Shelter Skelter

Homeless Women, Some Physically Disabled, Face Evacuation

One hundred and seven single, homeless women, many physically disabled, have less than a month to evacuate the Kingsbridge Women's Assessment Shelter (KWAS), which the city's Department of Homeless Services (DHS) plans to close on June 1. It's the only handicapped-accessible women's intake shelter in the city. Housed in the Kingsbridge Armory, KWAS faced a similar threat last year, when DHS wanted to relocate it to the Franklin Armory, in a more remote section of the Bronx.

Of 15 shelters (total bed capacity: 1700) for single homeless women in the five boroughs, KWAS is one of three intake shelters (the others are in Queens and Brooklyn) that provide short-term housing as well as social-service referrals, including domestic-violence counseling and drug rehabilitation.

KWAS is jointly run by two nonprofit organizations, the Tolentine-Zeiser Community Life Center and Care for the Homeless. Because they are currently under a service contract with DHS, Eve Abzug, the shelter's director, declined to comment on the closing.

The Economic Development Corporation (EDC), one of three city agencies on the mayor's Kingsbridge Armory Task Force, developed the rehabilitation plan that includes repair of the 88-year-old building's roof and removing asbestos from its walls.

Many Kingsbridge Heights residents suspect that Giuliani is closing the shelter not only for rehab, but as part of a $110 million deal that would put a major entertainment center—a sports complex, a cinema multiplex, and major retail outlets—in one of the most important shopping districts of the Bronx.

"During the seven years the mayor's been in office, and while the shelter was still running, no one cared about removing the asbestos," says Ronn Jordan, a member of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC). Jordan believes that Giuliani covets the ground the shelter sits on for 600 parking spaces.

Bronx Borough president Fernando Ferrer, a possible mayoral candidate, supports the armory's redevelopment, but complains that the city gave short notice for relocating the shelter. "To give two months notice [to close] one of the most important women's shelters in the city sends a signal that the [Giuliani] administration pays lip service to many things while at the same time knowing the havoc their actions can wreak," says John Melia, Ferrer's press secretary. The borough president's office is seeking a site to relocate the shelter.

When talks of renovating the armory began more than two years ago, the NWBCCC proposed moving the shelter into a new above-ground facility, complete with new furnishings. The plan was rejected by the EDC, which has since contracted with RD Management, a major retail-center development company whose blueprint excludes the shelter. (This week, NWBCCC will meet with the management company to discuss the possibility of keeping the shelter as part of the armory.)

DHS has yet to announce any plans for accommodating the women. But Jordan says that a loss of shelter capacity is not the only concern. "DHS will say that 75 beds opened up in the Salvation Army Center. But actually, you're losing quality. These people are losing the trusted liaisons they have developed with shelter workers."

According to Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless (CFH), it is hard to predict what clients will do given the inaccessibility of the two alternative intake shelters. Markee believes that the handicapped and other women ejected from KWAS will most likely wind up back on the streets.

CFH, a court-appointed nonprofit agency that monitors the city's 44 shelters for single adults, hopes to fend off the city and the developers. If the mayor carries out the closing, the coalition will implement a legal challenge against the city, under the 1981 Callahan consent decree, whereby the New York State Supreme Court established the right of the homeless to shelter.

The Legal Aid Society, which represents the coalition, recently sent a letter to the city's corporation counsel and DHS about the matter and, most likely, will file a disability-related suit on behalf of the women.

 
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