Unusual Allies: LGBT Shelter Comes to Church’s Aid

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A man steps into the basement entrance of Lutheran , on West 100th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues. Most people passing by don’t notice him, or the entrance, their attention focused instead on the scaffolding snaking its way to the top of the steeple. Faded plywood sheets cover a large oval window above the doors, and an over-sized sign reading “Yes, we’re open… in every way” hangs in front, positioned, it seems, to counter the impression that the is closed.

As the basement door opens, other young people mill about inside. This is Trinity Place Shelter, a safe-haven for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender

Heidi Neumark, pastor at Trinity, is looking to fund a rehabilitation project estimated to cost $1.6 million to $2 million. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

() homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 21. Both the shelter and Trinity, an “activist immigrant congregation” established in 1888, are housed in a church that is in desperate need of repair.

“The building is in distress,” said Heidi Neumark, pastor at Trinity. “One hundred years of wear and tear are beginning to show.”

Like many struggling churches, Trinity doesn’t have the resources to fix its historic home. The church collects about $100,000 each year in donations, an amount that’s less than the average salary of the new residents moving into this gentrifying neighborhood. But in an unexpected twist, the shelter, which Trinity created, might now help to rebuild the church.

The shelter’s roots date to 2005, when the Metropolitan Community Church hosted a meeting of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, and made a plea for houses of worship to open their spaces to LGBT youth for one week during the peak of winter.

“Trinity answered the call,” said Kevin Lotz, the shelter’s director and ex-vice president of Trinity Church.

At the time, state and city resources for all social services were diminishing and city homelessness was on the rise, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, a group that tracks homelessness in New York City. The coalition estimates that 16,000 youth are homeless in the city every night; 20 to 40 percent of them, according to the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, are believed to be LGBT. Many have been kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation, and they are often the victims of violence and discrimination at city-run shelters.

“We lament the fact that churches and religious bodies contribute to the abuse that gays have experienced,” said Lotz, “and we wanted to be a positive witness to dispel and protest that position.”

Within six months, the congregation had voted unanimously to create a permanent LGBT shelter in the building, receiving initial funding from the task force.

At that point, though, the church was already in disrepair. The most obvious signs began to appear in 2004, when a piece of slate fell off the cylindrical steeple, landing dangerously on the sidewalk in front. Cracks that allowed water to leak into the building near the pipe organ and choir room also began to show. Church leaders were concerned about the condition of the windows and frames. To protect pedestrians, scaffolding and nets were erected in front of the building and around the steeple, costing the church an estimated $1,500 a month.

After considering all options, including tearing down the building and constructing affordable housing, the congregation voted to fight to keep its home. The rehabilitation is estimated to cost between $1.6 million and $2.0 million.

Recently, Trinity embarked on a capital campaign to raise those funds, identifying three sources of support: the congregation ($300,000), grants available to buildings on the National Register of Historic Places ($600,000 to $1 million) and the shelter, which is hoping to contribute $500,000.

To help reach that goal, shelter leaders formed an advisory committee, co-chaired by Nicholas Forge, a shelter volunteer since 2007. The committee plans to raise funds by “cultivating new donors and reaching out to those who have helped in the past,” Forge said. “There is no shelter without the church.”

That may be how Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, who represents the area, sees the situation as well.

“I want Trinity to stay,” said O’Donnell, who has pledged to support the project with $125,000 to $250,000 from a discretionary capital fund. “The needs of LGBT youth don’t get addressed. They suffer great dangers, exposure to HIV, violence.”

The only obstacle remaining, the assembly member said, is for the shelter to meet the standards for capital state allocations.

Already incorporated as a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization, the shelter is a separate entity from the religious arm of the church and receives most of its $130,000 budget from the New York State Department of Health’s AIDS Institute (additional funds come from events, individual donors and foundations). Now, a lease agreement between the shelter and the church is needed to receive the capital state allocations, according to O’Donnell’s office. At press time, Neumark said the lease would be signed in the next few days.

To complicate matters, plans are being drawn to renovate the Department of Health and public library building that sits on the other side of Trinity, opposite the Columbus Square development. There have also been discussions about the construction of a 22-story nursing home for Jewish Home Lifecare, currently on West 106th Street, next door to Trinity. Any excavation near the church has the potential to further damage it.

In a hopeful sign, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation recently awarded the church a $112,000 reimbursement grant to be used for continued rehabilitation planning. The award marked the first step in an often-lengthy process to get state dollars for preserving historic landmarks.

In from the cold and safe at Trinity Place shelter, homeless LGBT youth can develop the skills to become independent, productive adults. Neumark hopes a similar transformation can happen to the shelter’s home.

“In the end,” Neumark said, “we want the outside of the church to match the inside.” 

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Window Project On Hold

In 2007, developer Joseph Chetrit prepared to excavate land next to Trinity Church for Columbus Square, a 15-story mixed-use development. Rather than risk damage to its hand-painted Birkenstock Studio windows, Trinity asked Chetrit to pay to have them removed, covering those that were left, including the large rose window above the church’s entrance, with plywood. Chetrit agreed and paid Trinity $155,000 for the work.

Now, three years later, some think the agreement might have been shortsighted on Trinity’s part: reinstalling the windows is a costly project, and one that makes little sense to complete unless larger church renovations are done.

“He is not legally responsible to reinstall them,” Neumark said, “but the church doesn’t have the resources to do it.”

So most of Trinity’s windows remain in storage, at an estimated cost of $600 per month, and plywood continues to shield the rest.

“In light of the building’s other problems,” said Neumark, “the windows aren’t a priority right now.”

—JM

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