Bushwick community members met with officials on Tuesday night at East Williamsburg’s Green Fitness Studio for a charged discussion about the conversion of the New York Loft Hostel into a 140-bed homeless shelter set to open on September 1.
Questions from the public were fielded by de Blasio administration senior policy adviser Lincoln Restler; Antonio Reynoso, the city council member representing the 34th district, and Kercena Dozier, the director of Department of Homeless Services (DHS) Community Relations, as well as several representatives of Project Renewal and the NYPD who were in attendance.
Residents of the area expressed a range of concerns about the plan. Several audience members characterized the neighborhood’s makeup as having an “oversaturation” of homeless shelters and other types of housing for low-income city residents in the neighborhood. Some pointed to the housing of homeless families in the newly built BKLYN House hotel on Beaver Street as an example.
In response to those concerns, Restler assured residents that as of the end of July, no homeless families were housed in BKLYN House, and there would be no sex offenders housed at a Porter Avenue facility, alluding to an earlier controversy regarding the proposed placement of 50 sex offenders at the Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity.
Betty M. Cooney, the executive director of the Graham Avenue Business Improvement District (BID), which advocates for local businesses along the seven-block stretch of Graham Avenue (also known as the Avenue of Puerto Rico), which lies approximately four blocks west of 249 Varet Street, delivered a letter to Restler containing information about why the BID is opposed to this move by the city.
The BID’s letter cited the homeless housing in BKLYN House and related issues at nearby Woodhull Hospital as examples of how the city uses the southern portions of Williamsburg and Bushwick as a “dumping ground for such programs.”
Dozier responded to comments regarding oversaturation by arguing that one additional shelter in a neighborhood will not alter the fabric of the community, citing her neighborhood of Harlem as an example.
Others worried about safety and about a return to the unsafe conditions of Bushwick’s past. Since the city officials were not directly involved in the shelter’s relationship with its security firm, they did not have details about the security plans.
However, an information packet distributed before the meeting details how Project Renewal and private security firm QBS plan to utilize hand wand and walk-through metal detectors and 32 CCTV cameras placed inside and outside of the building, among other industry standard measures, to ensure that the facility is secure.
Finally, residents wanted to know if there was a way to “override” the decision made by city agencies. The answer was no. In an email to Bushwick Daily, Cooney censured the secrecy surrounding the project thus: “The community board was not notified and our BID was not notified. They held the meeting at Varet [Green Fitness Studio] the same night as the community board meeting … This was done deliberately!”
In a statement to the Commercial Observer in a story from August 5 after Bushwick Daily broke the news about the shelter conversion, a Department of Homeless Services spokesperson told reporter Danielle Albi that Community Board 1, homeowners and local elected officials had been invited to a July 11 meeting about the shelter held by DHS, adding that the department is “committed to working with and listening to community members as we do the important work of sheltering and providing services to homeless New Yorkers.”
Throughout the meeting, emotions ran high. Several times, Council Member Reynoso stepped in to calm audience members who continued to ask follow-up questions even after their microphone had been passed on, and the meeting wrapped amid questions that grew redundant.
The New York Loft Hostel continues to decline to publicly comment about the sale of the building, but has cancelled reservations for guests and sent one would-be guest the following message: “Dear guest, [u]nfortunately we won’t be available to accommodate you for those dates [8/19] and therefore your reservation has been cancelled. The good news is that we have decided to move to another bigger building in the area, with awesome, fun and unique amenities! We will keep you posted, so in the future you can come and experience it!”