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December 9, 2003
Homeless Shelter Offers Some Dignity

by Dennis Duggan
"You know how much I love this place?" Craig Trotta asked Tuesday on the drive to the Doe Fund's stunning new homeless shelter in East Williamsburg. "I want to work here until I die."

Trotta, 43, is director of work and training for the Doe Fund, and to make his point, he rolled up his right sleeve to show a tattoo of the group's logo -- a man ready to go to work.

Trotta, whose voice sounds like it's been soaked in the city's brine, was one of several hundred New Yorkers who came to the opening of the $23 million four-story shelter -- once a knitting mill in a gritty industrial park -- that begins a new chapter in the way this town will house its homeless.

It bears no resemblance to the city's first shelters, dismal places that were, as Linda I. Gibbs, commissioner of homeless services, recalled, "dark and dank and dangerous places," where many homeless refused to stay, preferring to risk the chance of freezing to death on the city's wintry streets.

Trotta was one of them. He slept in a doorway on Linden Street in East New York in the late 1990's, got into fights, was shot and stabbed and went to jail and to drug rehabs as his life spiraled downward.

In 1997, bone-tired of the street life, he came in from the cold.

His father and sister, still living in a two-story home in John Gotti's neighborhood in Howard Beach, refused to see or talk to him. A chance remark sent him to the Doe Fund, where he was hired as a street sweeper for $5.50 an hour.

"I went to my family and told them I was going into their program but I told them I needed $25 for one last high," Trotta said. "They gave it to me and I bought five bottles of crack. I was high when I walked in and I gave them my last bottle and I never used crack again."

Tuesday, Trotta stood in the back of a crowded hall and listened to speeches by Doe fund founder George McDonald, who was handing out bologna sandwiches to the homeless in Grand Central when I met him in the mid-1980s, and by Charles Hynes, Brooklyn district attorney, about the vision it took to build the 400-bed shelter.

It wasn't easy. There were lawsuits, attacks by local politicians, including former Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden and his successor Marty Markowitz, and the usual NIMBY naysayers who didn't want a shelter there.

But McDonald, who has built eight separate shelters five in New York, and three others in Jersey City, Philadelphia and Washington D.C., had the support of the mayor, along with a record of tough-love-based shelters and a work ethic most of us understand.

"It's all about respect," said McDonald. "If you treat people with it and you give them a chance to lift themselves back up through work, they will return that respect."

This new shelter exudes that feeling. The large black-and-white photographs hanging on the walls feature many of the men who work keeping the city's streets clean.

There is a wood-paneled library where books are given out on an honor system, a computer room, bright and airy rooms where the men sleep on comfortable mattresses and lounges where they watch 36-inch Sony plasma TVs that were donated.

Residents can earn the right to stay in a room with a view of the Manhattan skyline through diligent work habits and successful random urine tests.

There was a time not so long ago when the homeless slept in the streets or parks or on subway trains.

In 1979 a young lawyer named Bob Hayes filed a suit against then-Gov. Hugh Carey on behalf of a homeless man seeking remedy in the form of subsidized shelters.

Hayes won his suit but the first shelters were flea-infested, poorly secured places like the armory in Washington Heights. There were fights, stabbings and thefts, and the places smelled of lost dreams and ammonia.

McDonald has set the bar for future shelters higher than ever.

Critics complain that the homeless, almost all former drug or alcohol users or mentally ill, don't deserve such amenities as individual shower stalls or a roof garden.

"What about that?" I ask Trotta, who has reconciled with his dad and now lives with him in Queens.

"If I hadn't found this place I'd be dead or in jail," he said. "They allowed me to become the man I am today."

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