Op-Ed: Why We’re Welcoming the Families of the New Fourth Avenue Shelters

535 4th Avenue & 555 4th Avenue (Photo: Pamela Wong/Bklyner)

By Amy White Graves, founder of Brooklyn Children’s Theatre. The nonprofit serves 1,300 children a year in Brooklyn.

New York City is facing a homelessness crisis and women and children are bearing the brunt of it. Almost 60,000 people currently live in city homeless shelters, and approximately 70 percent are families with children.

Homeless families are no different than yours or mine, other than the difficult circumstances they’re facing today. Maybe they lost a job, faced eviction from a home or suffered as a survivor of domestic violence and needed to leave a dangerous living situation. There are myriad reasons why a family is forced to move into a homeless shelter, but in nearly every case, it is an absolute last resort for them.

At Brooklyn Children’s Theatre (BCT), we have a golden opportunity to do our part to combat the crisis by welcoming the families who will live at the two newly proposed homeless shelters on Fourth Avenue to the Park Slope community. I have seen firsthand how being able to access the free services that Park Slope has to offer can better the lives of families experiencing homelessness and potentially put them on the path to stability.

Six years ago, a woman called me from a homeless shelter to ask for a scholarship for her 10-year-old daughter to attend BCT, the program that I run. The woman was a single parent who suffered from herniated and slipped discs. She wasn’t able to hold down a job because she was in constant pain and couldn’t stand for any significant length of time.

Meanwhile, her daughter was on the honor roll at her school and showed tremendous potential. The mom knew that a theatre program could be a great asset for her daughter, providing her with a supportive community and helping to build her confidence.

Her daughter attended our program in the fall. She was quiet, thoughtful, worked hard and had a lovely singing voice. In the winter, the girl took our audition workshop class where we coached her on monologues and songs for middle school auditions. And then she tried out for and received a coveted spot at the Mark Twain middle school for acting.

Over the past four years, BCT’s OASIS program has provided nearly 400 musical theatre scholarships to children living in family shelters. Homeless kids learn to dance and sing alongside students from all over the borough. Onstage, in their costumes and stage makeup, no one knows or cares which kids live in a shelter or in a mansion. They are all up there together, Brooklyn’s talented future, singing their hearts out.

We mostly work with families in a shelter in East Flatbush, a neighborhood with limited resources for families. The public transportation is sparse, the zoned schools are struggling and the options for healthy food are few and far between. I know that there are some incredible shelters and programs in these areas, but the fact is that Park Slope offers unparalleled access to resources and enrichment opportunities, like free after school programs for children of all ages, that other neighborhoods do not.

By coming to Park Slope, the children become part of a community of kids and parents that they might not normally encounter. And the way that the Park Slope community has come together over the past few years to support these students has been truly inspiring.

Teaching artists have coached homeless students on their school auditions. Photographers have donated headshot sessions. Volunteers have offered free tutoring. Fellow BCT families have sought out and fulfilled Christmas wish lists, donated clothes and offered school supplies. Through BCT, students living in shelter have found support in high school theater programs – and a handful of our first OASIS kids are now in college.

That is why I am thrilled that two family shelters are opening in Park Slope.

Every family, no matter their economic circumstances, wants what’s best for their children. We must not forget that nearly 12,000 homeless New Yorkers are children under the age of six. Homeless families who have access to better resources – healthier food choices, abundant public transportation, excellent public schools – have a chance to break the cycle of poverty. Living in Park Slope can give them a huge leg up.

Our community at Brooklyn Children’s Theatre is thrilled to welcome the new families in the Fourth Avenue shelters. We hope you’ll join us in doing what we can to help.

Bklyner welcomes letters to the editor and opinion pieces from all, and will consider for publication as long as they are timely and relevant to Brooklyn residents. Please email submissions to editor@bklyner.com.

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  1. “Homeless families are no different than yours or mine, other than the difficult circumstances they’re facing today.”

    “Every family, no matter their economic circumstances, wants what’s best for their children. ”

    “Living in Park Slope can give them a huge leg up.”

    Entirely separate from these shelters, everyone over the age of 12 can see these kind of quotes as the pollyanna nonsense they are

  2. $10,000 per month per unit? It’s essentially $120,000 annually per family. I think the city can use that money more wisely.

  3. Unless someone (or the city) has a plan for fixing up that stretch of 4th Avenue, I don’t see how they plan to integrate these people in the community. Most people from Park Slope (which is not South Slope) don’t want anything to do with anything south of 9th Street, which is evident by the desolate avenue and complete lack of services or businesses on 4th Avenue below 9th St. The city is paying over one-quarter of a billion dollars (!) to rent these spaces from the developers, yet unless they plan on fixing the surrounding neighborhood – including nearby 5th Avenue – which is filled with retail vacancies, I don’t see how these people will be supported aside from having an apartment. (That the city is paying 4x the market rent for.) Why not devote some of these apartments to low-cost or subsidized, or free housing, and have the rest of them rented out at market rates? That would help with the goal of ensuring integration (although the developers would have to take a cut in what they are making on this windfall/deal…)…and the city could subsidize surrounding retail spaces to open grocery stores and other services that would help the entire community.

  4. Clearly Ms. Amy White Graves believes that homeless shelters in “Park Slope” would benefit her City, State, and Corporate funded Brooklyn Children’s Theatre since she is expected by her donors to provide services to homeless children and that is difficult to do when there are so few shelters in Park Slope and Community District 6 more widely. But the question is not whether there should be homeless shelters in “Park Slope” or even in Community District 6, but whether there should be two very large shelters on adjacent blocks in a fragile neighborhood on the border between the South Slope and Gowanus. The editorial as did her testimony at the Contract Hearing makes for great theater. It makes for an entertaining emotional appeal based on the universal love of children. But it completely misses the point.

  5. Excellent schools? Primary school age children from these shelters will not be attending PS 321. They will be attending PS 124. And how will these children benefit from Park Slope when they are living on the outskirts of Park Slope, really not in “Park Slope” at all, and only living there for about one school year before moving on elsewhere? Stability is worth more than anything else to young children but homeless shelters don’t offer that.

  6. The author runs Brooklyn Children’s Theater which got at least $22,000 in city budget earmarks arranged by Brad Lander. They are located 17 blocks away and don’t run a single program in the school for which both shelters are zoned, making Ms. Graves’ claim to be a neighbor of the shelters completely hilarious.

    So, let’s review:
    Amy White Graves wants shelters, as long as they are at least a mile away.
    Christine Quinn wants shelters as long as they are nowhere near her Chelsea home.
    CB6 loves shelters, as long as they are nowhere near the wealthy parts of their district and none of “those people” are allowed into their lilly-white schools like PS321. (CB6 voted 31-1 against a shelter in Carroll Gardens.)

    And all the while, the people who live closest to these buildings are advocating for deeply affordable, permanent housing for families who previously experienced homelessness. I’ll take the authentic, honest, compassionate folks in South Slope and Gowanus over those CB6, Manhattan, President Street NIMBY hypocrites any day.

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