Neighbors Say BRC Clients Harass, Intimidate
BY WINNIE McCROY | Almost two years have passed since the Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC) opened their 12-story, 328-bed homeless shelter at 127 West 25th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues) — and while the BRC continues to rehabilitate the homeless as well as those with substance abuse problems and mental illness, some neighbors say they have had enough of the street harassment and quality of life infringements.
“Since our doors on 25th Street first opened in 2011, BRC has appreciated the support of so many in the community, as we work together successfully to provide a hand up to those in need,” BRC Executive Director Lawrence “Muzzy” Rosenblatt told Chelsea Now. “We have and will continue to work with our neighbors, our community leaders, elected officials and government agencies to maintain the highest standards of excellence and collaboration, in service to our clients and to the community.”
According to Rosenblatt’s statistics, the BRC “graduates” about four clients per day, moving them on to housing, employment or further treatment. For the months of January through March, Rosenblatt cited “388 positive client outcomes.” This puts this shelter (along with other BRC facilities) at the top of Department of Homeless Services’ Adult Services Performance Incentives Results Card.
“It’s much harder to see the success stories, because they are the ones who leave the block, who have graduated and are integrated into society,” said Rosenblatt. “We are going to do the work we do, and work to improve upon it.”
Rosenblatt views it as forward-thinking to have an ambulance and police cruiser parked in front of BRC’s doors, to more easily respond to the recurrent incidents among the average population of 400 daily clients (including outpatients) that the shelter serves. The latest figures estimate 38 incidents for the month, both EMS- and NYPD-assisted cases.
Although some view this number as excessive, Community Board 4 (CB4) District Manager Bob Benfatto noted, “A population like this is going to have a lot of medical issues.”
LOCALS ACCUSE BRC RESIDENTS OF ONGOING HARASSMENT
Since the shelter opened, residents and business owners who live on or around 25th Street have relayed incidents of harassment, intimidation or other quality of life issues they say are linked to BRC clients.
Currently, YouTube hosts several dozen videos of alleged BRC clients engaged in physical intimidation, verbal harassment, public urination, drinking and drug use, loitering and littering. In one highly viewed incident, a man in a wheelchair blocks a man in a suit who is attempting to pass, moving his chair five or six times to corner the man.
Many of the videos are posted by Jeff Lazarus, who said, “I think the various videos speak for themselves. The only thing I might add is that it wasn’t like this in the ten years I lived on the block prior to the BRC’s arrival.”
Lazarus said he had confirmed with Rosenblatt that most of the videos depicted BRC clients. “It’s sort of a moot point,” he said, noting that “A lot of what’s going on is the magnet effect of having such a huge shelter on the block. People come every night in the hopes of getting in at the nightly intake, loitering on the block in the meantime. So even if they don’t get in, and are thus not registered to their rolls, they’re coming because the BRC is here.”
Lazarus also noted that according to the New York Criminal Justice Directory, there were, of late, 12 registered sex offenders among BRC’s male population of 300.
This is of great concern for some, like Chelsea mother Maggie Gallagher-Lilly — who last month sent a series of emails to Rosenblatt recounting incidents of verbal harassment from men she said were sitting in front of the BRC, one of whom, according to her, shouted, “You look like the white bitch I raped and got pregnant.” In response, Rosenblatt encouraged her to report the incident to the police. Gallagher-Lilly replied that she had called the police, but that the harasser left the area before they arrived.
“Your lack of interest, responsibility and response to the concerns of the neighbors regarding your clients who are in crisis is alarming,” she wrote to Rosenblatt. “You lied to all of us when you said that your clients would be adequately monitored and that there would be no loitering on our street…If anyone is hurt by your clients, it will be your fault.”
Bill Borock, President of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, said he understood parents’ concerns about the number of sex offenders at the BRC — asking, “If you serve time, are you rehabilitated?” He notes, “Some people say sex offenders can never be rehabilitated. On one hand, you can say that if they are there, they are at least being monitored. But how good can it be if things like the wheelchair incident are allowed to happen?”
