Volume 21, Number 40 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | February 13 - 19, 2009

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

Rev. James Cooper, rector of Trinity Church, serves food to clients in the John Heuss House, top. Clients often hang out near the center’s Beaver St. entrance.

City leaving homeless center out in the cold

By Julie Shapiro

After 20 years of serving the homeless in Lower Manhattan, the John Heuss House will close its doors for good at the end of June.

The city recently pulled funding for the 24-hour drop-in center at 42 Beaver St. as part of a broader phase-out of drop-in programs, said Rev. Canon Anne Mallonee of Trinity Church, which runs the shelter. The closure of the center will leave hundreds of homeless people without services and the center’s 36 staff members without jobs.

“Help us,” said Robert, 53, who has been homeless for two months. “I would work for the city for nothing to help keep it open, if that’s what it would take.”

Robert, who has a shock of white hair and warm brown eyes, said he once had a job with a carpenters’ union and a house on Staten Island. But he broke his wrist on the job and struggled with addictions. He eventually wound up homeless.

“There’s nowhere else I can go,” he said outside the center this week. “It’s like a losing battle. It’s horrible. It’s depressing.”

Mallonee, vicar at Trinity Church, said she doesn’t know of any similar center in Lower Manhattan.

“It’s just tragic,” she said. “We’re totally disheartened. At a time when the economy is falling apart and the need is growing exponentially, the services are disappearing.”

Many John Heuss clients are chronically homeless, with mental health problems, the type of people who usually fall through the cracks, Mallonee said. Most are repeat visitors who come in regularly and form relationships with the center’s social workers and volunteers.

“There’s a community there, which is an important part of someone’s healing — for someone who has no community,” Mallonee said.

The city owns the 6,700-square-foot space John Heuss House is using free of charge, and the city also pays most of the center’s $2.5 million annual operating cost. The center offers meals, showers, clothing and counseling for about 150 people a day, Mallonee said.

The center has no beds and is not meant to house people overnight, but it is open 24 hours a day and on cold nights up to 90 people pack in, often sleeping in chairs or on the floor, Mallonee said. When beds in other church shelters around the city are available, a bus brings John Heuss clients to those shelters in the afternoon and returns them to Lower Manhattan early in the morning.

Linda Bazerjian, spokesperson for the city Dept. of Homeless Services, said it was Trinity’s choice not to reapply for a grant to continue the John Heuss House.

Mallonee said the city told Trinity three weeks before the application was due that Trinity would not be allowed to use the Beaver St. space the following year and would have to find a new one. Three weeks was not enough time to find a new space, so Trinity could not apply for a grant to continue, Mallonee said.

Bazerjian said in an e-mail to Downtown Express that the city is reviewing proposals for drop-in centers at other locations in Lower Manhattan. She did not respond directly to a question about whether the city wants to phase out drop-in centers altogether. Trinity’s Web site says the city wants to focus on funding shelters with beds, called Safe Havens, rather than drop-in centers.

While Trinity Church’s real estate arm is one of the largest property owners in the city, the church does not have the money to find a new space and pay for the center’s operating costs without the city’s support, Mallonee said. The church’s leaders are looking into another way to help the homeless Downtown, and then they will seek funding once they decide on an idea, she added.

“We’re sad, and we’re determined to figure out a new way to serve,” Mallonee said.

The Rev. Win Peacock, the center’s director, founded the John Heuss House in 1988, naming it for the church’s former rector. A spokesperson said Peacock was not available for comment.

Most of the John Heuss clients who spoke to Downtown Express want the center to stay open.

“Don’t close it,” said a softspoken 45-year-old man from the Bronx, who did not want to give his name. “Everybody’s upset.”
The man said the John Heuss staff helps get him medicine, along with food, shelter and psychiatric care.

Another client, Clarence, 40, said he hopes to have his own apartment by the time John Heuss closes. Clarence has been staying at the center and in churches for the past three-and-a-half months and said he’s been homeless for at least six months, since he had to leave his brother’s house in the Bronx.

“I never thought I would be in a tight situation like this and have to be around people that are so scary,” said Clarence, who described scuffles in the center among clients with mental problems.

Clarence receives social security and said it’s hard to find a job because he doesn’t have a G.E.D. or recent work experience.

“It’s not fun to be homeless,” said Clarence, who has a goatee and wore a gray sweatshirt. “I wish there was a way we could save this place.”

Clarence thinks the city should give John Heuss clients referrals to other shelters so they aren’t stuck on the streets.

Not everyone was sad to hear John Heuss would be closing.

“I’m surprised the Board of Health never closed it down,” said Carlos, 41, whose purple bandana pushed back his long, curly hair. “The sanitary conditions are awful.”

Carlos has been at the John Heuss house for five months, sleeping on three chairs pulled together, and now he has a herniated disc in his back, he said. He’s trying to get disability payments so he and his wife can get an apartment, since they were evicted from their home in the Bronx last year.

As Trinity Church prepares clients for the closure of the John Heuss House, the church is also trying to support the 36 staff members who will lose their jobs in the middle of a recession. The church is offering John Heuss employees referrals, training and assistance with finding healthcare, along with free access to computers and phones.





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