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December 7, 2003
In Brooklyn, Opposing Views on the Value of a New Shelter

by Leslie Kaufman
A library with French doors leads onto an interior patio. Wrought-iron bed frames decorate the bedrooms. And the residents' lounges have 36-inch flat-screen televisions.

On Tuesday, the city will open a 400-bed shelter for homeless men in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The project, like many large city projects, comes with controversy. Local businesses and politicians tried to stop the shelter in court, arguing that it had been rushed through without a proper assessment of its environmental impact. Some homeless service providers lament the shelter's size as a throwback to the 1980's, when the city was first required by the courts to provide shelter to the homeless. Some of the city's advocates for the homeless argue that the money would be better spent on permanent housing.

Whether the city made the right decision in committing $180 million over the next 22 years to operating the industrial-chic shelter will likely be the subject of debate for years.

For now, however, Linda I. Gibbs, the commissioner of homeless services, who inherited the project from the mayoral administration of Rudolph W. Giuliani, said she believed its cool beauty would re-enforce her new message of client responsibility. "It creates a facility that shows a level of respect for the clients that will be part of the engagement process, to help them understand they have productive lives to look forward to," she said.

The Porter Avenue shelter, called the Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity, was built as the first step in replacing an 800-bed men's shelter near Bellevue Hospital Center, currently the primary entrance point for single homeless men into the shelter system. That facility, in the original Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, is an authentic piece of Gotham Gothic, with dark hallways smelling of industrial cleaners and bedrooms with rickety beds and ratty wool blankets.

Unlike the Bellevue shelter, the Porter Avenue shelter will be operated not by the city but by an independent nonprofit contractor, the Doe Fund. The Doe Fund runs a 150-bed shelter in Harlem, but that is only for homeless men who have decided to be part of Ready, Willing and Able, a work and lifestyle training program of the Doe Fund. The new shelter will have 100 beds for assessing the needs of men right off the street, 150 beds for men awaiting placement in programs elsewhere, and 100 beds in the Doe Fund's work program.

Men checking into the program will be photographed and issued magnetic identification tags that will contain some of their personal information and their room and floor numbers. The tags will be readable by scanners placed at the shelter's entrance and on each floor and, in theory, will allow the facility to keep track of the clients' comings and goings and improve security.

Other service providers have expressed frustration that the Doe Fund will have such an advantage in moving homeless clients into its program, which emphasizes personal savings, drug testing and work like street cleaning and restaurant cooking. "I question whether providing training and moving them into jobs without living wages and without benefits will make them able to live independently," said Arnold S. Cohen, chief executive of the Partnership for the Homeless.

But as the founder of the Doe Fund, George McDonald, proudly gave a reporter a tour of his gleaming new building last week, he was making no apologies. "Obviously we have a bias toward work," he said, "and we are very excited by this opportunity to serve so many more people." Of the men who finish Ready, Willing and Able, about 50 percent are working a year later at jobs with average wages of $9 a hour, according to the Doe Fund's reports to the city.

The Porter Avenue shelter is deep in industrial East Williamsburg, where the nearest neighbor is a parking lot for sanitation trucks. The building, a converted yellow-brick knitting factory, has enough boutique lighting fixtures and burnished aluminum alloy windows to rival a luxury high-rise in TriBeCa.

Converting the factory cost about $23 million, and the shelter's operating budget will be $9.5 million a year. Private donors and corporate sponsors contributed to add amenities throughout the building, like nine new I.B.M. computers in a teaching room and an entryway mural that evokes the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.

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