LOCAL VOLUNTEERS SPEAK IN SUPPORT OF ROSENBLATT
AND THE BRC
Some local residents — notably those who have spent time volunteering at the BRC — are quick to defend Rosenblatt’s methods and clientele. CB4 Member Pamela Wolff told Chelsea Now that she was aware of Gallagher-Lilly’s allegations, adding, “Very few of these cases have turned out to be residents of the BRC, and those who are have been removed immediately. There are a number of other shelters in different boroughs for homeless people with various kinds of problems in residences that are focused specifically toward handling those populations.”
Wolff said that during her time as a member of the BRC’s Community Advisory Committee, she had heard from Rosenblatt of the initial education BRC clients are given upon intake, outlining their expected behavior while in the shelter.
“I know there are legitimate problems around the facility and the civil rights of the clients, but they have a right to be on the street,” added Wolff. “It may not be a presence most people want to see, but they have as much a right to be there as anyone else.”
Shelter volunteer and longtime area resident Muriel Beach agreed, remembering the large number of homeless people she said used to flock to the area in the ’60s. Wolff said that before the shelter opened, these homeless people would sleep in doorways and under stoops. Now, at least, this population is off the street and getting some help for their problems.
“These guys live on the street. They have nothing. Give them some slack,” said Beach. “Also, most of these men are black, and I think race has a lot to do with it. When I emailed [Chelsea residents] to say that I felt safer now that there were people on the block at night, I got the nastiest replies you ever heard.”
However, numerous local residents and business owners have raised concerns about the quality of life issues that the shelter has created since opening. They have taken these issues to Rosenblatt, to CB4 and to their local elected officials.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has long expressed her opinion that the size of the shelter is too big, even signing on to a lawsuit that argues that the BRC’s 328 beds violates the city’s Administrative Code that limits shelter residences to 200 beds. In response to recent requests from Chelsea Now, the Speaker’s office has noted that they are working to address these ongoing concerns.
“Speaker Quinn and her staff continue to work with community stakeholders to ensure that relations between the shelter and the neighborhood are respectful, addressing any and all concerns when they arise,” said Zoe Tobin on behalf of Speaker Quinn’s office.
Rosenblatt acknowledged that many of his clients who have just left jail or lost their home are angry and don’t like being told what to do. But he also said that for those unwilling to get with the program, less savory alternatives were readily available.
“If they won’t work to achieve the goals we have at BRC, they can go to a place where they don’t have goals,” said Rosenblatt, referring to some of the city’s lower-ranking shelters. But this is cold comfort for local residents, in light of the steady influx of homeless, mentally ill men who flock to the block. Said Benfatto, “I know they are frustrated and I understand their frustration, but [Rosenblatt] chose to put the shelter there, so he becomes the target.”
ATTEMPTS THWARTED TO HIRE ADDITIONAL SECURITY?
Rosenblatt has touted the transparency of his work and the BRC since before it even opened, and has made attempts to address issues around the shelter — to an extent. In response to community concerns, Rosenblatt has worked with CB4 and the Speaker’s office in an attempt to hire off-duty NYPD paid detail to patrol 25th Street. Several off-record sources said that Commissioner Ray Kelly had rejected this proposal (apparently, most of these paid detail occurs indoors, at venues such as department stores and special events).
“My understanding is that BRC has not gotten a yes or no on that, so I don’t know where it stands,” said Benfatto. “The 13th Precinct commander did support the idea, so I don’t know why the Commissioner hasn’t supported it. It seemed like a good solution to the problem.” Wolff added that the request went up the chain of command with the support of the community, but was denied after a year, adding, “This block has been treated badly by the police department.”
Commissioner Kelly also denied proposals to redraw boundary lines (aka “coterminality”) so that the BRC would fall under the auspices of the 10th Precinct — the headquarters of which are located on West 20th Street, much closer to the shelter than the zoned 13th Precinct offices, which are way over on the east side of town.
