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December 9, 2003
Shelter Finally Opens

by Joyce Shelby
After years of opposition and legal battles, the city will open a 400-bed shelter in East Williamsburg this morning.

The first 20 men, all participants in the Doe Fund's Ready, Willing and Able program, move in today.

The city signed a 22-year, $180 million contract with the Doe Fund to run the shelter, which in part replaces an 800-bed facility near Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan.

A former knitting factory on Porter Ave. is now the Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity. It features high-tech security, a state-of-the art kitchen, lounge areas with television sets and offices for medical and social services.

"It's a topnotch facility with a topnotch provider," said Linda Gibbs, commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services. "It's a step forward in the way we deliver services."

Initially, merchants opposed having the shelter in an industrial park that includes more than 450 businesses. Yesterday, there was cautious optimism.

Jack Hanan, a vice president of Voila Bakery, across the street from the shelter, said, "Before they started construction, the neighborhood was inundated with hookers. There were auto break-ins and damage to cars.

"Now, there's 24-hour security and additional lighting. Are there going to be problems? There are problems with everything.... I'm not sure how it's going to work, but on the whole, I have more of a positive feeling than a negative."

"So far, everything looks fine," said Milton Radutzy of the Joyva Corp., which is located directly behind the shelter. The company has agreed to let the Doe Fund use some of its property for recreation and parking.

Jose Leon of the East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Corp. said, "They're willing to work with us. That's all we ask."

George McDonald, founder of the Doe Fund, said as many as 100 residents will be in the Ready, Willing and Able Program. Another 150 will be waiting to enter outreach programs like Ready, Willing and Able, which offers minimum-wage jobs, plus preparation for permanent jobs and housing. The rest of the men will be at the facility for 21-day assessments.

Advocates for the homeless voiced concern about the city's huge, long-term investment in the facility:

"How are we spending these scarce dollars that we have on a problem that has been with us much too long and that is dramatically increasing?" asked Arnold Cohen of the Partnership for the Homeless.

"We have to deal with the issues of permanent housing and all the attending issues that have brought someone into homelessness."

But those who are moving into the facility today expressed gratitude. Maurice Thomas, 47, was typical:

"I was homeless and an alcoholic," he said. "The Doe Fund has given me an opportunity no one else was willing to give."

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