The McGolrick Park Homeless . . . It’s Complicatedby on
Whether you are first-time visitor to McGolrick Park or you’ve lived in the neighborhood surrounding the park all your life, there is a long-standing fixture of McGolrick that no one can overlook. No, I’m not talking about the historic center pavilion, or the beautiful maritime and wartime sculptures, or the majestic trees. . . I’m referring to McGolrick Park’s homeless.
McGolrick Park is Home to Homeless
I’ve lived on streets directly bordering McGolrick Park for the past ten years. When my family first moved into our Russell Street apartment in 2002, the park was in a terrible state, and I remember being very regretful that we had moved to this enclave of Greenpoint. I’d walk through the park and find pools of blood and puke, needles, dime bags, and copious liquor bottles left by the drunken homeless men who lived on the park benches. At that time, I also discovered a strangely morbid memorial to one of these men. I learned that in September 2002, two homeless men were viciously attacked in McGolrick Park, and one of them, Marek Kolodziejcryk, 36, died due to his injuries.
Over the years, there have been many times when I called 911 because of the drunken fistfights that would ensue amongst these “public inebriates.” Even worse, I’ve made several calls to emergency services after coming across the unconscious bodies of these men sprawled about the park. In September 2011 came the horrifying news that one of these men had committed suicide by hanging himself from the perimeter fence. It was that tragedy (as well as many other serious problems occurring in the park) that moved me to action.
Turning Personal Concern into Political Action
I began writing petitions and started a park community group in the hopes that our local politicians, the Parks Department, the police, and social services would hear the community’s concerns and implement pro-active solutions to McGolrick Park’s homeless crisis. However, once this spring arrived, it was clear that nothing had improved.
With the warm weather came droves of familiar and new homeless faces. In April, the man pictured below laid on his cardboard bed at the North Henry and Nassau park entrance for nearly 36 hours straight. A day after I first saw him there, I called 311, LifeNet, and Common Ground to try to get help for him and selfishly, to simply have him removed from the park entrance. The fact was that this man literally reeked. He expressed no qualms in getting up from his squat, walking several feet away, and openly urinating in public.
I was told by Common Ground that they were preparing to restart outreach services to the McGolrick men, and so I was hopeful that a social worker would visit him promptly. But still days went by, as park garbage bags piled up higher and higher around him. It was a truly pitiful sight, and I couldn’t believe that the Parks Department’s solution to this man’s presence was simply to obscure him with black bags. I even spoke to the McGolrick Park garbage man and asked him how this could be happening, and he said there was nothing he could do. In the end, I don’t know if the man pictured actually received help, or if he simply left of his own accord.
By the July 2012 heat wave, the homeless population had grown even stronger in McGolrick Park. An encampment had been established at the Monitor Street entrance between Nassau and Driggs. A group of up to ten men lived at this location day and night for weeks. As shown below, the grass grew higher and higher around the camp, as liquor, garbage, feces and urine overtook the area. I never saw any action taken in the name of the Parks Department.
But then, on one of the hottest days of summer, I was lucky enough to see two outreach workers giving water and aid to the men of this camp. I spoke to these two women and learned that they were Common Ground staffers. Common Ground is an outreach program that serves the homeless and near homeless. As their website states:
“Common Ground prioritizes individuals who historically were perceived as unreachable and ‘unhouseable’: those who have lived on the streets for years, who have the most debilitating mental and physical health conditions, and/or who have suffered significant adversity (childhood abuse or neglect, long-term foster care placement, traumatic military combat) that contributed to their homelessness. Despite being the primary consumers of substantial public resources, these special needs groups have been consistently marginalized or ignored by conventional outreach, shelter, and housing systems.”
These Common Ground workers informed me that most of the men residing in McGolrick Park have been processed through Common Ground, and that individualized, long-term solutions have been laid out for them through the program. However, given the bureaucracy of the system, and the unpredictability of these men’s lives, it would be months if not longer before these plans of action would become reality.
After speaking with these women, I felt some sense of relief in knowing that these men are in fact receiving outreach services. Through Common Ground, these men and their individual circumstances are at least known, which means that their lives matter. . . and that made me happy. But the realization that it may take great lengths of time before these men are offered stable housing, rehabilitation and other necessary services, was extremely disheartening, because there is no doubt that in the meantime some of these men will be lost.
For ten months, I have been reaching out to the Parks Department and area politicians about this issue (as well as the overall degeneration of our beloved park). The most frequent response that I receive concerning these men is, “It’s complicated.” Yes, the men of McGolrick Park present a unique, difficult, and complicated social quandary, but the complexities of the situation have for too long been used as a way to defer responsibility and action. Therefore, I’d like to examine what makes the circumstances of these men so complicated; perhaps by identifying the intricacies of the situation, we can begin to move beyond them.
Breaking Down the Complexities
Firstly, throughout this piece I’ve been referring to the McGolrick men as “homeless,” but this for the most part is a misnomer. As I’ve been told by Common Ground and Rami Metal of Councilman Levin’s office, many of these men are not technically homeless. They have primary residences, but are often expelled from their homes due to their alcoholism. In turn, their residency status and alcoholism disqualifies them from many traditional homeless services.