“We were trying to change the boundary lines but Kelly denied our request,” said Borock. “We wanted the BRC to become part of the 10th Precinct, which is closer and makes for better service. But we can still pursue it with the new mayor and police commissioner. Quinn is running for election, and with all these people upset about it, she might cull together a task force and call a mini-summit with CB4 and representatives from the shelter, to look at the controversy and problems that still exist.”
Rosenblatt has said that the BRC is constantly monitoring their clients via regular sweeps of the block, and is adapting new strategies so that these sweeps don’t become predictable. Across the board, community members appear to be supportive of efforts to install additional street security officers, be they paid NYPD officers, private security guards or even just additional BRC employees patrolling the block.
“The presence of authorities is important, so perhaps we can look at other alternatives,” said Dale Riehl from the BRC-adjacent business, The City Quilter.
CITY COUNCIL AWAITS APPEAL IN ONGOING LAWSUIT
From the very beginning, many residents and business owners were opposed to the BRC building such a large shelter in Chelsea. Even before clients occupied the building, an ad hoc group called the Chelsea Flatiron Coalition had mounted a lawsuit (Chelsea Business & Property Owners Assoc. v. City of New York) charging that the BRC violated the City’s Administrative Code § 21-312, which limits homeless shelters to 200 beds — opposing their definition of the shelter as a “transient hotel” and maintaining that the shelter violated the area’s M1-6 zoning district (which does not permit medical facilities).
The New York City Council shared this opinion. In August 2011, it cited the excessive size as a violation of city policy. New York State Supreme Court Justice Joan A. Madden ruled in February 2011 against a preliminary injunction to prevent the shelter from opening, but she did allow the City Council to intervene in the case. In the Council’s legal memo, they argue that the BRC’s operation of a shelter this size “reflects either ignorance or arrogance that cannot be excused by its financial interest in operating an oversized shelter.”
Speaker Quinn has held fast to her belief that “this proposed facility exceeds the legal limit of beds. A super-sized warehouse style shelter is a disservice to both the homeless and the community-at-large.” CB4 shares this opinion. “The problem is the size,” said Benfatto. “The Board’s position has always been that more than 200 beds in a shelter building is too many. We haven’t changed that opinion. Even if it runs great, the excess beds will cause problems. Lots of shelters have 60-80 beds, and we don’t get that many problems. The BRC is well-run, but it’s too big.”
Wolff was not blind to the quality of life issues the BRC has caused, but she did speak against malicious allegations some area residents have made against Rosenblatt for the behavior of his clients. “He’s responsible, very devoted to the facility and people it serves,” said Wolff. “It is his mission, and clearly it is his life. I have the deepest respect for that, and believe it is entirely genuine, despite slurs cast at him.” She added, however, that Rosenblatt has to balance being responsive to the community and protecting the civil rights of his clients, noting, “I guess that’s the rub — people in neighborhood want him to have full police powers to go out and handle it. But he is here to rescue people and establish them as functioning, viable, useful members of society.”
Borock said that Wolff had always been more accepting of the shelter than his group. “This should have been a decision that was reached between the BRC and the local neighborhood to come to an acceptable compromise,” he maintained. “It shouldn’t have been built before this consensus was reached, and there should be no legal questions about whether it is or isn’t technically a hotel, just to get around certain zoning restrictions.”
Over time, the lawyers have changed and details of the cases have been altered, but oral arguments on the City Council’s case were held in late January, and the case now sits in Appellate Division First Judicial Department, under appeal. For the time being, Chelsea residents must find a way to coexist with their new neighbors, whether they like it or not.
“This is not a city-run shelter. It’s a non-profit, so they don’t have to listen to the community saying that there are too many people,” said Borock. “But they do get their funding from city services, and this could be a means to have the city sit down with them and say that this is all is too much, and that the BRC has to do something about it. The BRC company line says they will handle patrols and security. But in the meantime, the community suffers.”