East Harlem Groans Under the Weight of Support Facilities

By Charles Eichacker on Jan 4th, 2013

People get off the M35 bus on Lexington Avenue. East Harlem residents are upset about the crowds who wait for the bus back out to Wards Island. (Photo by Charles Eichacker)

Riders leave the M35 bus on Lexington Avenue. Some East Harlem residents dislike the crowds coming and going from homeless shelters on Wards Island. (Photo by Charles Eichacker)

After losing his job as a prep cook when the Primehouse steak restaurant downsized in 2009, Christopher Burrus couldn’t pay the rent on his Washington Heights apartment. By the time unemployment kicked in, he’d already moved into a homeless shelter on Wards Island.

“You go to orientation at Bellevue. After they evaluate you, they send you here if you’re able-bodied,” Burrus, a middle-aged Harlem native with a limp and few teeth, said of the shelter’s admissions process. “Able-bodied,” he clarified, means free of HIV, substance abuse or mental health issues.

But Burrus’s fitness didn’t last long. Now dealing with a hereditary bone disease affecting his knee, he can neither stand nor sit for long periods. Since physical therapists won’t trek across the Triborough Bridge to see him at the 200-bed HELP shelter and employment center, he takes the M35 bus into East Harlem, then a subway to his biweekly P.T. sessions downtown.

While many locals acknowledge the need for the homeless shelters, methadone clinics and other social services scattered across East Harlem, businesspeople and residents have tired of the drug addicts, ex-convicts and homeless people–like Burrus–regularly getting on and off the M35 at the Lexington Avenue and 125th Street stop.

“It’s this sense of lawlessness,” said low-income housing developer Nina DeMartini-Day, describing the area around the stop. “It’s a community that gets dumped on. And maybe there was a time when residents needed those services, but now no other community will take them.”

Despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s response to overcrowding at existing homeless shelters this past summer – he opened 10 new ones, including a few in wealthy neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, and announced plans to build five more  –  many share DeMartini-Day’s view that East Harlem has been saturated.

In reports over the last few years, Community Board 11—which includes East Harlem and Wards Island—has claimed to house more homeless people and treatment centers than any other Manhattan district, violating the 1989 city charter provision that no district house more than its “fair share” of social services facilities.

Palladia, a multi-service agency for individuals with substance abuse and mental health problems, has one location on East 128th Street and Madison Avenue. (Photo by Charles Eichacker)

Palladia, an agency for individuals with substance abuse and mental health problems, has one location on East 128th Street and Madison Avenue. (Photo by Charles Eichacker)

In its 2013 statement of district needs, the Board said its district  housed 196 people in family shelters and 953 men and 144 women in eight homeless shelters. It counted three private methadone clinics, 37 drug and alcohol treatment facilities and 37 mental health facilities. That’s the “HIGHEST concentration of shelters and facilities of any community in the entire Borough of Manhattan and the 2nd largest in the city,” the statement said, accusing the city of violating its fair share mandate.

The Department of Homeless Services did not respond to a request for confirmation of the number of homeless people in the district.

For now, despite ambitious development goals and rezoning initiatives, East Harlem will have to keep taking in the destitute and treating the addicted, because the fair share guideline only takes effect during the land use review process before construction of a city facility, Tom Angotti, director of the Center for Community Planning & Development at Hunter College, explained via email.

Despite the charter’s fair share clause, Angotti believes zoning has favored richer areas. “City officials tend to avoid proposing these facilities in those neighborhoods that have more political power and recourse to legal challenges — wealthier neighborhoods,” Angotti said. “Thus the city’s policies are, de facto, exclusionary — and they have become so firmly rooted that they are not even questioned.”

The problem, DeMartini-Day said, isn’t that the individuals waiting for the bus are homeless but that they obstruct the chaotic retail corridor, as heavily trafficked by pedestrians on sidewalks as by vehicles on the street.

“It’s not that we don’t have a heart,” DeMartini-Day said at a Community Board meeting last month. “It’s a congestion issue.”

As a manager of commercial and residential properties at Donrell Realty on East 116th Street, David Gomez knows first-hand the effects of homeless people on the community. He has worked to attract businesses–upscale restaurants and boutiques, wireless and electronics stores–to rent commercial spaces in El Barrio. A women’s gymnasium or spa, he said, would be his ideal tenant, “creating good economic opportunities for business nearby.”

Although Gomez sees the need for shelters, he thinks their clients have repelled the higher-end businesses that would attract wealthier residents to the neighborhood.

“You need to have sufficient disposable income to support the stores, to support business beyond the average type,” he said, meaning the nail and hair salons, 99-cent stores and pharmacies that now rent most East Harlem storefronts.

But retail concerns pale in comparison to the public health problems that could result from moving the drug treatment centers, believes Pedro Mateu-Gelabert, a City University epidemiologist who studies injection drug users. He questions the idea that drug users and people with HIV somehow aren’t members of the community.

“There is an implicit idea that drug treatment centers, or even needle exchange programs,” Mateu-Gelabert said, “that those places are detrimental to the community. I think that’s completely the wrong understanding.”

