By Sabina Mollot
For the Kips Bay residents whose homes are near the men’s homeless shelter on First Avenue and 30th Street, concerns over safety and quality of life didn’t begin in April after a rape at a local bar, which was allegedly committed by one of the shelter’s residents.
A few neighbors who were interviewed by Town & Village recently said they’ve had to alter their daily routines for years now in an attempt to avoid the homeless men, who’ve become a near-constant presence on the sidewalks, loitering, fighting, panhandling and using phone booths on the corners as a toilet as well as a spot to do drugs.
Residents have also reported being harassed and an increase in aggressive behavior. In May, a coalition of fed up neighbors who live the shelter started a petition aimed at reducing the number of beds at the shelter to about 250. Currently there are 850 and the shelter, at Bellevue’s “Old Psych” unit, is running at full capacity.
Other requested changes include forbidding any man who’s been charged with a sexual offense or other violent crimes to stay there, and closing the loophole in the law that allowed those men to stay there in the first place.
While all the sex offenders who’d been staying at the shelter were relocated after the rape at Turnmill bar on East 27th Street, this isn’t necessarily permanent. State law dictates that sex offenders can’t be within 1,000 feet of a school. However, this only applies to sex offenders who are out on parole or probation, so the Department of Homeless Services, which runs the shelter, has been in compliance.
The neighbors, meanwhile, said they also want to see the closure of the shelter’s Mainchance Intake Center located on East 32nd Street, blasting it in the petition as poorly run and having no regard for the community. It now has over 1,300 signatures. Though it’s not mentioned in the petition, area residents as well as the superintendent/resident manager of a building across First Avenue from the shelter, Antonio Rodriguez, have indicated they’d also be thrilled if the city got rid of the phone booths along the avenue.
But then again it’s not only the phones that are being used as toilets.
Rodriguez recently had a clear view from a vacant apartment in his building as a man squatted between two cars parked out front and defecated. This was after the man had attempted to do the deed a few cars away but a driver inside saw what the man was about to do and stopped him. “He said, ‘what are you doing taking a crap on my car?’” recalled Rodriguez. In response, the man said, “I have to go, I have to go.”
As far as the less extreme, but still ongoing problems in the area, Rodriguez said loitering outside his residential building is the big one, especially since a couple of weeks ago when a sign went up stating “No loitering” in front of the shelter. The building, 350 East 30th Street, is a block long and faces the shelter’s entrance. At one time, he recalled, he could call the shelter’s security to bring the stray residents back inside. However that kind of response is now a distant memory.
Town & Village reached out to a Department of Homeless Services spokesperson multiple times for comment on this story. However the department did not respond. The commanding officer of the 13th Precinct, Captain Brendan Timoney, also declined to comment, referring questions about the shelter to the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information. The DCPI did not respond to a request for comment.
Local residents, on the other hand, have had a few things to say.
One of them is Mauro Pennacchia, an IT employee at New York Eye & Ear Infirmary, who grew up on East 29th Street and still lives in the neighborhood. In recent years he believes the area has gone downhill due to the homeless men becoming more aggressive.
One of them, he said, harassed his wife on Mother’s Day by asking her for money as she sat outside at a local restaurant with a couple of other mothers and babies. When she refused, he began yelling and cursing, insisting he was different from the other homeless men. That is, until Pennacchia, who happened to be walking by at the time, approached him and told him to get lost.
Pennacchia said he also warned the man to stay out of the area because a school, PS 116, was nearby. In response, the man told Pennacchia he didn’t want to go to the shelter because he’d been attacked there. He’d been asking for money so he could stay somewhere else. Though the man was eventually escorted off the street by police, who’d been called by Pennacchia’s wife, he was seen again later in the day, down the block from PS 116.
“We cannot walk a block without walking into a shelter resident,” Pennacchia said. “It’s changed how we live our lives, how we walk down the street. The fact that (the panhandler) said ‘I can’t stay in the shelter myself’ is telling. These guys don’t seem to be getting the help they need.”
Earlier, this week, he added, he spotted a man masturbating on the street. Another time, one of the shelter residents approached his son, calling him by his name at a Second Avenue playground. This was three years ago and the man did get a summons for the incident. However, Pennacchia said he’s seen the same man since then walking around and talking to kids.
