Unveiling Prejudices: The Brooklyn Homeless Shelter Dispute

protest against homeless shelter

Last month, southern Brooklyn residents protested against a proposed homeless shelter, citing concerns about community safety and impact on children. While this opposition mirrors typical NIMBY sentiments, the assumption that homeless individuals are inherently dangerous is both false and harmful.


Last month, Councilmember Susan Zhuang and Assemblymember William Colton organized and facilitated a rally in front of City Hall to protest the building of a homeless shelter in Bensonhurst. Hundreds of residents from southern Brooklyn protested a shelter development at 25th Avenue and 86th Street, formerly a neighborhood hotel. The group was bussed to City Hall, and transportation was provided by Councilmember Susan Zhuang and Assemblymember William Colton.

Among protesters, Eli Liula and Eligna Zhang live near the proposed site. They claim the homeless shelter “looks bad for the kids, looks bad for society, looks bad for the schools.” Their opposition is very much about safety and the children in the community.

Back in March, an even bigger protest was held near the location. While the rally in front of City Hall brought in a few hundred protestors from Bensonhurst, this shelter creation has widespread opposition from the community. A petition was organized on change.org that had more than 52,000 signatures.

“As a member of the local community, which predominantly consists of Asian residents, I have witnessed firsthand the challenges we faced during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said community member Mandy Wong, who signed the petition. “Our community has endured significant hardships, both economically and socially, and is only now beginning to recover from the impact…I believe that the placement of a homeless shelter in our already strained community may not be the most effective solution. It could potentially hinder the delicate recovery process that our neighborhood is undergoing.”

During a community task meeting, Assemblyman Colton said, “We will fight this homeless shelter as we successfully fought ones on Bath Avenue and Kings Highway, and working together, we will win.”

History of Winning

Assemblymember Colton and Councilmember Zhuang have been fighting for the development of homeless shelters in southern Brooklyn for some time and have a history of winning. They claim this homeless shelter would harm their community.

“This does not benefit the neighborhood and it does not benefit the homeless people,” Colton said. “It’s a terrible location for a shelter, in a main business district surrounded by residential areas and near churches, mosques, and schools. By opposing this shelter, we are helping homeless people.”

At City Hall, protesters shared their reasons for their opposition. Beyond their claim of the shelter being “the wrong project in the wrong location,” Colton also argued that the only people who benefit from homeless shelters are their developers and operators. He criticized the developer, Tejpal Sandhu of 86th Street, NY LLC, for turning hotels into shelters, which he argues drains taxpayer dollars.

Sandhu is also the developer behind another shelter planned for 2147 Bath Avenue. Colton argued that the parent company, the Sandhu Group, builds hotels in and around southern Brooklyn only to be turned into homeless shelters and leased to the city. Each resident of the said shelter would cost the city thousands of dollars per month.

The shelter intended to shelter 150 men, many of whom struggle with addiction or mental illness.

Mixed and Complicated Views on Homeless Shelter

Although NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) protests often share similar opposition, what I found interesting about these protestors is that they truly have a very mixed and complicated view of homelessness.

While the Bensonhurst protest shares similar thoughts on homeless shelters (i.e., they look bad, they bring danger to a community) with many other NIMBY protests, I found their claim of homeless shelters not helping homeless people at all to be quite shocking.

Of course, shelters help homeless people. To claim that shelters do not help homeless people is anti-homeless.

I agree with Assemblymember William Colton that homelessness has become a for-profit venture where the most vulnerable people in our society are turned into commodities. However, to claim that homeless people are better off on the streets than in a shelter in Bensonhurst is hardly defendable.

The most significant opposition to homeless shelters is rooted in negative messaging and prejudice toward poor, homeless, and mentally ill people. There is this false belief that homeless people are dangerous, that poor people are dangerous, and that mentally ill people are dangerous as well.

If you suddenly lost your house and had no choice but to enter a city-funded shelter, would that suddenly, magically, make you a dangerous, scary person? Of course not. You would just be you, having suffered a traumatic event. In fact, at this time, you’d go to your community for help – your tight-knit community brimming with community centers and other services for your neighbors.

What We Know About Homelessness

What we do know is that homeless people are often criminalized and suffer from criminalization efforts. What we do know is that homeless people are significantly more at risk of being victims of violence and crime than they are to be offenders of crime and violence. The assumption that homeless people are dangerous for society or a community is false. The assumption that children aren’t able to learn and discuss social and political issues, such as homelessness, is also false. Invisible People combats this with animated videos specifically to educate kids about homelessness!

On the other hand, Mandy Wong’s thoughts on the petition were worthy of further consideration. Although all of NYC suffered tremendously from COVID-19, as did the entire world, I can understand how the unique struggles of an Asian community would adopt a sense of protection and preservation.

We all want safety and security, and we fear what might threaten that safety and security. In all of the injustices we face, in all the challenges, social, economic, or political, we know homeless people are not looking to threaten your survival and security. In reality, we are on the same side. That alone should motivate us to look at our homeless neighbors as neighbors. They’re your community members, too.


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Jocelyn Figueroa

     

Jocelyn Figueroa studied Creative Non-Fiction at The New School and is a blogger and freelance writer based out of New York City. Formerly homeless, she launched her own blog discussing shelter life in New York City. Today, Jocelyn is on a mission to build connections through storytelling and creative writing. Check out her book about homelessness at https://ko-fi.com/scartissueproject

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