From a public health perspective, Mateu-Gelabert believes methadone clinics and needle exchanges cost far less to run (“consider the cost of sterile syringes: less than a dollar”) than treating people after they contract HIV or Hepatitis C.

“My definition of community, especially as related to public health, is not this narrow six blocks around a clinic,” Mateu-Gelabert said. “I don’t know of any clinic or hospital who only treats people in its area.”

Stuck with the support facilities, DeMartini-Day takes heart that the community has started actively debating how to address traffic and quality of life issues, she said, charging that lawmakers and city agencies have put off doing so for over a decade.

Members of the community–DeMartini-Day included–and the Board have suggested moving the heavily-used bus stop around the corner onto 125th Street, where a wide stretch of sidewalk outside a Pathmark supermarket could absorb the crowds.

Some East Harlem residents feel the M35 bus stop should be moved around the corner, next to a Pathmark supermarket. (Photo by Charles Eichacker)

Other residents claim that move would only worsen traffic. At the same Community Board meeting, Vice Chair Diane Collier opposed the Pathmark proposal. Bus traffic, especially the kind generated by double-accordioned buses blindly making left turns, would only get worse, she argued, and economic development along 125th Street could be compromised.

The current M35 stop, moreover, conveniently leaves its passengers right by the subway entrance, easing the transfer for those, like Burrus, who already have to make the extra connection from their makeshift homes across the East River.

Assistant District Manager Angel Mescain-Archer, while recognizing the need of individuals getting off the M35, admitted that he’d never take his family to the IHOP behind the current stop.

Brodie Enoch, a Board member running for City Council in the 7th District who also manages campaigns at Transportation Alternatives, put forth a third option: pushing the 23rd and 25th Precincts to more vigilantly police loitering and petty crime in retail-heavy areas.

Despite the inconvenience for his own commute, Burrus also recommended moving the M35 stop to the Pathmark sidewalk, to spare pedestrians the trouble of walking around those waiting for the bus.

Still pursuing housing and employment, Burrus hasn’t caught a break. People with disabilities, he said, usually get brought to “Next Step” shelters that provide intensive job counseling. But by not recognizing his disability, Burrus said, Homeless Services denied him those benefits, among others under the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act, passed in 1987 to help sheltered homeless find employment.

For all his grievances, Burrus hid his stress as he walked from the Wards Island M35 stop back to the HELP shelter on a grey afternoon, the smell of chicken wafting from the Popeye’s bag in his hand. He talked about Community Voices Heard, a grassroots organization that advocates for job placement services and voter rights among the homeless, for which he volunteers.

While Burrus thought the Pathmark sidewalk would ease East Harlem foot traffic, he didn’t let disgruntled local businesses off the hook. “They also have to realize that 60, 70 percent of people didn’t ask to be sheltered,” he said. “I know you probably got people who drink, and kids are there, but they got to take the big picture view.”

Of course, it’s a different big picture view that has development-minded East Harlemites upset.

But on Wards, you see the big picture through Burrus’s eyes.  Men pace aimlessly around the shelters and treatment centers.

J.C., like Burrus, doesn’t have a home. When he first moved to the city from South Carolina in November, he fell prey to a Craigslist scam promising an apartment in Brooklyn. Now the handsome, self-described adventurer with a goatee—who gave only his initials—stays at HELP and appreciates how close the subway entrance is to the M35 stop. It shaves crucial seconds off his long commutes between Wards, a retail day job on 42nd Street and a night shift in a SoHo bar,

“It takes awhile to get out to Randall’s Island, but it’s nice. It gives you something to be appreciative of. You have to be appreciative,” J.C. said, praising the laundry machines in particular (and confusing Wards with Randall’s Island; both are connected by a landfill).

If East Harlem residents are worried about drug abusers and homeless people in their midst, J.C. wondered, why didn’t they step up security along retail-heavy 125th Street?

The police department did not respond to The Uptowner’s requests for comment.

Waiting for the bus into town, J.C. vaguely hinted at a family he’d moved to New York to support.

“I moved here looking for something better,” he said.

3 Responses for “East Harlem Groans Under the Weight of Support Facilities”

  1. david says:

    how about moving the bus to 125th st. between 1st and 2nd ave., or to 3rd ave, or 2nd ave., bordering 125th. that ‘population’ of people should not receive preferential treatment at the expense of neighborhood residents. i don’t know anyone in the neighborhood who is not disgusted with this situation. and, while i’m on the subject, can’t we remove the methadone treatment center from park and 125th, the lee building?

  2. Timothy Rigney says:

    I feel so badly for that rich blonde woman that was interviewed on News Four New York tonight (1/30) because the homeless shelters on the Upper West Side are inconveniencing her. How terrible that her sensibilities are being assaulted by “crazy people” and homeless people in New York. I hope she’ll be able to recover from this incredible psychological and social assault on her very being.

  3. 10029 says:

    I feel like white people should have NO say in any of harlem’s affairs period.

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