Unused churches will house homeless

One the eve of Pope Francis’ arrival in New York City, Mayor de Blasio and Cardinal Timothy Dolan came to a Melrose homeless shelter to announce the launch of an initiative that will provide hundreds more beds for homeless New Yorkers.

Jean Rice, a volunteer representative for the group Picture the Homeless, advocates fora new mayoral initiative in front of a Melrose shelter on Sept. 23.
Jean Rice, a volunteer representative for the group Picture the Homeless, advocates fora new mayoral initiative in front of a Melrose shelter on Sept. 23.

Mayor announces initiative to provide beds for hundreds

On the eve of Pope Francis’ arrival in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Cardinal Timothy Dolan stood in front of the St. Anthony Shelter of Renewal in Melrose to announce that the city and the Roman Catholic Church will partner to establish emergency homeless shelters inside unused churches.

The mayor said that beginning this winter, he aims to add 500 beds as part of a program that caters to homeless people who are unwilling to seek shelter because of mental health or substance abuse problems. Faith-based organizations throughout the five boroughs have already offered space for 300 of the 500 beds, he said, with each set to house roughly 10 to 15 people.

“This initiative we’re calling Opening Doors because it suggests very clearly that all are welcome,” said de Blasio. “They’re not going to be judged. No one will be turned away. No one will be told that they have a problem that we can’t address.”

Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Gilbert Taylor said that those willing to come into the shelters won’t have any time-limitation to their stays. The program will attempt to get them into independent housing or into more traditional shelters once their individual needs are met. He added that the city is working with the Archdiocese to locate the churches that will participate.

Brother Shawn O’ Connor from St. Anthony’s, said the plan is sensible because of the dramatic drop in church attendance citywide in recent years.

“A lot of churches have closed down and there’s a lot of empty buildings that I think are probably available,” said O’Connor.

De Blasio said Pope Francis’ humanitarian leadership helped inspire the program.

“His Holiness reminds us of our common humanity, and he instructs to think of people who don’t have a home first as human beings, not as faceless burdens on the society,” said the mayor.

Father Harold Brock of the St. Crispin Friary in Melrose attended the press conference and spoke in support of the plan.

“It’s all about relationships, about friendship,” he said. “That’s what attracts people. That’s what makes them feel valued.”

To get the program started, outreach teams from the Department of Homeless Services will identify and engage people for the beds and related services.

“Our timeline is aggressive,” Mr. Taylor said. “We’re looking to start getting these beds up and running within the next few weeks.”

Along with the Opening Doors initiative, de Blasio recently announced $1 billion in new investments to address the city’s homelessness crisis over the next four years, including subsidies, mental health services, and other outreach programs. Approximately 38,000 people moved from shelters to permanent housing over the last fiscal year. 15,300 of those placements were part of the City’s new rental assistance programs. However, over 57,000 New Yorkers remain homeless.

Jean Rice, a representative of Picture the Homeless who joined a Safe Haven shelter a few years ago and got the help he needed after a more than a decade of homelessness, applauded the new initiative but said more must be done.

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