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Give Astoria homeless a roof, not spare change

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An outreach team from Volunteers of America making daily rounds in Astoria last week swung by the decrepit crash pad for half a dozen homeless men on Hoyt Avenue - a cavelike alcove on the side of a burned-out building that was unfit for zoo animals, much less people.Eileen Fernandez, 36, who has worked for the non-profit homeless services provider for three years, craned her neck between the plywood and musty box spring propped over the opening and gazed at the empty malt liquor bottles, soiled sneakers and sleeping bags scattered on the concrete floor. "Nobody's home," she said. As she and her partner walked away, a well-dressed man stopped at the hole, peered in and placed a steaming cup of coffee inside. Most would call his charity a simple act of kindness.But Volunteers of America has another term for the man's behavior: Enabling. "People want to do the right thing," said Andrew Martin, a spokesman for the Greater New York Volunteers of America. "But there's a cost to that we don't think about."Giving a street dweller some pocket change or a sandwich does more harm than good, he said, by supporting their dangerous lifestyle. It's hard to get them to change their habits, especially when they can find food, money and even shelter on the streets, Martin said. His organization contends that the kindness of strangers is among the toughest hurdles it faces in the fight against homelessness. And in a friendly community like Astoria altruism is particularly problematic. "We've noticed a lot of resistant clients because this is where they feed them," Fernandez said. "This is where they make their money."Fernandez is among three outreach teams that scour Queens 24 hours a day offering health and housing services to street dwellers. There are an estimated 39,000 homeless in New York City, 15,000 of whom are children. It is unclear how many are in Queens - the borough will do its first ever official count on Feb. 28. Fernandez and her partner, John Townsend, 42, of Jamaica, said they make contact with between 150 and 200 homeless a month. They get about 100 of them off the streets, placing them in detoxification centers, shelters or area hospitals. "They are the first line of defense combatting homelessness in New York City," Martin said. And Ditmars is one of the trenches, where roughly a dozen street dwellers have been dug in for more than a decade. Fernandez and Townsend said they always have a tough time convincing them to leave - even when the weather turns bitter cold like it has been during the past couple weeks. This was illustrated recently when the pair called on a 40-something street dweller named Chris burrowed beneath a plastic tarp shelter in the corner of a 33rd Street municipal lot. "This is Volunteers of America," Fernandez shouted at the tarp, which was next to a beat-up red barn. "You ready to go somewhere? You ready to get placed?" Townsend asked. Chris rolled back the clear, plastic covering and peeped outside. "They have a rooster," he said. Fernandez and Townsend looked puzzled. And then, sure enough, a rooster crowed from inside the barn. "That kept bothering you? Wake you up?" Townsend asked. Chris mumbled something else. The outreach workers asked if he still had their card. He did. "When you need us, call us. We're out here 24-hours a day," Fernandez said, walking away. She said she makes dozens of similar calls during each shift. Most homeless distrust the authorities, she said, and have had bad experiences in city shelters. So it can take months or years to convince them to get help. "A lot of them shelters is rough," Townsend said. That's why Billy, a 34-year-old Minnesotan who has crashed in Ditmars for three years, said he will never go back. "In the shelters, 90 percent of the people are scumbags," he said. "They'll attack you."Or just as bad, take all of your stuff. He learned this back in 2002, when the bitter cold forced him into a Harlem shelter for a few days. He went in with a bag of clothing and personal items. "I left with some sweatpants and a jacket that said 'Steve' on it," he said, clothes that were issued to him after all his belongings were stolen. "I'm not going back to a shelter after that."But Jim Anderson, a spokesman for the city Department of Homeless Services, said shelters have become safer in recent years. The department has beefed up security at its more than 200 shelters around the city and introduced stricter housing rules in November 2003 that discourage violence, he said. "The combination of first-ever standards of client responsibility and an increased presence of security has changed the culture in our shelter system. We want those living on the street to know that they can come inside and receive services in a safe environment," Anderson said. Anecdotal reports from shelter directors suggest that the initiatives have been a success, he said. But the city has been less successful at changing the shelters' reputation."I would pick jail gladly over the shelter because in jail I know who my enemy is: everyone," said Cadillac Man, a 55-year-old street dweller who lives in Ditmars. "The ones that do go to shelters, they just don't care anymore. They're the weak ones." Reach reporter Matthew Monks by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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