Homeless Outreach Program Ramps Up in Preparation for New Chelsea Shelter

Chometa and Poirier patrol Madison Square Park.
Photo Credit DNAinfo Tara Kyle

A homeless advocacy group is canvassing Chelsea three times a week to help people get off the streets.

By Tara Kyle
DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

February 2, 2011

CHELSEA — It's been close to a year since Julio Wharton, 53, lost his wife to emphysema — a trauma that he pinpoints as the beginning of his descent into homelessness.

Panhandling at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 25th Street on a recent Tuesday evening, Wharton explained that he spent four months sleeping in a shelter, and has crashed at a friend's place in Brooklyn for the past three. His drinking has worsened, and asking for spare change, Wharton said, was simply a way "to fill the time, and block myself out of my loss."

"I'm hurting myself," Wharton said, "I do want help for it."

That's exactly the kind of response employees of the Bowery Residents' Committee (BRC) hope to hear as they conduct street outreach in Chelsea, a thrice-weekly exercise to get homeless people off the streets. The outreach passes through Madison Square Park, Chelsea Park, and the streets and avenues criss-crossing the neighborhood.

The patrols began last summer, when BRC kick-started preparations to open a new multi-service facility at 127 W. 25th Street. The shelter, which is slated for a spring opening, has spurred outrage from some area residents who believe its bed count of over 300 is too big for the neighborhood and will harm their quality of life.

In the meantime, and until the new facility is up and running, BRC's outreach specialists are focused on directing Chelsea's homeless to their existing shelter and other resources in various parts of the city, including safe havens, chemical dependency programs and mental health programs.

That's a delicate process, BRC Executive Director Muzzy Rosenblatt explained before encountering Wharton on a recent patrol.

Outreach specialists are trained to use careful, non-threatening body language (such as crouching to meet seated people at eye level), he said, and to always ask, "How are you doing, are you OK?" rather than offering a more confrontational "Are you homeless?"

And most men and women on the street are more cautious about asking for help than Wharton. It usually took several conversations before someone would be ready to enter a shelter or program, according to Outreach Specialist Dennis Poirier, 32.

What BRC hopes to sell to neighborhood skeptics, such as members of the Chelsea Flatiron Coalition, is the promise that they can turn around the lives of the men and women spending their nights crouched under awnings or scaffolding, on cardboard boxes or park benches.

Eventually, the goal is that the homeless people met by outreach teams one day will have successes akin to those of Jody Heman, 42, a native New Yorker who has been drifting in and out of homelessness since 1999.

Before BRC picked him up in Madison Square Park last September, Heman said he spent his days moving between the streets, libraries and bookstores, a methadone treatment center and a deli offering 99-cent egg sandwiches.

Now, he's living in a safe haven in Washington Heights, getting back into the rhythms of daily life that most people take for granted, such as making his bed and doing laundry. Heman said he was keeping up with his methadone program and preparing to move into his own apartment. He also dreams of going back to school for a tech-based trade.

While Heman said he still worried about the possibility of slipping back into his old life, he expressed gratitude for the aid he has received in rebuilding his confidence and regaining a sense of home.

"I feel that there are things that can be achieved," Heman said. "You can dig yourselves out."