In 2007, several homeless men garnered quite a bit of neighborhood attention when they began sleeping on the steps of Old First Reformed Church, playing music loudly and leaving garbage in their wake.
The men, who refused assistance in finding housing, were a great frustration to the residents of the Seventh Avenue near Carroll Street, but they also inspired the church to begin working on issues of homelessness when Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter, became frustrated in the lack of permanent solutions available to help the city’s homeless population.
“We wanted to do more, but didn’t know how,” said Meeter. “City policies were in flux, assistance programs were intermittent, and the need remained. One Sunday morning in February we were convicted by our reading from the prophet Isaiah: ‘Will you not take the homeless poor into your house?’ We heard the call, but how to go about it?”
Earlier this month, the church decided to expand its efforts and began operating an overnight shelter for homeless men, offering a meal and a place to sleep on weeknights throughout the summer to 10 to 12 men. The project is collaboration between Old First, the newly-formed Park Slope Interfaith Social Justice Network, CAMBA, the Brooklyn-based social service organization that operates the women’s shelter at the Park Slope Armory. Councilmember Brad Lander helped to put the three groups in touch with each other.
CAMBA, which works with the Department of Homeless Services to operate several over-night shelters throughout the city at churches and other religious institutions, was looking for more beds, and especially excited to have an overnight shelter in Park Slope.
CAMBA will screen the homeless men for the program, provide assistance in running the program and offer access to social services, while Old First will supply the space, volunteers and hot meals. Other congregations from the Park Slope Interfaith Social Justice Network, which include Congregation Beth Elohim, Kolot Chayeinu and St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, will also provide volunteers for the shelter.
“We can offer security, hospitality, and respect. The men deserve what we expect for ourselves,” said Old First Congregation member and shelter volunteer Elisabeth Gaikema.
The number of homeless men and women in New York City is a continuing concern. Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst of the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy and direct services organization, said that as of December 2010, there are at least 38,400 homeless people in the city. This number doesn’t even give a full picture of the dire situation in New York, as it excludes homeless men and women who sleep on the streets.
“Nobody really knows how many people that is but it’s in the thousands,” he told a group of locals who had gathered for a . “It doesn’t tell the whole story because you can look at homeless as in how many people are homeless tonight and you can also look at it as how many people experience homelessness over the course of a year and that number is enormously large.”
Of the homeless men, women and children in the city, 9,700 are homeless families that sleep in shelters every night. The number of homeless that slept in the city shelter system was 113,553 during the last fiscal year
“That number is the highest in the city’s history and it’s nearly 40 percent more than eight years ago,” Markee said.
In Brooklyn, the number of homeless counted on the streets last year was 428, according to the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE). This number more than doubled from the 200 counted in 2009.
While Brooklyn does boast some resources for homeless, more resources are desperately needed. And currently, while there are 20 churches and synagogues that participate in CAMBA’s Respite Bed Program only three of them are year-long.
Councilmember Lander volunteered at the Old First shelter earlier this week, along with other members of his temple, Congregation Kolot Chayeinu.
“I’m very pleased that the religious congregations in our community are stepping up by working with CAMBA to offer nightly shelter to men in need, and also exploring broader action to end the scourge of homelessness in our city,” he said. “In such a great neighborhood, in one of the best-off cities on the planet, we have an obligation to work—both through service and through public policy—to end poverty and homelessness.”