Monday, February 26, 2007

New York City to close largest homeless shelter

NYC's largest homeless shelter closing

By MICHAEL HILL, Associated Press Writer 2 hours, 6 minutes ago

Every day, a bus picks up homeless men off the streets of New York City and takes them 70 miles out into the countryside to a shelter, in a practice that has been going on quietly since the Depression, when homeless people were called Bowery bums and fresh air was the solution to just about all ills.

The 1,001-bed Camp LaGuardia is New York City's biggest homeless shelter — and the only one surrounded by farms and trees — but its very existence is probably a surprise to many lifelong New Yorkers.

Now the city is closing it down.

While 73-year-old Camp LaGuardia was born of good intentions and what was then considered progressive thinking, some activists disapprove of it as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind answer to the city's homeless problem.

City Hall says its decision to shut down the shelter was more practical: It is too far outside New York, and the city wants to move away from temporary shelters to subsidized housing.

The shelter opened in 1934 on the site of a women's prison. It was named for the city's exuberant mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, a year later. The place was expanded greatly in the 1980s with the growth of New York's homeless population.

Old jail cells in the main brick building are still used to house older, frailer men, though most of the men are assigned a cot and a squat locker in dorm-style rooms in other buildings, some of which were built in recent decades. The rooms and halls are careworn, and some of the paint is peeling.

In the camp's early decades, the homeless men could rustle up summer work in the kitchens at the big Catskills-style hotels, grow potatoes on the camp's farm, even relax over beer at the tap room — yes, a tap room — though they were not allowed to get drunk.

Nowadays, some of the men work day jobs at places such as a chicken-plucking plant operated by a community of Hasidic Jews.

Homeless men who seek shelter from the city and are assigned to Camp LaGuardia can refuse, and go back on the streets, or they can seek a transfer. Once they are here, they can come and go from the 300-acre camp, but there are not many places to go. The commercial center of Chester, a town of about 12,000, is more than a mile down the road.

About a third of the men leave on the daily buses to New York City for medical appointments, housing searches or family visits. Some work in the city.

Mohamed Chakdouf, 58, lost his job as a concierge at a big New York City hotel, separated from his wife, became depressed, fell behind in his rent and was evicted. By 2001, the Moroccan immigrant was camping out in a park in Manhattan. Breathing problems made winters tough on the street, and he came here by bus one night in January 2005.

"First day I woke up I'm surrounded by mountains," he recalled. "I say, `OK, I have no problem here, but it's so far away.'"

Isolation is a big complaint among homeless men used to urban hubbub. Richard Berlly said he considered staging a fistfight to get kicked out. Celso Trinidad said the 90-minute bus ride back to the city is tiring, so he stays in his room studying maps of the city, hoping to get another job driving a bus.

"It's not a fun place," he said.

Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York said the big problem with LaGuardia is that it is so far from the city. That makes it difficult for the men to look for jobs and housing or take advantage of other services.

Though LaGuardia was started for the right reason, Markee said city leaders found the shelter especially useful when homelessness soared in the '80s.

"The city expanded Camp Laguardia and made it into the largest homeless shelter in New York in part to sort of keep the homeless out of sight of the general population," Markee said. He commended Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration for "doing the right thing" by closing LaGuardia.

With a homeless population estimated at 35,000, the city wants to spend LaGuardia's $19 million budget on longer-term solutions such as subsidized housing with social services.

Robert Hess, city commissioner of homeless services, said the goal is to reduce the shelter population by at least two-thirds by 2009.

Hess said local opposition to the camp was also a factor in the decision to close the place. For decades, people have complained about LaGuardia men wandering into town, getting drunk, urinating in public and, once, slashing a woman.

Michele Murphy, a mother of two children who lives next to the camp, said: "You're afraid to have them play outside because you're not sure."

Still, some men have turned themselves around at LaGuardia.

Chakdouf has become a full-time liaison between homeless people and caseworkers. Berlly, 60, has come a full-fledged caseworker at LaGuardia.

A year ago, all of Camp LaGuardia's beds were full. The last new arrival came in November, and the camp is now down to about 360 men. The last will leave by May 31.

Orange County is buying the place for $8.5 million, perhaps for a senior-citizen dining center, voting machine storage, an office park or affordable housing for workers in the county, which is undergoing a housing boom.

Remaining staff members like Berlly are looking for other jobs. He is still interested in social work.

"I'm going to miss it," he said. "It's like a family, almost."


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