A different kind of corner store: A story of surviving homelessness

Dennis Pentier has been homeless and traversing the streets of the Bronx for a good portion of the last decade. Photo: Allen Devlin


“I am not proud of everything I’ve done, and I’m not proud to tell you how I’m living, but I’m proud to tell you how I’m surviving.” – Dennis Pentier from his temporary living quarters on a Bronx sidewalk.

Dennis Pentier is proud of his sense of style. He wakes up every day and puts an outfit together, making sure nothing clashes and his shirt and pants fit just right. His wardrobe includes a suede cheetah print jacket from his night club days, a freshly pressed pitch-black suit for church, an array of white tank tops, spackled and stained by the bleaching cream he uses to lighten his dark brown hair and skin. Presentation is everything, Pentier said, a motto he has lived by for all his 48 years.

Unfortunately, on that humid October morning, his voluminous outdoor closet made it difficult for him to move from the wet roof of the apartment building where he usually slept at 1930 Grand Concourse in the Tremont section of the Bronx, to the sidewalk across the street late the night before. His days usually begin on the top of the apartment building. But that morning, it started at the bottom, at 6 am, when the Bronx begins to come to life.

“It doesn’t matter to me. It’s not a big deal. I sleep where I can,” said Pentier with a heavy Jamaican accent as he lit a cigarette with a neon green lighter. His initials were carved into the side.  “If it’s not the roof, then it’s somewhere else. As long as it’s a place I can lay my head.”

Pentier has spent the past year on the streets of Tremont, making the corner of Grand Concourse and 178th his home. He is doing what he knows best, bringing the same entrepreneurial spirit he once brought to his drug trade and as a bodega owner to the street. He collects items others give to him or that others have thrown out and sells them on the street to pay for food, marijuana, and for support for his 8-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother three blocks from where Pentier sleeps. The mother of his child, Sharon Epps, declined to make any comments on Pentier.

His inventory has a little bit of everything, ranging from cell phone batteries, to lighting fixtures, to articles of clothing, the finest of which he keeps for himself.

Pentier’s makeshift corner shop is open 12 hours a day. Photo: Allen Devlin

Pentier believes he is better off living on the streets than in the city shelter system, which did not suit his style.

“This block. They love me. Everyone loves me here because I respect them all and I love them back. I have more family here than I do anywhere else,” said Pentier. “People come through and help me out every day. They give me a dollar here or ten dollars there. They buy stuff they don’t need. Just to help me.”

Over the course of an hour, more than 50 different people stopped by to talk with Dennis, to take a look at the goods he sells in his make-shift corner shop. Some live on the block, others were simply passersby. “Usually I’d charge $7 but for you sweetheart I’ll do $3,” said Pentier to one of the seven people eyeballing his assortment of items he refers to as his “Load.”

“This has become a landmark for this block,” said a customer, who goes only by “Teddy.”

“I’m out here all the time because he’s always got good [stuff].”

Pentier’s business success varies from day to day. Sometimes he can make as much as $75 during his normal 8 am to 8 pm hours. Other days he brings in much less.

A customer inspects one of the many shoes Pentier has displayed, organized by brand, color, and size. Photo: Allen Devlin

“Every day is a good day when you can make a dollar,” said Pentier. “Somedays I’ll make $20 and others I’ll only make $5. But that’s $5 I didn’t have before so it’s still a good day.”

He then reached into his pocket and handed a toddler $2 as they passed by. “This is for you,” Pentier told the child. “Save it. You might need it one day.”

Dennis is one of the 62,000 homeless people who currently live in New York City in what experts are calling a new epidemic. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, in 2018, homelessness in New York City has reached its highest rates since the Great Depression. The nightly total of people sleeping in city shelters is now 82 percent higher than it was 10 years ago and the numbers are continuing to rise. A full 35 percent of homeless families in city shelters come from the Bronx, including two of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, Tremont and Fordham.

The homeless single adult population makes up the largest population of the homeless that does not use the shelter system. Experts believe the total number of homeless single adults in New York City is much larger than the numbers reported each year. Many of them are completely off the grid and impossible to track, sleeping under bridges, in subway stations, and on rooftops, just like Pentier.

Mayor Bill De Blasio promised to tackle the epidemic when he first took office five years ago.

“It simply can’t continue,” he pledged. At the time, 51,000 people were sleeping in shelters every night. That number has risen 17 percent, to over 60,000. The rising number has flustered city officials. The De Blasio administration spent $1.1 billion to create 24,500 affordable housing units last year–more money and more units than any past administration has done in a single year. More than any year on record.

Yet the numbers continue to rise. And people like Dennis are left with few shelter options other than the roof.

Pentier was born in England in 1967. Shortly after, his family moved back to what they called home, Jamaica. This is where Dennis spent the first 20 years of his life before he arrived without documents in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1994. Six months later, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he felt he could make more money dealing cocaine and marijuana, then his trade of choice.

“I was the man on the block. I had the girl, the apartment, the money, the drugs, I had it all,” said Dennis. “And then I didn’t.”

