Column: A tale of 3 homeless shelters or the end of Westchester Square as we know it

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The location of a planned men’s shelter on Poplar Street.
Photo Jason Cohen

Some facts on the Community Board 11 homeless shelters from the city Department of Homeless Shelters posted by the district manager of CB 11 earlier this month:

  • The 1400 Blondell Ave. — homeless shelter for 200 single men; one block in from Westchester Square literally on the border with CB 10 — location is close to contract registration. The anticipated construction should start this spring, with a target opening of spring 2024.
  • 2443 Poplar St. –[homeless shelter for 200 single men; literally one block in from the border with CB 10 — and 2028 White Plains Road [140 beds] are moving through the contracting process and working to start building. They are both scheduled to open in the first half or 2023.

Shelter No. 1: Blondell Avenue

The Blondell shelter will be one block from Blondell Commons, affordable housing for extra low-income tenants with a 20% homeless component. We found out about the Blondell shelter a year ago through CB10 and attended the hearings with CB11, but in truth, these facilities [article 9] require no public input. We thought it was an outrageous boondoggle at a $350 million (five times the average cost of building a shelter) price tag for a single building for 200 homeless men. It will cost $300 million to clean up the contamination on the site and deal with the high-water table there will have to be a constantly running pump as part of the infrastructure of the building. This project is a waste of taxpayer dollars, and uses our money against us to help turn Westchester Square into skid row. The only public feedback allowed was at the contract hearing last spring, which we attended and brought up the previous points to deaf ears. We had written to the city Department of Social Services and the state attorney general, because this type of insane expenditure should be investigated. 

Shelter No. 2: Poplar Street

We found out about this site months after it had been selected by reading about it in the Bronx Times. We immediately began networking with residents nearby and getting out fliers to the surrounding community and businesses. No one was aware of this shelter coming in right next to them. Local resident leaders organized on social media to get the word out. 

The original location for shelter No. 2 — Poplar Street — was Stillwell Avenue. The councilmember at the time and the leadership of CB11 instead recommended 2443 Poplar St. as the “perfect site,” as Stillwell was too close to homes and schools. This “perfect” site is a few feet away from the Easter Seals Bronx Developmental school for elementary school-aged children, surrounded by many homes and in close proximity to the St. Raymond’s schools. This appeared to be a mystery, until an investigative reporter for the New York Post suggested the Poplar Street location was chosen for other reasons having more to do with real estate holdings than appropriate site location. 

We invited the deputy commissioner of Department of Social Services, Erin Drinkwater (who said siting of homeless shelters in such a community was a “win win” for “everyone”) to meet with us and take a tour. To our amazement, she agreed. We began at the Blondell site, where a group of people waited to speak with her, and then some of us escorted her the 10-minute walk to the Poplar site, where a group of concerned residents met her. While on Poplar, we were standing across the street from the site, outside the playground fence for the Easter Seals school. A group of very young children were being escorted outside to play. They ran up to the fence and started waving. They were so adorable. And they will soon be directly across the street from a 200-bed homeless shelter for single men, who may have mental, alcohol or drug issues. I think this made our point more eloquently than words could. My heart breaks to think of it. Status: moving forward.

Shelter No. 3: White Plains Road

I understand that the residents of that community also knew nothing of the shelter soon to be planted in their midst. There was a hearing at CB11, but as I said in the beginning, article 9 facilities can be built “as of right” and require no public input. As far as I know, this one is also moving forward.

Despite this, it is only right to consider the “fair share” criteria (which I know does not have the force of law), notifying residents and businesses nearby about something that may have such a devastating effect on them, and the social service agency facilities in close proximity should be taken into account (of which there are many near the Blondell and Poplar locations); by the time there is a public hearing, it is usually a done deal. 

But who am I kidding? We have fought this battle many times over in the past and have always lost. CB11 will be making their “quota” imposed by the city and the residents and businesses affected will have to live with it or move. And judging by the number of houses for sale, it may very well be the latter, undermining the stability of our communities and local economies. Now there is a new city administration. Who knows what may, or may not, happen now.

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