By Manuel Rueda
During the winter, Greg Rose began to find empty bottles of wine and Thunderbird in a small alley that runs between his home in Highbridge and his neighbor´s house. Rose believes men living in the local homeless shelter are drinking here at night. He also says one of the shelter residents offered to sell him drugs.
“It´s unsettling, because it makes me believe that when I sleep at night something is going on in my little alleyway” he says.
Many Highbridge residents say some of the homeless men living in the Stadium Motor Lodge Transitional Home –a shelter on Sedgewick Avenue- are also urinating on the streets, drinking in public and occasionally sleeping on people´s door steps when they fail to make the shelter´s 10 p.m. curfew.
The un-neighborly conduct of some shelter residents has increased security concerns in the area. It has also generated tensions between local activists who want the homeless men to be transferred away from the neighborhood and shelter operators who claim they are doing their best to to serve the homeless population and to respond to security concerns.
So far more than 1,000 Highbridge residents have signed a petition in which they ask local authorities to transfer the homeless men away from the neighborhood. The city however has not responded to their pleas. The Deparment of Homeless Services (DHS) says it has a mandate to help the homeless men out of their situation and to house them at their current location.
The Bronx Ink has not been able to verify reports from residents that men living at the Stadium Lodge are urinating, drinking or sleeping on the streets of this poor but quiet neighborhood.
On a brief tour of Highbridge however, community activist Agnes Johnson was quick to point out a spot just one block from the shelter, where the homeless men allegedly drink and hide their booze.
“One time we found a knife here,” she added, pointing to a small gap between two fences that separate Sedgewick Avenue from a future construction site. Crushed beer cans and a Beefeater gin bottle filled up the two-foot gap between both fences.
Nancy Mendez, a cashier at the Highbridge Pharmacy on Ogden Avenue says that mentally unstable men have repeatedly attempted to steal over-the-counter medicines and other small items from her store.
In February, Mendez said a woman who was with one of these men punched her in the face, after she attempted to recover a packet of Tylenol that the couple had taken from the pharmacy. A few days after the incident, Mendez found out that the man lived in the shelter.
Concerns over the Stadium Motor Lodge began last September, when the department of Homeless Services ordered the shelter´s operator, Promesa Basic Housing, to transfer its previous residents to another shelter.
Dozens of single mothers and their children left and were replaced by a group of some 200 single males that includes former convicts, men with substance abuse problems and a handful of men convicted for sexual crimes.
In January, Barbara Brancaccio the deputy commissioner of the Department of Homeless Service told the Daily News it transferred the men to the Stadium Motor lodge because currently there is a greater need for housing for single adults.
A DHS spokesperson also told the Bronx Ink that residents at the shelter receive psychological counseling, job straining and medical attention.
But while Highbridge residents acknowledge that the homeless need help, but they say nobody warned them about their new neighbors and their possible impact on the community.
As activist Agnes Johnson walks around the streets of Highbridge, greeting locals and mentioning the homeless shelter, it is common for her to find people who do not even know that the women were replaced by single men last fall.
Johnson is concerned that the shelter´s new residents will only bring problems to a neighborhood that is already besieged by high poverty rates and crime. The shelter is just a five minute walk away from elementary school PS 126, where Johnson teaches free ballet classes on Saturdays.
Johnson fears the few public spaces that are available to children outside the school – a small park and two basketball courts – could be jeopardized by the presence of aggressive or drunken men. “What good does this shelter do for the community?” she said.
In response to these concerns, a DHS spokesperson speaking on background, said that on February 11th agency members had met with the offices of Council Member Helen Foster, State Senator Jose Serrano and other local politicians to discuss ways to prevent loitering.
Pam Mattel – Promesa Basic’s chief operations officer – says the Stadium Motor Lodge has a 24-hour security team surveying the shelter’s perimeters and a shuttle to take residents to local bus and subway stations.
Mattel says that in January the shelter also created a Community Advisory Board that meets monthly with representatives of local government and community organizations like church groups and members of community board 4.
She warns against blaming shelter residents for problems that could be caused by other people entering the neighborhood.
But some activists feel excluded from Mattel’s advisory board and say it does not truly represent the community´s desires.
Greg Rose believes community members should monitor the behaviors of some of the men living in the shelter. Keeping records of any unsolicited behavior that can be shown to shelter operators and local authorities. “If we don’t document anything we just sound like disgruntled residents” he said.
Meanwhile, he and other residents continue to fear the presence –and the alleged behavior- of some members of the Stadium Motor Lodge in Highbridge.
Rose walks out to meet his friends at their cars when they come to visit him at home. In the past few months even his mother, who has lived in Highbridge for 50 years, has begun to stack up chairs against her front door at night, hoping that will keep her safe from potential assailants.