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December 9, 2003
Swanky Shelter for Homeless

$23M residence has critics citing other solutions

by Curtis L. Taylor
A $23-million, 400-bed shelter that more closely resembles a boutique hotel opened yesterday in Brooklyn, a flashpoint in the debate over the most effective way to help the homeless.

With its electronic security-card entry system, plasma TVs and sleek dormitory style quarters, the Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity in East Williamsburg "represents the type of facility that will show the clients the respect and encouragement for really overcoming the obstacles that have made them homeless," according to Linda Gibbs, the city's commissioner of homeless services.

Some elected officials and advocates for the homeless aren't so sure. They question why the city plans to spend $180 million over the next 22 years for the private Doe Fund, which got the 74,000-square-foot facility up and running, to maintain the men's shelter when the money could have built hundreds of units of affordable housing.

"All along, we have been concerned about the city's investment of so much money in temporary housing rather than permanent housing," said Steve Banks of the Legal Aide Society and counsel to the Coalition for the Homeless.

Clients at the Sharp center will enjoy a computer room, lockers, individual showers and a library with built-in wooden shelves, surroundings that are a far cry from the run-down, crime-ridden, armory-type shelters that homeless people once avoided.

The shelter will provide 100 beds for the Doe Fund's Ready, Willing and Able Program, which offers job training and minimum-wage jobs. About 150 clients will be waiting to enter outreach programs throughout the city's shelter system once they are evaluated. The rest of the men will be at the facility for 21-day assessments.

Local elected officials expressed fear that shelter clients would overrun their neighborhood, bringing crime, drugs and prostitution. Those concerns harken to the 1980s, when the city opened one of its first shelters at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan and homeless people loitered on nearby streets.

"This will have a negative impact on the community," said City Councilwoman Diana Reyna (D-Williamsburg), who led opposition to the facility along with Councilman Erik Martin-Dilan (D-Bushwick), Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Williamsburg) and Borough President Marty Markowitz. "We have had problems with drugs and prostitution with similar shelters that have opened in the area. If you want to treat people like people, then give them permanent jobs and a permanent place to live."

Gibbs, however, said the facility was consistent with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 10-year initiative to reduce the homeless population by creating small shelters and then implementing permanent solutions.

Advocate Bob Hayes, who first sued the state in 1979 to provide shelters, lauded the new facility named for the late New York real estate developer and owner of the Carlyle Hotel whose foundation has long been a supporter of the Doe Fund. Hayes praised Doe Fund chief George McDonald for his vision.

"He reminds me of my mother, who was an old-fashioned school teacher," Hayes said. "She was very disciplined and she got her students to work and get high marks, and that is what McDonald brings to the homeless. He gets his people to work by giving them positive things to work with."

Reyna and others said the money would have been better spent on low-income housing.

"What good does it do if they are trained and find employment but have to continue to live at the shelter because there is not permanent, affordable housing available?" Reyna asked.

A Kinder, Gentler, Costlier Shelter

The Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity opened its doors in Brooklyn yesterday to homeless men - and to controversy.



Beds for homeless men

$23 million

Raised by Doe Fund to convert shelter from old knitting mill

$180 million

Cost to city to operate over next 22 years


Flat-screen plasma TVs in lounges,donated by Circuit City

Computer lab

Large, arched windows on ground floor

Individual shower stalls in bathrooms lit by "warm, incandescent lighting"

Wood-paneled library with French doors and adjacent courtyard

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