At the beginning of 2012, Pentier moved to Tremont because of the lower living cost, and rented a bodega in the area. The store at 1948 Carter Avenue was where he spent most of his time. But it was not his main source of income.

He claims he was able to move tens of thousands of dollars worth of drugs in and out of his bodega every week, providing a decent income – topped off by random credit card fraud and other monetary crimes. “I didn’t have a Social Security number because I came here illegally, but back then it was easy to make up a Social Security number and open a line of credit and get whatever you wanted,” said Pentier. “But it was temporary.”

In 2012, the FBI cracked down on many of the drug lords in the area and Pentier’s chain of command, along with his drug business, was torn up. He managed to evade conviction by distancing himself from the drug rings and remaining under the radar, but his life suffered in other ways.

The store wasn’t bringing in enough profit, and the dwindling revenue of drug money was no longer covering the difference. By the end of 2012, he could no longer afford the rent and had no source of income.

As the rain rolls in, Pentier places a plastic cover over his “Load” to protect it. Photo: Allen Devlin

He was evicted from his apartment after not making rent for two straight months, and by the beginning of 2013, he joined the other 53,000 New Yorkers who were in and out of homeless shelters each night. Following his eviction, Pentier spent five years in and out of the city shelter system. His longest stint was at Palladia, a homeless shelter on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan between 123rd and 124th Streets. Palladia, like many of New York City’s shelters, attempts to do more than simply house the homeless; they work on rehabilitation efforts, mental health sustainability, job training, and other methods and tactics to reverse homelessness and prevent homelessness in the future. But with many adults, the efforts of the shelters can only go so far.

“They couldn’t help me too much without me having a social,” said Pentier, “It was never about improvement or finding a way to get out of the shelter, only about making it to the next day.”

In 2013, towards the beginning of his stay at Palladia, Pentier said the Palladia staff checked him into Harlem Hospital’s psychiatric ward against his will, where he spent six months, dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts; thoughts he says he still struggles with today.

In America, it is estimated that around 45 percent, or 250,000 homeless people live with a mental illness. While there are no exact statistics due to the difficulty of accounting for all of the homeless adults living in public spaces across New York, it is widely believed that a majority of single homeless men and women live with either a mental illness or severe health problems.

Eventually, after many run-ins with shelter staff and security for selling marijuana within the Shelter, Pentier was thrown out of Palladia and registered to another shelter in the Bronx.

He never showed up.

Pentier said his time in the shelters was rough, and that his experience was no different from many others in the shelter at the time. Thousands upon thousands of homeless in New York chose to stay out of the shelter system because of safety and sanitation concerns. It’s commonly said among homeless single adults that they would rather take their chances in the streets and public spaces of the city each night than spend it within the walls of a municipal shelter. Pentier is no exception.

“The shelters are a bad place to be. You can’t be chicken and you can’t be weak, because if you are, someone is going to use you.” said Pentier, as he recounted his experience. “I admit I was relentless in the shelters. I didn’t care about anyone else, I just did what I had to do to survive.”

He added, “I am not proud of everything I’ve done, and I’m not proud to tell you how I’m living, but I’m proud to tell you how I’m surviving.”

Pentier doesn’t know what is next for him and says that he’ll be sleeping on the sidewalk until the roof of the apartment building dries out. He will continue to stash the items he sells in an abandoned apartment down the block for as long as the superintendent will allow him, or until someone rents the apartment. He is living day to day, as he has for a good portion of the last decade.

Along with selling, Pentier also buys and trades with the people on his block. Photo: Allen Devlin

“The devil is busy and he’s dancing Papa, let me tell you.” said Pentier. “But I believe in God, I go to church when I can, I am a good person and I know good things will come.”

Genie, a Jamaican man who Pentier claims is his best customer and one of his best friends, has known Pentier since 2009 and has been helping Pentier out for the past three years as he moved from shelter to shelter, finally landing in Tremont. Genie worries that his friend’s addictions to crack, heroin and other powerful drugs may get the best of him.

“If he doesn’t get off the street, he is going to die.”

“I have been telling him for a long time that he needs to seek help,” Genie said in an emotional phone call. “I’ll stop and I’ll give him $2 dollars or $3 dollars and I’ll buy clothing off of him and send it back to Jamaica. But that stuff he’s got in his veins, it’s got him too far gone. It’s got him [messed] up. If he doesn’t get off the street, he is going to die.”

Genie mentioned that Pentier is currently planning on saving up enough money to rent a U-Haul truck and park it on the street where he currently sleeps and sells. Pentier is excited about the idea but can’t currently afford it.

“I only need $50 more to rent the truck, and $20 a week after that to keep it. It’ll give me a place to keep my load and a place to sleep,” said Pentier. “It’ll be a step up from the sidewalk.”

A lady cracked the apartment window on the ground floor above where Pentier was sitting against the wall on the corner. Without saying a word, she extended her arm through the window, holding a Styrofoam plate of steaming potatoes and pulled pork. Pentier stood up and joyfully grabbed the plate.

Pentier placed his plate down briefly in order to help a customer. Photo: Allen Devlin

“Ah, yes you see! You’re not going to get this in a shelter!” he said, as he began to eat.



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