Ask A Greenpointer: The Homeless Question, Part I

October 28, 2007 by
Filed under: Area 51 

Hideaway Sleeping on Manhattan Avenue

Hordes of affluent people may see fit live in Greenpoint nowadays, but the fact of the matter is large numbers of homeless people do too— and no amount of policing is going to make them go away. Therefore, it didn’t surprise me when someone sent us a question about the homeless situation in Greenpoint. Here it is:

Given all of the development and displacement, has homelessness increased visibly? If so, will the city’s new decision to start turning people away from homeless shelters (if it believes they have other housing options) affect people in search of shelter in Greenpoint?

All I can offer in the way of an answer to the above question is a subjective one. Therefore, I have asked that the Co-Pastor of the Greenpoint Reformed Church (who works with a great number of homeless individuals and people at high risk of becoming homeless) to an answer this question as well. This is her response (mine will follow later today tomorrow):

Answering a question about whether the level of homelessness in a certain area is rising or declining isn’t as easy as one might imagine. You might think, “hey, let’s just go out one night and count up all the homeless people, then compare the numbers to other years.” Well, a great group of volunteers actually do this once a year. But, such a count isn’t so scientific since:

  1. not everyone who is homeless can be found in one night and
  2. not everyone who is homeless is sleeping outside.

When most folks think of someone who is “homeless,” images of drunks sleeping in the park come to mind. Such folks might constitute what I think of as visible homelessness. In Greenpoint, many of the visibly homeless folks sleep in empty lots, vacant warehouses or park corners. The root cause of such homelessness is often traced to the person suffering from mental illness and/or addiction. Many folks don’t realize it, but for people who suffer from mental illness and lack stable housing, it’s especially difficult to stay on meds and continue to receive treatment. Making doctors appointments and getting prescriptions refilled often go by the wayside when the one’s life is chaotic.

This is a no-brainer, but I’ll say it anyway: it’s a lot easier to lack shelter in the summer or in California. In New York, being homeless is especially dangerous in the winter. I’m sure many of our neighbors will recall that a year and a half ago the bodies of two men were found frozen solid on Moultrie and Calyer Streets. Doctors note that alcohol consumption can trick the human body into thinking its warmer than it really is. Some folks don’t know how cold they are until it’s too late. Booze also causes blackouts, and someone’s in a blackout, he or she has a far greater chance of not going inside to get out of the cold.

Another kind of homelessness might fall into the category of “housing instability.” This would be when someone can’t afford shelter or is between apartments. When rents are raised to the point that they cannot be paid, the tenant is usually evicted. When someone can’t find a place to live, they have a few options: couch surf with a friend, live out of their car, get a room at a place like the Y, sleep in the park, etc. Again, this is a lot easier in June than it is in January.

So, is homelessness on the rise in Greenpoint? And now, a disclaimer from your local church pastor. I am not a social scientist. I know there are plenty of ministers who think they are, but let me share a secret – seminary is great, but it doesn’t make you an expert on everything. What I did learn, though is that being a pastor should require me to say what I know for certain and how and why I know it. It should also require me to admit what I don’t know for certain. In this case, I do not know for certain about the demographic trends regarding homelessness in Greenpoint. I haven’t conducted an all-night count.

Instead, I am relying on intuition and observations mixed with conversations with homeless folks and what I hear from reliable people who have their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in Greenpoint. The unscientific answer to the question is that visible homelessness is most likely declining while housing instability is rising. As the neighborhood continues its gentrification, Greenpoint is increasingly less likely to host newcomers who are visibly homeless. There are more people and businesses in the area, which increases the possibility that homeless people will be asked to “move on” from wherever they are sleeping or congregating.

Additionally, I have heard that the City is doing a better job of treating the root causes of visible homelessness and of helping homeless people find permanent housing. While my inner skeptic screams “that’s impossible,” a congregant of ours who works as a social worker at a shelter confirmed that things have really changed for the better over the past 10 years.

Still, the City shelter system is no picnic. There is a real reason why many people prefer to live on the streets than enter into the shelter system. On top of it, most shelters will not accept you if you have alcohol on your breath. That can create a definite catch-22 for people who are addicted to alcohol. What actually happens to homeless folks in the area is that most either tough it out on the streets or move to another neighborhood.

Gentrification combined with the rapid increase in real estate prices is leading to an increase in housing instability. The numbers of people who can’t afford their rent is rising significantly. I suspect that a good portion of the people who receive groceries at our food pantry fall into this category: they have a roof over their heads, but they aren’t sure they can afford it long-term. Consequently, money that was once allocated towards food is now going to rent.

Many of the people who face eviction and cannot find housing in the neighborhood are moving elsewhere. Some move in with friends or family, others to neighborhoods with cheaper rents. A sad aspect of this is that it changes the make-up of our community, leading to less economic diversity and a break in the neighborhood bonds that help create an overall sense of community.

There’s a reason why so many of us enjoy Greenpoint. It’s a neighborhood where many people genuinely care for one another. It’s also a place where many people live on the low end of the economic spectrum.

In one of the nation’s wealthiest cities, there are millions of people who cannot make ends meet. It happens for a variety of reasons, and consequently, there is no easy solution. Still, I would encourage all of us to treat one another with respect and caring. It’s a real tribute to our community that many of you have offered to volunteer to serve dinner at the church on Wednesday nights. There is definitely a need, and we’re confident that the program is going to
grow significantly in the coming months.

If you’d like to help out, please call us at (718) 383-5941 or email us at:

pastor (at) greenpointchurch (dot) org

If you have any extra canned or boxed food that you could donate, please leave it on the front steps of the church at 136 Milton St (between Manhattan Avenue and Franklin Street). I promise, it will get to people who are hungry and will make a tremendous difference.



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