As winter winds chill, BRC continues street outreach efforts

BRC outreach workers, Garzon, left, and Poirier, right, in Madison Square Park.
(Photo by Winnie McCroy)

BY WINNIE McCROY
Wednesday, January 12, 2011

As the mercury continues to plummet, the Bowery Residents’ Committee continues their street outreach to area homeless substance abusers and those seeking mental health — in preparation for the March 2011 opening of their 127 W. 25th St. vertical campus facility

At half past three on a gray winter Wednesday, I meet up with BRC Executive Director Muzzy Rosenblatt and two street outreach workers as they begin their shift at Madison Square Park. They are easy to spot in their bright orange windbreakers that read “BRC Street Outreach” on the back.

The men, Francis Garzon and Dennis Poirier, say they will begin by circling Madison Square Park, and then walk the interior. The park is part of their beat, which runs roughly from 23rd to 28th Streets between Fifth and Tenth Avenues.

Garzon and Poirier check in with a man carrying several shopping bags who stands on the corner. The exchange is pleasant, but the man says he doesn’t need any help right now. We continue down the east side of the park, where a tall, older white man in a blue baseball cap with an gold insignia embroidered on it is sorting through newspapers in the trash. The guys stop to talk with him. His name is Alan, he says. He is friendly and does not seem to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In fact, he reminds me of a friend’s father. Garzon gives him a card with the BRC hotline number on it, and we move on.

It is sad to see so many older people on the street, especially when it is so cold outside, I say.

“You can’t come to it with pity. You have to admire the resourcefulness that allows people to survive this,” Rosenblatt replies. “You also have to try and make a connection, to get them to tell you their name, so that we see they are Alan, not a homeless guy. Then we can see what we can do to help Alan, what Alan needs.”

As we walk, Garzon, a thin, young, soft-spoken Latino man, tells me that he has success at this work because talking to people comes naturally to him. January 12 will mark two years since he began doing street outreach. He was enrolled in a job-training program when he was referred to BRC and has been working with them ever since, walking up and down the avenues, engaging clients who may need housing, detox or other programs they provide. Although most people are friendly, not all take advantage of the help he offers.

“Some people refuse services,” said Garzon. “I guess they’ve been out here too long so they’re already accustomed to living on the streets. Plenty of times, clients just get accustomed to street life, and they just don’t go nowhere. I have many clients that have been out here since I started working here, who are still on the street. That’s how they survive; their daily routine on the street is what they’re accustomed to.”

Garzon is often paired up with Poirier, a slightly older, bearded man with a friendly smile. Poirier tells me he has been doing outreach for just under two years. He was working in advertising when he saw two men in BRC coats on the subway engaging a homeless man in conversation.

“I looked them up on the Internet that night, liked what I saw and started volunteering,” said Poirier. “I met Alvin our director, one thing led to another, he hired me as an outreach worker, and here I am.”

Poirier said he and Garzon reach out to between 200-300 people a month and end up providing services to about eight of those people. When asked how he manages to make a connection with the homeless, mentally ill drug addicts he encounters on a daily basis, Poirier said, “The trick is to getting people to talk to you. It’s about trust.”

“The initial opening has to be really strong,” he said. “It’s just about figuring out what will get them to have a conversation with you; it doesn’t necessarily have to be about services right away. Once you engage with them and they start to see you as a human being and not an outreach worker, then you can start to have a conversation about some of the things we can help them with, about which programs might fit them.”

Poirier notices a man sitting alone on a park bench, so we double back. Garzon speaks to him in Spanish, and he is friendly, but says he doesn’t need help. When asked if he would be willing to share his story with a reporter, the man replies that he is too busy. We say adios, and move on. We walk outside the park and around the block and encounter another man sitting on a park bench. He is not homeless, he says, indignantly.

“We definitely have regulars, people who are not ready to go into services yet, who need more time, or people who we are in the process of finding the proper situation for,” said Poirier, as we jump in the BRC van and head toward Chelsea Park to meet with one of these regulars who may be ready to access help.

On the way, we stop at Fifth Avenue and 29th Street, where an African-American man lies splayed out on the sidewalk across from the Marble Collegiate Church. Poirier kneels close to him as he gently shakes him awake. They talk, and the man says his name is Gerald, that he is from Pennsylvania and has been in the city for a year. Poirier asks Gerald, whose hands and feet are swollen from the cold, if he has a place to stay, and if he has been using today. No, he replies, and explains that he doesn’t like the shelters he has been in.

