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December 9, 2003
East Williamsburg Homeless Shelter Opens with Aura of Trendy Hotel


by David Andreatta
Tasteful works of art, arched windows, and soft lighting don't ordinarily spring to mind when one imagines a homeless shelter. And that's the idea behind a new 400-bed facility for homeless men opening today in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

The 74,000-square-foot Porter Avenue shelter, named the Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity, has the aura of a trendy hotel and was designed to give those who reside there a sense of pride, and more importantly, responsibility.

Built with $23 million procured by the Doe Fund, which operates a workbased training initiative in the city, the center has been billed as the most progressive and sophisticated facility for the homeless in the five boroughs.

The nonprofit organization will run the center for the next 22 years with $180 million in city money.

"This is really a question of expectations," said the founder of the Doe Fund, George McDonald. "When someone checks into the facility they expect a lot, and we expect a lot from them."

At least a quarter of the clients will be working maintenance jobs through the fund's Ready,Willing, and Able program. The remaining 300 beds will be reserved for drop-ins and men in transitional programs.

Despite an aggressive public relations campaign, the center is not without critics. Some neighborhood residents argue its presence will increase crime, while advocates for the homeless claim it will do nothing to stem homelessness.

A senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, Patrick Markee, called the facility a temporary solution and said the city's money would be better spent on subsidized housing.

"A lot of these people are just going to end up on a waiting list for some kind of subsidized housing," Mr. Markee said. "We thought we were past the days when the city would be opening shelters for adults that are so enormous. I think it sends a bad signal."

The center, which is equipped with classrooms and computer labs, is meant to be a partial replacement for an 800-bed men's shelter near Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan that is being reduced to 400 beds.

A spokesman for the city Department of Homeless Services, James Anderson, said the center was in step with the city's trend of downsizing shelters and helping the homeless find permanent housing. "This is about as far away from three hots and a cot as it gets," he said.

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