Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church has been committed to homeless outreach since the 1980s—about the same time that homelessness in the city suddenly began to spiral upward. As the crisis of homelessness persists in New York City, our ministry continues.
This church sits at the intersection of wealth and poverty, where too many of our neighbors still sleep on cardboard and concrete.
In 1986, FAPC opened a trial shelter that housed six men five nights a week. It wasn’t long before we doubled the capacity of our Shelter and committed to providing refuge to up to 12 men, 365 nights a year.
By the late 1990s, more than a decade after we opened the FAPC Shelter, it was clear that the needs of the homeless in New York City were as urgent as ever. In 1998, the late Margaret Shafer, our associate for outreach, created FAPC’s befriending ministry, with the intent of connecting personally with the homeless men and women who passed by our doors every day and sought refuge on our front steps at night.
City officials and neighborhood groups quickly pushed back, and in December 2001, when the police began forcibly removing people from our sidewalks and steps, the church filed suit. We won our case, and FAPC’s “steps ministry” continued for another 10 years. But while friendship and a hot breakfast were means of alleviating suffering, our real aim was always to help move the homeless from our steps into full-time housing.
In 2011 FAPC, in partnership with the West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing (WSFSSH), launched a new program targeted at the chronic homeless—those most resistant to city shelter and services. By persuading dozens of these men to take temporary shelter during the winter, FAPC has been able to connect them with case management services from WSFSSH. This innovative program has succeeded in transitioning more than 50 men off the streets into permanent housing. (Read more about the Special Shelter Project here.)
Meanwhile, in addition to operating our men’s shelter, our Outreach staff maintains an effective street outreach program to our homeless neighbors. The annual Christmas dinner, summer picnic, holiday parties for shelter families and other events—staples of our ministry for more than 10 years—have also forged a powerful bond between our congregation and our homeless neighbors.
The David B. Skinner Shelter is a 12-bed facility that provides secure sleeping quarters, food and fellowship to guests awaiting a transition to permanent housing. The Shelter is open every night of the year, with trained volunteers serving as early evening and overnight hosts. The Shelter operates in cooperation with Urban Pathways, an organization serving the adult homeless and formerly homeless populations in New York City. The Shelter was founded in 1986 in cooperation with The Partnership for the Homeless.
The Shelter is named for David B. Skinner, M.D., a former trustee of the church and the president of New York Hospital Cornell Medical Center until his death in 2003. Initial funding for the Shelter was provided in Dr. Skinner’s honor by The Starr Foundation.
Our Shelter guests are men ages 35 and older who are currently experiencing homelessness. Up to 12 men may be staying in the Shelter on a given night. Our guests are assigned to the Skinner Shelter by staff at the Antonio G. Olivieri Drop-In Center, where they receive meals, clothing, showers, entitlement assistance, medical screening and assistance, counseling, access to vocational training and rehabilitation and recovery programs, and instruction in independent living skills.
Our guests are men of diverse cultural backgrounds with equally diverse life experiences. Some have never spent a night on the street; others have lived on the streets for many years. Some will stay in our shelter just a few months, others a bit longer, as they pursue a transition to permanent housing. It is not uncommon for a former guest of the Shelter, having moved on to permanent housing, to return as a host. FAPC volunteers and staff typically provide ongoing support to former Shelter guests as they transition into permanent housing.
Our Shelter hosts give of their time every day to create a safe and renewing environment, and foster a sense of community between the congregation and our guests.
The Early Evening Host arrives by 7 pm, enjoys fellowship with the guests and leaves shortly after the Overnight Host arrives. The Overnight Host arrives by 8:30 pm and departs shortly after 6 am the next day, after the guests have returned to the Olivieri Center. The Overnight Host sleeps in the host room and rises by 5:30 am to make coffee and set out breakfast foods.
Would You Like to Serve?
We need hosts every night of the year. Anyone over age 18 is eligible to serve. Many of our volunteers attend Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, but you do not need to worship here or be a member to serve in our Shelter. You may volunteer for both the Early Evening and Overnight shifts in a single evening, or you may volunteer for one shift or the other. Many hosts serve on their own, while others serve in tandem.
If you are interested in serving as a Shelter host, please contact Séamus Campbell, director of Outreach Ministries ([email protected], 212.247.0490, ext. 3012). You must complete a brief orientation and training. Afterward you will have access to the online hosting calendar and may sign up for any available hosting opportunity.
A Befriending Presence
According to estimates by the Coalition for the Homeless, 60% of the New York City homeless population is in Manhattan—and a sizeable number of them are in Midtown. They are among the tens of thousands who walk past our doors every day.
As part of our ministry to the homeless, FAPC offers a befriending presence to the street homeless of our neighborhood. We welcome those who walk in in search of help, and we seek out others on the surrounding streets to offer assistance.
Our staff provides on-site counseling, assessments and referrals to local agencies serving the homeless. We put a little money and a MetroCard in their pocket. We provide food, clothing and toiletry kits for those in urgent need. And we direct them to nearby shelters, soup kitchens, drop-in centers, detox and rehabilitation centers, and other services.
We serve approximately 50 walk-ins a month—more when the weather turns colder.
Don't Walk By
Starting in 2014, FAPC has been a host site for Don't Walk By, the annual "search and rescue" mission on behalf of New York City's homeless.
Every winter, over four consecutive Saturdays, volunteers from Don't Walk By fan out from a host site in a particular part of Manhattan. They seek out every person living on the streets, offering food, warm clothing and blankets, and access to services.
As the East Side host site, FAPC provides a comprehensive resource fair, where homeless individuals who return with the volunteers can meet with nurses, doctors and psychiatrists for evaluation. We also provide clothing, a hot meal and transportation to local shelters.
Another big part of our homeless outreach revolves around inviting our neighbors inside.
Every year we host a Christmas dinner for homeless and hungry neighbors that fills Bonnell Hall to capacity, serving holiday meals to more than 150 guests.
Our picnic with homeless neighbors in Central Park—started in June 2000—grows bigger each year, and now serves over 200 people every summer.
For children living in family shelters, we host three holiday events—an Easter Egg Hunt and a Fall Festival (both in partnership with our Family Ministries program) and a festive Christmas party.
If you would like to volunteer for any of these special events, contact Meredith Fleck at [email protected].