Another neighborhood parent told Town & Village she also thought the situation has worsened over the years.
Liz Parish, whose two kids attend PS 116, said while she hasn’t seen any extreme behavior, her concerns were mostly related to the men’s loitering on the street.
“Every day they’re swearing and smoking,” said Parish of the homeless men. “They congregate at the phone booths and they definitely pee there. You can smell it. They ask you for money. I just ignore them; my daughter does too.”
While Parish added that she’s tried to teach her daughter, who’s 11, to be compassionate towards the homeless, “it’s just so much,” she said. “Back in the day it was just an occasional hobo.”
Police have said they’ve been addressing the problem, and Pennacchia said he has noticed that recently cops have become more responsive to calls.
A Town & Village article, which ran shortly after the Turnmill attack, had noted how police told community residents they were beefing up their patrols in the area. Captain Paul Zangrilli of the 13th Precinct informed residents who packed that month’s 13th Precinct Community Council meeting that officers were modifying their procedures.
“We’re always aware of what’s going on and it’s clear that what we’re doing there isn’t fully working,” he admitted at the time. “We’re flooding the area with patrol and increasing our presence, and won’t stop until we have a handle on the situation.”
At a more recent meeting on June 2, the precinct’s commanding officer stated that the NYPD’s efforts, working jointly with the DHS police, were already producing some results; shelter residents were no longer hanging out on the corners, he said.
But Ken Ryan, the property manager at 350 East 30th Street, who also lives in the building, said the men are still there. In fact, the day before he spoke with this reporter last week, he’d noticed a couple of empty booze bottles on a ledge of a wall outside his building’s garage, which homeless men sometimes sleep on. The entrance of the garage, which is sloped and therefore somewhat hidden, is also regularly used as toilet. Visitors, said Ryan, include the man responsible for the recent street defecation.
As a result of this, there will soon be a metal fence around the garage.
However, Ryan said he is at least optimistic about one thing changing — the phone booths outside the building finally being removed. One idea that’s been brought up was replacing them with Wi-Fi pods. The pods would be an improvement, Ryan said, because they’re smaller than most parking meters.
“They’re not shelters,” said Ryan. “Right now they’re shelters, so you come in, do your pee, and no one’s going to see your weenie.”
Ryan said he learned about the Wi-Fi pod idea at a private meeting with elected officials that took place Wednesday, June 3, which he attended alongside a handful of other community residents and Council Members Dan Garodnick and Rosie Mendez.
The removal of the phones has also been a hot topic at Community Board 6 meetings, and is something the board is pushing for, according to the board’s Housing, Homeless and Human Rights Committee Chair Rajesh Nayar.
“We’re trying to force the issue because it’s in the police’s and the community’s interest in seeing them removed,” Nayar said. There had been, he noted, some concerns about resistance due to the advertising revenue the phones provide.
As far as residents’ other concerns, Nayar echoed the cops’ sentiment that they are being addressed.
The cops, he said, have been patrolling “in loops” from the shelter to around the block to Second Avenue to back to First Avenue again. There’s also been an idea floated of the NYPD increasing its surveillance of the shelter area further by putting up a mobile tower.
As for the DHS, while previously, Nayar said the administration wasn’t really interested in the community’s input, there’s been more communication lately now that police and the media have been paying more attention.
For instance, recently, Nayar learned that the shelter is using a finger imaging system with residents in order to tell if someone’s using an alias.
“I do feel that they’re making progress and going forward,” he said.
But in the meantime, his recommendation for any neighbors with complaints is to call 311, explaining that the data will be sent to the DHS as well as the NYPD.
Meanwhile, Nayar added, the community board has long taken the position that the shelter, which has been in operation since 1998, shouldn’t even be located at Bellevue’s old psychiatric building.
“This is something that was grandfathered in because nowadays shelters are not that big,” said Nayar. “It’s an old building and the whole facility itself, whether it’s up to date with fire codes, these are things we constantly think about. We feel it clearly would be better served in a smaller space.”
The feelings of neighborhood residents are also of course a factor.
“It’s a balance,” said Nayar, “of wanting to make sure clients are being taken care of. Unfortunately some are not good clients, and the whole idea is it shouldn’t be detrimental to the neighborhood.”