“Most clients have different stories about the shelters, like fights happen, or some clients get robbed of their clothing, so they don’t really like the shelter. They consider it a jail almost,” said Garzon. “So that’s where we come in. We have our own programs. We have safe haven programs, transitional housing, and then they move on to permanent housing. There is the crisis center for detox and a reception center for people with mental illness. The BRC shelters are better; there are no fights or stealing.”

Rosenblatt is sensitive to the man’s situation, saying, “What if someone came into your house and woke you up?” Although it seems as though the man could benefit from detox, he takes a card, and we leave him. When we drive by the corner later in the evening, he is gone. The guys know, as does Rosenblatt, that you can’t force someone to get the help they may need.

We continue on to Chelsea Park at Tenth Avenue and 27th Street, on the west side. It is colder here, so close to the river, and as an elementary school track team circles the perimeter of the park, Garzon approaches a potential client with whom he made an appointment to meet that afternoon.

As Poirier parks the van, he explains that they have spoken with the man four or five times already, and that they believe he may be ready to get help. But as we join Garzon, the man, who stands next to a large suitcase, balks, telling the outreach workers that he has major depression, but doesn’t want to be around other mentally ill people. He says he has spoken with another agency and will wait to see if they can help him. We say goodbye, and the guys make a note to ask another worker, with whom the man is more familiar, to check in with him in a few days.

“He may be playing mom against dad,” Rosenblatt said, explaining that he may also be telling other agencies he is waiting to see if BRC can help him. “But we don’t want to take him some place that won’t be good for him.”

“We provide them with information on the requirements for the programs, to see if they’re eligible,” Poirier explained. “Every client we engage might be eligible for different things. You just have to make a connection with them, get them to start talking and determine which client is appropriate for which program.”

We roll around the corner, and Poirier and Garzon stop to talk with a woman pulling cans out of the trash. These “canners,” they explain, are usually better able to take care of themselves and often have a place to live. It is rumored that one canner in Chinatown put her child through college via recycling. 

As we sit in front of the Urban Pathways drop-in center — a Department of Homeless Services program — a woman approaches the van. She came up from Kentucky a year ago, she says, and things didn’t work out. Now she wants to return, to stay with her sister. She has been waiting three weeks for her request to be processed. Can BRC help? Poirier explains that only DHS can provide bus tickets to people who want to return to their state of origin. He apologizes, but encourages her to be patient: her ticket will come through.

Back on the road, we cruise west down 23rd Street, stopping when the guys notice a woman with whom they have spoken in the past. She is unreceptive to their offers of help, but an older gentleman perched on a standpipe smoking a cigarette takes a card. The guys tell me he asked them for change, and later said he was staying at a program in Ward’s Island.

Around the corner, we stop to speak with an older white woman, who sits with her bags in front of a bodega. Poirier and Garzon say they have approached her in the past, and she is unwilling to engage in conversation. She declines to speak to us. Next to her bags stands a box of hand-painted pictures. In an effort to start a conversation, Rosenblatt offers to buy one of the paintings, which appear to be on sale for $2 apiece. She gives him the fish-eye as she informs him that the cost is not $2, but $20. Stymied, we get back in the van and drive away.

Rosenblatt directs Poirier to drive around the block to find an older white man he often sees by Gray’s Papaya, and we soon find him leaning against a storefront, his shopping cart of possessions ten feet away. The guys know this man, and Garzon warns me as we approach him that the man sometimes becomes irate.

Garzon introduces himself and asks the man if he needs help. “Why don’t you leave me alone?” the man replied. “You’re always out here, everyone hates you! Your organization is so bad! Nobody wants you here! I hope you go out of business this year!” he raged.

Garzon’s face remains calm. Letting the man know BRC is here if he needs to access services, Garzon returns to the van. After three hours riding along with the outreach workers, I have a good idea of the challenges that face them.

People living on the street face myriad challenges, from poverty and substance abuse to mental illness. Poirier said that help could come from many different routes. “Some people give a homeless person the info and have them call, and others call BRC to let them know a person in need is out there.”

“If it’s severe distress — an emergency — call 911,” he said. “But if you see a guy in a regular spot, call and we can try to help them. Sometimes we go out there, and they have some very choice words for us, which is cool, it’s okay. But it is absolutely worth the time to call, because that’s our job. It is certainly part of what we do. Even though Francis and I spend a certain amount of time in our zone or area, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to miss a spot. So if you call it in, there’s a good chance we’re going to be able to help that person.”

To make a referral for homeless outreach, call BRC’s 24-hour homeless helpline at 212-533-5151.

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