In 2019, Bronx residents voiced opposition for a planned shelter at 2008 Westchester Ave., in Parkchester. Yet, the shelter, which wound up opening in October 2020, is now making a difference in peoples’ lives.
People often associate sex offenders, drug addicts and crime with shelters, but this facility couldn’t be further from that narrative. The 165-bed Men’s Employment Shelter is operated by nonprofit Samaritan Daytop Village and all of the clients are working or actively seeking a job.
Today, the site is an example of community collaboration, with a local church playing an important role in providing clients with professional attire for interviews and a barber offering free haircuts to clients of the facility.
“Our main goal is no matter where you come from, what challenges you face in life, we want to just work with you, meet you where you’re at and help you get permanent housing,” the site’s Program Director Christina Norman said. “I think people come with all different stories and we’re just trying to help them get back on their feet.”
The shelter, which currently only has 80 clients because of COVID-19 restrictions, offers on-site services such as a social worker, and resume and job assistance. Norman noted that the ratio of men employed versus unemployed is 70 to 30.
She explained while the community was apprehensive at first about the shelter, now places like St. Helena’s Church on Olmstead Avenue brings the men clothes for interviews and connects them with job opportunities.
According to Norman, shelters may be viewed as a scary place from the outside, but in reality they are quite beneficial for the clients. She said, so far, there has been positive feedback from the men utilizing the facility. And s many of these men are at their lowest points in their lives, one of the goals is to help them feel good about themselves, she said.
“We really try to have a good relationship with our clients,” she added.
In addition to providing a safe space for men, they also have the opportunity to get a free haircut every other Wednesday. Whether they have a job interview or simply need a fresh look, barber Christian Lattimore is there to make the men look stylish.
Lattimore, of Harlem, who has cut hair for five years, initially worked at the shelter for three months as a security guard. More recently, he reached out to Norman to see if he could cut hair at the shelter and she gladly accepted the offer.
For Lattimore helping out there is quite personal.
“For me, I’m giving back to make the men feel better,” he told the Bronx Times. “I’ve been in situations like this in a shelter. Some people feel that people in the shelter can’t do certain things.”
One of Lattimore’s recent clients included Henry Fernandez. Fernandez, 50, said it was his first time getting his haircut with Lattimore, but he enjoyed it.
“It’s very hard for me to try a new barber when I had never had them cut my hair before,” he said.
While he appreciated the free haircut, Fernandez emphasized how much the shelter has meant to him. A retired plumber of 35 years, Fernandez has had severe health issues recently and feels lucky to be alive. After living in a shelter in Manhattan, he feels much more comfortable in Parkchester.
“I was at 30th Street for four and a half months and then I came here and this place was a palace to me,” he said. “Over here, there is more caring and helping, and the food is great.”
Today, Fernandez is healthy and happy as he recently found permanent housing in Manhattan and will be leaving the shelter this month.
“For me to become homeless and go through all of this has been hard,” he said. “Not too many people could be in my shoes for the past four years.”