommodations. I was there to teach a GED class.

The shelter wasn’t a great place. The building was well-kept, but the care and services provided were distracted and impersonal at best, disjointed and uncaring bordering on counterproductive and detrimental at worst.

The shelter was in a part of the neighborhood that was more than a little run down and not particularly inviting. My students were mostly women in their twenties and thirties with one or two or four small children. Most were made homeless when their relationships with men soured. Frances had lost her home to a fire. Carolyn had learned after her parents’ deaths that there was a massive lien against her family home and she had to vacate so it could be sold to pay that debt. Tiffany’s father had kicked her out when she could no longer hide her pregnancy, and Yohaira’s mother had put her in the street when she’d refused to put her baby up for adoption. Tonya was rumored to have a drinking problem—I will admit that I loved that the women who mentioned this to me actually said, “drinking problem,” so old-fashioned and prim. She was also rumored to have a man in the building next door. Tonya was as dramatic as we got in our group.

The renters and homeowners in the neighborhood seemed not to give the ladies and their kids a second thought—at least not in ways that I was likely to notice. And, too, I was only on site a few hours a day. Every once in a while, however, ugliness would bubble to the surface … or walk right up and smack me in the face.

As I walked to the train after class one day, a woman stopped me and expressed surprise at seeing me coming from the shelter: “You live here?” she asked.

I explained that I was teaching a GED class for the residents. More surprise.

“Whores need diploma nowadays?”

And then the surprise was mine.

It turned out that a lot of people in the community thought the shelter was a brothel of sorts. My students told me about daily harassment when they were on the street—interest from men, anger from women. “Even when I’m with my babies,” Florence said. “These people have no shame.”

Now, yes: there were those rumors about Tonya and the man from next door. And yes: it was certainly true that then (like now, to be honest) I could be entirely oblivious to things going on around me, I was pretty sure there was no truth behind that idea. But the residents of the neighborhood were faced with a building full of people they’d rather not have to welcome into the community. It is, unfortunately, somewhat natural, predictable, that anyone who disapproved of the shelter would imagine whatever they could imagine as the least desirable truth about the place. And that they’d work to spread that story to ensure the universal dislike of the shelter and its inhabitants. What easier conclusion to leap to when looking at a building full of young women? The brothel story shouldn’t have surprised me at all.

I heard a lot of stories about the shelter being built down the street from my house, too. It would be a shelter for young men, for young men with mental health problems, for young men in drug treatment, for men returning from prison, for young men with mental health problems who were returning from prison and dealing with addiction. You get the idea.

I get why the mix of descriptions would concern people. Young men, ex-offenders, the mentally ill, people dealing with addiction … they all come with any number of negative things we’ve been taught to believe and fear and distrust about them.

And I’m not saying I’m all saintly and above falling for that. I was concerned about who would be moving in. In my heart of hearts, I wanted the building to go back to being a daycare center, which it had been when I moved to the neighborhood ten years ago. Maybe some fun after school programs could be run from there. Maybe there’d be a nice indoor home for the adorable pre-adolescent drum corps and color guard who practiced on the roof next door. (Also, I don’t lock my front door, and having a building full of ex-offenders down the street made me worry that I’d have to start.)

As much as I love my homey, family-full neighborhood just as it is, as much as I think other communities should share the responsibility of housing the City’s homeless population, it was hard for me to be full-on anti shelter.

New York has an enormous homeless population. Our Mayor has promised to deal with it somehow and deal with it better than mayors past. But we’re talking about housing more than 60,000 people. That’s an entire town’s worth of people—it’s roughly the total population of Delray Beach or Utica, Palo Alto or Des Plaines. Finding housing for a whole city’s worth of people is a herculean task. And there aren’t, as far as I know, any neighborhoods anywhere in the city opening their arms wide and looking to embrace homeless New Yorkers. And we don’t have near enough affordable housing stock … and even if we did, people don’t usually go directly from homelessness to fully-independent apartment living. There are steps to stability that need to happen. And placement in a residential shelter is an important step (although I’ll admit that I am very much enamored of the Housing First model that has had a dramatic impact in places like Salt Lake City and Milwaukee).

I’m not mad at my neighbors for their concerns, which—unfairly—are very NIMBY-sounding. How could I be angry with my neighbors? I totally understand where they’re coming from. But I’m also thinking about the possibility—the likelihood?—of my eventual homelessness. Yes, I’m sure that’s some over-dramatic catastrophizing. Brought on, no doubt, by the stress of learning that I have to leave my beautiful and beloved apartment and seeing how slim and distasteful the pickings are out there in Apartment Hunting Land.

Still. I think about how old I am and how I haven’t managed to accumulate really any wealth at all. I think about the fact that I will surely not have a pleasant retirement because I won’t have a retirement at all because I will be working until the day I die.

And then I think what neighborhood will welcome my tired, aging, broke ass when that time comes? How far away from the world will I be forced to live because no one wants destitute poor folks bedding down near their beautiful, expensive homes?

Yes, obviously that is crazy talk. I have a number of options before homelessness. Many options. But this is where my brain goes. It’s hard to down-talk the homeless when you think you’re going to join their ranks eventually.

Back in the real world, there were town hall meetings and protests. And when those were finished, the City moved right along with its original plan. The shelter opened a few months ago.

I don’t know if our new neighbors, the shelter residents, are dealing with drug addiction or if they have histories of mental illness or incarceration. What I do know is that they are all older men. Some are quite old. It’s early days, sure, but so far I’d say the net effect of the shelter’s opening has been to increase the population of grandfather-y men in the neighborhood. Most of them (like me) walk with or carry canes. I see them as I walk to the bus stop or the bakery, making their sometimes slow, sometimes shuffling way up the block.

Other neighborhoods should definitely take on more of the responsibility of providing housing for homeless people—Park Slope, for example, or maybe Cobble Hill and Kips Bay, Forest Hills and Yorkville …—but I also think my neighborhood has gotten lucky in this current arrangement. For me, anyway, it’s hard to stay mad at a house full of grandpas.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

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