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A shelter far from the streets

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was facing staggering poverty and unemployment. He loved the idea. He called the camp a “human repair shop,” and testified at federal hearings that 40% to 50% of residents left for full-time work. In 1935, the New York Times detailed the story of 28-year-old Ralph Rinaldo, former resident of New York’s skid row: “City Camp Farmer Wins Job and Wife,” read the headline. “Weds Onion Grower’s Daughter -- Couple Get Gift of a Goat, a Pig and a Sheep.” A year after the camp opened, its residents voted to name it for LaGuardia.

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After the Depression, though, older alcoholics replaced the merely out-of-work. Sociologist Stanley Henshaw, who visited in the mid-1960s, was struck by the lassitude he found: “The aim of most men is to stretch out their activities to consume as much time as possible. There is no need to conserve time.” But in his dissertation, Henshaw concluded that the camp -- a “village,” he called it -- was “a long-term place to be safe” for Bowery drunks, healthier than the streets and cheaper for the city than jails.

The place seemed to survive because it attracted so little notice, he said.

“I think it wanted to be forgotten,” Henshaw said in an interview.

That ended in the 1980s. Drugs had transformed street life in New York; as mental hospitals closed, chronically ill men joined the ranks of the homeless. Chester homeowners began to complain about finding syringes on their lawns, and police made regular sweeps of the camp, frequently finding fugitives. In 1999, as part of a settlement with Orange County, the city turned the facility over to Volunteers of America, which imposed tougher screening and safety measures. In 2002, for the first time, a fence was erected around the camp’s perimeter.

On a recent afternoon, the atmosphere at Camp LaGuardia was sleepy. Men walked singly on the narrow road leading to the camp, carrying a few possessions in plastic bags. Some were on their way to or from the village of Chester, where there are stores, bars and restaurants; others sought work as day laborers. Though buses go back and forth to New York in the morning and evening -- there is a pickup point in the Bronx -- about half the residents spend the day on the property. Some participate in programs, like an organic farm, and others work at jobs in the kitchen or laundry.

The men can stay a night or a year, said Lance Alexander, the division director for VOA. Only men over 35 are admitted to the camp; severely mentally ill men, high-level sex offenders and men with outstanding warrants are screened out. The city identifies qualified men on a first-come, first-served basis, and refers them until the beds are filled.

Celso Trinidad, 50, said the isolation made him feel paralyzed, “like a rat or a mouse on a wheel, spinning and spinning.” But Tyrone Beach, who was doing landscaping work in the afternoon sunshine, looked regretful at the thought of leaving.

“It’s time to wake up now,” he said. “Got to wake up sometime.”

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Alexander hates to see the place close. Most of the beds have been filled for the five years he has worked here, and he frankly doubts that independent living is the answer for everyone. Many of the men need someone to care for them, he said, and placements have always had a failure rate: Men who couldn’t keep up with the electricity bill, or grocery shopping, and started drinking or drugging again.

“This is their way of life,” Alexander said. “These folks can’t have their own apartments.”

As the city tries to find permanent homes for its homeless, the first priority is to identify those who have stayed longest in shelters. Those men, in some cases, have settled in. Veteran workers at Camp LaGuardia can’t help but remember Paul Brinn, the German man who stayed for three decades, raising pigs and goats in a small pen. In 1999, with reform in the air, city officials found Brinn a spot in a nursing home, but he refused to leave. Finally police handcuffed him and forced him into a van. He died two weeks later, said Marion Corcoran, who has worked at the camp for 12 years.

“You know how people die of broken hearts?” she said.

The case that nags at Maria Macias, a case manager, is Mohamed Chakdouf, who has become a friend. She badgers him, almost daily, to get working on a plan for his life after the camp closes, but he won’t. She thinks he’s afraid to: Because he’s not in the country legally, he can’t sign up for subsidized housing or health insurance, and she worries that, given the choices that will confront him in June, he will choose the street.

Still, a deadline is a deadline. The last resident will be gone May 31; the facility will be transferred to Orange County, which is paying the city $8.5 million, and there’s been discussion of using the space to store voting machines.

It will take years after that, though, for the last signs of the place to disappear: For as long as the staff can remember, wild animals have wandered to the edges of Camp LaGuardia, where they were fed by homeless men from New York City. Pigeons flock there; chipmunks, deer, rabbits. Even the skunks have been tame for generations.


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