Staff and volunteers of the John Heuss House prayed together Tuesday on the last day of the Beaver St. homeless drop-in centers operation.
For homeless, losing center is like losing their home
By Julie Shapiro
The phones were disconnected, the lockers were empty, and the homeless people who usually crowded into John Heuss House day and night were gone.
On Tuesday, just before the drop-in center on Beaver St. closed its doors for good, the staff and volunteers gathered in the bare, quiet space to pray. They wrapped their arms around each other and huddled in a circle, sniffling and wiping their eyes.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going, they read from a leaflet prepared by Trinity Church, which ran the homeless center. I do not see the path ahead of me.
The path behind them was clearer: In the 20 years since Trinity opened John Heuss House, it served more than 20,000 homeless men and women in Lower Manhattan.
But on Tuesday, the center closed, after the city decided late last year not to allow it to continue leasing the space. The closure is part of the citys broader plan to phase out drop-in centers, which do not have beds, in favor of shelters and more permanent housing.
At Tuesdays service, clergy from Trinity prayed for comfort and guidance. Then, one by one, the people who kept John Heuss House running for the past 20 years stepped forward to share their memories.
A tall, black man broke down as he described getting a job at John Heuss House more than 10 years ago, when he was struggling with cocaine addiction. The Rev. Win Peacock, the centers director, helped him through the recovery and let him keep his job even when he relapsed, the man recalled.
This place is more than just a sanctuary for the homeless and the downtrodden, said the man, who did not want to give his name because his current employer does not know about his past. Those you think you are helping turn out helping you
. Without this place, God knows where Id be.
Those who devoted their time and energy to John Heuss House spoke with a combination of anger and resignation before Tuesdays service.
Its horrible, said Randolph Drew, who worked in maintenance and security for the last five years. The situation is only going to get worse.
The center served more than 100 people a day, offering food, counseling and a place to spend the night, though the center did not have beds so people slept on chairs instead. Many of the clients have been homeless in Lower Manhattan for years, and the staff at John Heuss House thinks it unlikely that they will leave the neighborhood for programs in Midtown or the outer boroughs, as the city hopes. Instead, Drew and others said they expect to see more homeless people sleeping in Lower Manhattan parks and doorways, now that the center is closed.
Gwendolyn Davis, housing coordinator and assistant director of John Heuss House, said the vast majority of the centers clients went into the citys shelters, while about 15 received single-room-occupancy housing, about a dozen went to other drop-in centers in the city and a handful went to the citys Safe Haven program.
Davis is worried that the fragile, mentally ill people Heuss House served will not receive the services they need.
I dont feel good about it at all, said Davis, who worked at Heuss House for 19 years. Im very uncomfortable knowing that people are not only mentally ill but medically ill. Theyre not going to take care of that on their own.
The city Dept. of Homeless Services gave a different breakdown of what happened to the John Heuss House clients, showing more of them in Safe Havens and drop-in centers and fewer in shelters. Kristy Buller, a D.H.S. spokesperson, acknowledged that it was possible that not all clients listed as being in Safe Havens and in drop-in centers had made it there yet. Some may be in shelters temporarily before moving to the more permanent options, she said.
D.H.S. wants clients to have the services they need, while also feeling safe and secure in their surroundings, Buller said in an e-mail. The city has been doing outreach at and around John Heuss House since April to find new homes for the clients and will continue to do so, Buller said.
When the city told Trinity Church that John Heuss House could not remain in its Beaver St. location, the city gave Trinity only a few weeks to look for a new space for the homeless center, which Trinity said was not enough time. One reason the city did not want John Heuss House to remain in place was because the space was not handicapped accessible.
The city has not decided what to do with Heuss Houses 6,700 square feet. The building, which also houses the Sanitation Dept., will not be sold or knocked down, said Mark Daly, spokesperson for the Dept. of Citywide Administrative Services.
After Tuesdays service, Peacock, the centers founder, spoke of the work he had done for the past 20 years. All around him, staff members were unplugging surge protectors, packing up printers and taping boxes shut.
Its a sad day, Peacock said.
In September, Peacock, 58, will begin a new job as pastor at Bryn Mawr Park Presbyterian Church in Yonkers, a short walk from his home. Peacock had planned to make the move anyway, but the concurrent closure of John Heuss House is making the transition particularly bittersweet.
Trinity Church, too, is making changes, searching for another way to help the homeless. The church is working on providing congregants with new places to volunteer, the Rev. Canon Anne Mallonee said. She also wants to work with homeless children and is developing partnerships with local schools.
Mallonee is particularly concerned about the staff of John Heuss House, since many of them are now unemployed.
But Drew, the maintenance worker, doesnt want anyone worrying about him.
Its worse for the homeless people than for me, he said Tuesday. At least I have a place to live.