[Hpn] NYC - Homeless Shelter Offers Some Dignity - NY NewsDay - December 9, 2003

HC Covington HC Covington" <hcc@icanamerica.org
Tue, 9 Dec 2003 22:24:38 -0500


Homeless Shelter Offers Some Dignity

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By Dennis Dugan - NY NewsDay - December 9, 2003

"You know how much I love this place?" Craig Trotta asked
Tuesday on the drive to the Doe Fund's stunning new homeless
shelter in East Williamsburg. "I want to work here until I die."

Trotta, 43, is director of work and training for the Doe Fund,
and to make his point, he rolled up his right sleeve to show a
tattoo of the group's logo -- a man ready to go to work.

Trotta, whose voice sounds like it's been soaked in the city's
brine, was one of several hundred New Yorkers who came to the
opening of the $23 million four-story shelter -- once a knitting
mill in a gritty industrial park -- that begins a new chapter in
the way this town will house its homeless.

It bears no resemblance to the citye's first shelters, dismal
places that were, as Linda I. Gibbs, commissioner of homeless
services, recalled, "dark and dank and dangerous places," where
many homeless refused to stay, preferring to risk the chance of
freezing to death on the city's wintry streets.

Trotta was one of them. He slept in a doorway on Linden Street
in East New York in the late 1990's, got into fights, was shot
and stabbed and went to jail and to drug rehabs as his life
spiraled downward.

In 1997, bone-tired of the street life, he came in from the cold.

His father and sister, still living in a two-story home in John
Gotti's neighborhood in Howard Beach, refused to see or talk to
him. A chance remark sent him to the Doe Fund, where he was
hired as a street sweeper for $5.50 an hour.

"I went to my family and told them I was going into their
program but I told them I needed $25 for one last high," Trotta
said. "They gave it to me and I bought five bottles of crack. I
was high when I walked in and I gave them my last bottle and I
never used crack again."

Tuesday, Trotta stood in the back of a crowded hall and listened
to speeches by Doe fund founder George McDonald, who was handing
out bologna sandwiches to the homeless in Grand Central when I
met him in the mid-1980s, and by Charles Hynes, Brooklyn
district attorney, about the vision it took to build the 400-bed
shelter.

It wasn't easy. There were lawsuits, attacks by local politicians,
including former Brooklyn Borough President Howard
Golden and his successor Marty Markowitz, and the usual NIMBY
naysayers who didn't want a shelter there.

But McDonald, who has built eight separate shelters five in New
York, and three others in Jersey City, Philadelphia and
Washington D.C., had the support of the mayor, along with a
record of tough-love-based shelters and a work ethic most of us
understand.

"It's all about respect," said McDonald. "If you treat people
with it and you give them a chance to lift themselves back up
through work, they will return that respect."

This new shelter exudes that feeling. The large black-and-white
photographs hanging on the walls feature many of the men who
work keeping the city's streets clean.

There is a wood-paneled library where books are given out on an
honor system, a computer room, bright and airy rooms where the
men sleep on comfortable mattresses and lounges where they watch
36-inch Sony plasma TVs that were donated.

Residents can earn the right to stay in a room with a view of
the Manhattan skyline through diligent work habits and succesful
random urine tests.

There was a time not so long ago when the homeless slept in the
streets or parks or on subway trains.

In 1979 a young lawyer named Bob Hayes filed a suit against
then-Gov. Hugh Carey on behalf of a homeless man seeking remedy
in the form of subsidized shelters.

Hayes won his suit but the first shelters were flea-infested,
poorly secured places like the armory in Washington Heights.
There were fights, stabbings and thefts, and the places smelled
of lost dreams and ammonia.

McDonald has set the bar for future shelters higher than ever.

Critics complain that the homeless, almost all former drug or
alcohol users or mentally ill, don't deserve such amenities as
individual shower stalls or a roof garden.

"What about that?" I ask Trotta, who has reconciled with his dad
and now lives with him in Queens.

"If I hadn't found this place I'd be dead or in jail," he said.
"They allowed me to become the man I am today."

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