Volume 21, Number 44 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | March 13 - 19, 2009
Downtown Express file photo by Jefferson Siegel
John Heuss House
Will Heuss closure make Downtown worse or better?
By Julie Shapiro
The city denied a last-ditch effort by Trinity Church this week to save John Heuss House, the homeless drop-in center that is slated to close in June.
Trinity, which has run John Heuss House at 42 Beaver St. for 20 years, met with Robert Hess, commissioner of the city Dept. of Homeless Services, on Tuesday to try to convince Hess to grant the center an extension. But Hess said the center would definitely close for good on June 30, a Trinity spokesperson said.
The Rev. James Cooper, rector of Trinity Church, said in a statement that he was “deeply concerned” about Lower Manhattan’s homeless population in light of the closure, particularly during the economic crisis. Trinity will try to find a new way to serve the homeless, Cooper said.
After hearing news last month of the likely closure — which is now definite — the center’s staff and neighbors had a mix of reactions, from furious to elated, and some predicted that Lower Manhattan’s homelessness problem would worsen.
“Having no service center in Lower Manhattan we think would be catastrophic,” said Bobby Bell, director of social services at John Heuss House, at a community board meeting last month. “A mentally ill person on the street is not a good thing.”
John Heuss serves about 150 people a day, many of whom are chronically homeless, often with mental and drug problems. The 24-hour center offers hot meals, counseling and a place to rest, though it does not have any beds and people often sleep on folding chairs or the floor.
Linda Bazerjian, spokesperson for the Dept. of Homeless Services, said the city is phasing out overnight drop-in centers to focus on finding beds for everyone, a model called “housing first.” The city will work with current John Heuss House clients to place them in a different program before the center closes, and afterwards the city will post outreach workers at John Heuss House to direct people who show up on the doorstep, Bazerjian said.
Many in the neighborhood support keeping the center open, but a few who declined to give their full names said they want it to go.
“I’ll be happy when they’re leaving,” said the owner of a shoe repair shop on Beaver St. “I’d make a party for them.”
The storeowner said homeless people from John Heuss scratch his windows and smoke marijuana outside his store, scaring customers. One customer who works at Goldman Sachs doesn’t come by anymore because he is afraid, the owner said.
Danielle, a cashier at the Duane Reade across from John Heuss House, described similar problems.
“They’re psycho,” she said of the John Heuss clients. “They throw stuff at you.”
The people from John Heuss House also shoplift, pocketing everything from candy and gum to medicine, Danielle said.
“They need to move that somewhere else,” she said of the drop-in center.
First Precinct commander Anthony Bologna said he occasionally gets calls about a fight at the center, but that happens less than once a week.
“This is not a bad spot,” he said.
Bologna was not sure what the impact of closing the center would be. No matter what, he said, “We have to provide service for the homeless.”
Jeremy Bates, president of Trinity Church’s congregational council, does not think closing John Heuss House will solve any of the problems people have with it.
“The impact would be much worse if the homeless people were on the street than if they had someplace to go,” Bates said.
Bell, the J.H.H. social services director, said many of the clients have lived in Lower Manhattan for decades, some in the World Trade Center before 9/11. Bell said they would return to local streets and places like the Staten Island ferry terminal rather than go to shelters in other parts of the city.
Bazerjian said John Heuss clients will be able to go to one of the seven remaining drop-in centers in the city once John Heuss closes, but those centers likely will not be open 24 hours unless it is very cold or very hot. At night, people can go to shelters, church beds or Safe Havens, which are smaller than shelters and do not require clients to be sober, Bazerjian said.
Bazerjian did not know how many beds, if any, the city would have in Lower Manhattan once John Heuss House closes, but she said the city wants to add beds locally.
“If you’re coming to Lower Manhattan, we certainly don’t want to bus you to the Bronx or Queens,” she said. She added, “The last thing we want is more street homelessness.”
Lower Manhattan may not have any drop-in centers after the closure. Bazerjian had previously said the agency was looking to open anther drop-in center in the area, but she subsequently clarified that it could be anywhere in Manhattan.
Many people who live and work near John Heuss House want the center to stay open.
A woman named Kori, who works at Cafe Doppio across from John Heuss House, said the homeless people never bothered her.
“I think it sucks,” she said of the center closing. “There’s not enough places anyways…. They shouldn’t close it.”
Ro Sheffe, chairperson of Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee, said he was stunned to see so many people support John Heuss House at a recent meeting.
Usually, any issue related to the homeless is an “automatic NIMBY,” Sheffe said. Instead, everyone at a Quality of Life Committee meeting last month said John Heuss House was a good neighbor.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” Sheffe said. “It was anti-NIMBY. It was LIIMBY: Leave It In My Back Yard. Everyone wants it to stay.”
Susan Cole, a social worker who lives in Hanover Square, said she walks past John Heuss House at all hours of the day and night and knows the people who hang around outside.
“I’m never frightened,” she said. “I know I’m safe. I’ve never had any trouble.”
In fact, knowing that people are looking out for her on an otherwise dark and quiet street makes Cole feel safer than if the center were not there at all, she said.
However, several people who live down the block from John Heuss House wrote letters to the city supporting the closure because they see the clients as dangerous. The Dept. of Homeless Services gave Downtown Express two signed letters on the condition that the residents stay anonymous.
“We have experienced many problems, including unnecessarily aggressive, threatening and abusive behavior,” one resident wrote. “It has been a burden on our street.”
Two registered sex offenders live at John Heuss House, both of whom did jail time for sodomizing children, according to a state Web site.
The city did not directly decide to close John Heuss House. Rather, the city told Trinity in December that the center could not remain in 42 Beaver St., a city-owned building, said Bell, from Trinity. The city informed Trinity three weeks before the latest funding applications were due. The church did not have enough time to find another space and apply for city funding, so the center will not be able to immediately reopen elsewhere, Bell added.
The city has not said what they plan to do with the 6,700 square feet John Heuss occupies at 42 Beaver, but one possibility is that the Sanitation Dept., which fills most of the building, will expand into the space, said Mark Daly, spokesperson for the Dept. of Citywide Administrative Services. The city has no plans to sell the building, Daly said.
Bazerjian said one problem with John Heuss House’s current location is that it is not A.D.A.-compliant.
As the economy worsens, Huguenson Alexander, who does outreach for John Heuss House, said he is seeing more people who are newly homeless, pointing to the need for increased services.
“We’re no longer dealing [only] with a clientele that is mentally ill and [suffering from] chemical abuse,” he said. “In the past couple weeks, a lot of people have lost their jobs, or they ran out of unemployment benefits. Now more than ever…John Heuss House is an indispensable asset to our community.”