What special services they are offered through organizations like Common Ground must be complicated by the fact that many of these men are solely Polish speakers. While it seemed that the two Common Ground workers I saw serving the men in July were communicating well enough with them in English, it is hard to believe that the emotional roots of these men’s dereliction can really be discovered in a language that is not their own. If these men are ever to really start on the path to recovery, they have to be able to express themselves in their own words, which means Polish-speaking social workers are needed to aide these men fully.
This issue is also complicated by widely varying community perception of these men. There are some people who view the presence of these men in the park with a sense of apathy – They’ve always been there, and always will, so what can you do? Others regard these men with pity – Where else are they going to go? They have nothing, so we can at least let them be in the park. Still others feel nothing but disgust and anger by their presence. But I would venture to say that most of the community feels ambivalence and helplessness when it comes to these men. No one wants to see harm come to these guys. No one wants to stand by and watch these men drink themselves to death, or suffer from extreme weather or be victims of violence. At the same time, parents don’t want their children exposed daily to the consequences of alcoholism, nor do residents want to watch the overall health, safety and beauty of McGolrick Park decline. People don’t want to enable these men’s addiction, but also don’t want to see them starve or face withdrawal. The fact is, the community just doesn’t know what is an appropriate way to view and deal with these men because there is no openly known model or protocol to follow.
According to Common Ground’s website “Anytime you see a homeless person in distress, please call 311. The operator will contact Common Ground or one of our partners.” But aren’t these men constantly in distress? Does that mean we need to call 311 everyday, all day? And this also begs the question of what the Park Department’s responsibility is or should be addressing the presence of these men.
The role that the Parks Department plays in the lives of these men is also a complicating factor in finding a long-term solution. For the past two years in particular, I feel that the Park’s modus operandi has been to more or less ignore them and the consequences of their presence. The truth is that these men break a myriad of serious park rules everyday, and are therefore subject to fines and/or imprisonment if park management charged them with these offenses.
Let’s be honest, the city would never get fine payment out of these men, which means they would be sent to jail if found guilty, and is that really the best way to help these men? On one hand, it may be the rock bottom they need to enter recovery, but more likely they would just be in more danger. In considering the endgame of the Parks Department’s involvement, one can see why they’ve chosen not to act within their legal parameters.
Considering all of this, and the fact that city budgets for parks and social services continue to be cut, we the Greenpoint neighborhood are left without any present or near-future solution to both improve the overall welfare of these men and the state of the park. Councilman Stephen Levin has long been championing the idea of a “safe house” in the neighborhood surrounding McGolrick Park specifically for these men and their special needs. Councilman Levin’s office recently offered the following statement:
CM Levin is working with Common Ground, the Department of Homeless Services, and a local volunteer group that includes the clergy and alcohol abuse professionals to create a place in the community for these folks to sleep at night in a safe and supervised facility. We believe that having a consistent place to sleep every night, together with the wraparound services that we will be working with Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to provide in the form of recovery coaches, as well as other services will really make a huge difference in these people’s lives. This has been a very challenging issue that CM Levin has worked closely on for years and he is hopeful that this solution will make a positive impact on the community and will save lives.
Although Councilman Levin’s clear understanding and confrontation of this issue is truly appreciated, this recent statement is no different than the information he offered to me on December 9, 2011 at a civic meeting discussing the problems of McGolrick Park.
While Councilman Levin’s vision for a special facility for these men would be an ideal and effective solution, it will remain unreachable until two major obstacles are overcome: funding and location. This kind of social project will surely be costly, probably millions in start-up costs alone. However, I have never seen a proposed budget or strategy for this venture, so I cannot say for sure, hint, hint.
And then there is the question of where to put this facility. It should be within the McGolrick Park neighborhood because clearly that is where the need is, but there will definitely be a community backlash if it is put directly in the residential area around the park. How do we get beyond these hurdles?
Plans on How to Address the McGolrick Park Homeless Issue
To that question I offer the following suggestions. Whether or not these ideas are feasible I can’t say. I have absolutely no experience in urban planning or social reform. I’m just a mom from the neighborhood who wants to see a better future for these men, the park, my community and my family. Here goes. . .
Although the August 22nd deadline has passed to submit ideas for the distribution of the $19.5 million settlement from ExxonMobil to the Greenpoint community, I kindly ask Councilman Levin to make the following proposal: Ask for $2 million to be granted from the Exxon settlement to address this issue. Let the deciding panel know that this project would both save lives and improve the only open space in this section of Greenpoint. Furthermore, locate the facility in the industrial zone between McGolrick Park and Newtown Creek. A medium sized garage/small warehouse could easily be converted to accommodate a small office area, 2 toilets, a shower, a kitchenette, and 20 beds.
That’s my suggestion. And I implore anyone who’s reading this to make other proposals on how to realize Councilman Levin’s solution to our homeless people’s needs. Take your time, do some research, because clearly this is a very complicated issue. But don’t be overwhelmed by the complexities because then nothing will improve, more lives may be lost and our park will continue to suffer. Think, write, speak and let those in charge know that you care and that this is important to our community—it’s not that complicated.
Click here for Councilman Steve Levin’s (and other local politicians’ and community leaders’) contact information.
Click here to visit Common Ground’s website.