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A shelter far from the streets

A rural haven for New York's homeless began as a model of progressive thought in the '30s. But Camp LaGuardia's time is coming to a close.

January 09, 2007|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

Chester, N.Y. — EVERY night after dusk, yellow school buses begin to arrive in the town of Chester, driving past silos and onion fields to a fenced-in complex at the top of a hill. They have come from New York, an hour-and-a-half drive south of here, and they are carrying homeless men.

The men will sign in and scatter to their beds, in military-style dormitories or, if they are sick or frail, whitewashed cells that once held prisoners. If they are here for the first time, they will be issued toothpaste, deodorant and a suit of freshly laundered secondhand clothes.

At midnight, staff members will make a final count of the men for a report they will send to city officials. Then they will continue on their rounds, walking through the darkness and silence of the countryside.

For 72 years, the city has transported homeless men to Camp LaGuardia, in the hills of Orange County. Its 1,001 beds have housed gaunt men from Depression-era bread lines, drunks from Bowery flophouses, down-on-their-luck immigrants, and, occasionally, elderly men who simply made their home here. A German man, who is remembered with particular fondness by the staff, stayed 29 years, and raised pigs.

All that will end this summer, when Camp LaGuardia shuts its doors. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has vowed to decrease the city's homeless population by two-thirds by the end of his second term, moving as many as possible into subsidized apartments. The city is getting out of the business of sheltering people for indefinite periods. Over the years, no facility has better epitomized that business than Camp LaGuardia, New York's largest shelter and its most easily forgotten.

Already, the population has been cut in half, to below 500. One recent departure was Adam Kropiewnicki, 61, a wordless, sweet-tempered Polish man known locally as "the Walker." Every morning for seven years, he set out on foot looking for work as a day laborer. But not until last fall did anyone call an interpreter to the site to speak to him in Polish, said Courtney Denniston, 27, a case manager supervisor.

"The first words out of his mouth were: 'Home. I just want to go home,' " Denniston said. He had come to the U.S. illegally to work as an asbestos handler, but when he lost the job, he had no money to fly home. He had a wife and children in Warsaw.

Volunteers of America, the nonprofit contracted by the city to run Camp LaGuardia, bought Kropiewnicki a one-way ticket to Poland. Staff members asked him to be ready at 2 p.m. on the day of the flight, but he was packed and sitting outside with his suitcases, beaming, at 8 a.m. Denniston loves to tell that story. "He had been waiting seven years for someone to ask him what he wanted," she said.

Other men, though, have no idea where they will end up. Mohamed Chakdouf, 58, has no interest in returning to his family in Tangier, Morocco; it would be too shameful to admit that his marriage and career failed, he said. He can't go back to his old job: What hotel wants a concierge with no front teeth? Nor does he want to move back under the Brooklyn Bridge, where he slept on and off for four years, until he fell terribly ill.

Chakdouf was uneasy when he arrived at Camp LaGuardia, but he found a deep, meditative calm in the camp's small library, where he read first one thriller, then another and another. Two years later, he wears a snow-white tennis sweater and carries himself like a college professor. He earns $64 a week as a clerk at the camp; at night, he reads. He is happy here.

So is Allen Callender, 64, who has a fuzz of pale hair and a battered, yellowish complexion. Callender was raised in Harlem, and said he had been "doing crime for about 40 years." He came to Camp LaGuardia two months ago, after getting released from prison, and said it's the only place he can "hook up his head" before returning to the streets, with all their temptations. He sits outside, alone, and gazes at the hills.

"I got me a couple spots," he said. "I get me a cup of coffee and I think and I think."

*

IN the 1930s, when New York began sending its homeless men to this city-owned prison, the camp was such a showcase of progressive thought that a scale model was exhibited at the World's Fair. It is a collection of a half-dozen buildings, centering on the austere brick headquarters of Greycourt Prison and set on 253 acres of black soil.

Camp Greycourt, as it was called at first, started out as a "farm colony" for unemployed men during the Depression. Progressive thinkers believed a rural setting was just the thing for discouraged and demoralized city-dwellers; they proposed similar camps for prostitutes, delinquents and tuberculosis patients. The "campies," as they were known, canned close to a million quarts of vegetables one year, sold under the brand name "Father Knickerbocker." They published their own newspaper, and at night they could buy 4-cent beers at a tap room.

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