Author Archives | Allen_Devlin

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.

 

 

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Blog, Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Community Resources, Culture, Featured, Housing, Morrisania, Morrisania, North Central Bronx, Politics, The Bronx Beat, Unemployment by the numbers0 Comments

Disabled in the Bronx? Good Luck Finding a Subway Station

“Access Denied” presented 2,000 signatures to the MTA board on Sept. 16, demanding an elevator at the Mosholu Parkway Subway Station. (Photo credit: Allen Devlin)

Monica Bartley’s days usually begin the night before.

The 60-year-old polio survivor has to schedule her transportation for the next day using Access-A-Ride, the handicap transportation service provided by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. She does not do this by choice, but because her options for public transportation are limited.

Monica has been restricted to a wheelchair since she was 15 years old.

A common frustration for many of the city’s 99,000 wheelchair users is the lack of subway station elevators, and spotty maintenance. A typical journey for her would mean first finding a station with an elevator. Then, after a long, difficult subway ride, she would arrive only to find that the elevator at her destination station is out of service.

An elevator at Harlem’s 125th Street Station is blocked off with a sign: “Down for Maintenance.” (Photo credit: Allen Devlin)

“So then, I have to retrace my steps and go across the platform to the other side,” Bartley said. “I take the subway back to where I got on, and then take the bus instead.”

The New York City subway system opened in 1904 and completed in 1953 is one of the oldest and most comprehensive systems in the world. With 472 stations, it also has the largest number of stations in use compared to other major urban systems, including Chicago, Tokyo, and London.

However, handicap accessibility experts say the system has far fewer stations that disabled riders can use, compared to other major cities such as Chicago, where 70 percent of its stations are handicap accessible.

“New York City is really behind the curve,” said Susan Dooha, the executive director for the Center for the Independence of New York, a non-profit advocacy organization founded in 1978. “We are one of the least accessible cities in the country when it comes to accessibility in our subway stations.”

“We should be doing better,” Dooha said. “We need to be doing better.”

More than 70 percent of all New York’s subway stations are not properly accessible for one or more reasons to the 836,000 handicapped New York City residents, according to the Center for Independence of the Disabled in the City of New York.

In the Bronx, the problem is more acute than in any other borough. A full 83 percent of its subway stations discriminate against the disabled.  This means that if you are in a wheelchair or are unable to use the stairs or escalator, you can access only 17 percent of the subway stations in the Bronx, compared to 36 percent of stations in Manhattan.

The new MTA president has pledged to make it a priority to install elevators and make other renovations across the city’s stations in order to make them more accessible to the physically disabled, the blind, the deaf, and the mentally impaired.

But handicap advocacy groups argue that the plan has fuzzy deadlines and no tangible time table.

A handicap sign hangs in the Bronx’s 161st Street Station, one of the few stations in the borough that is accessible to the disabled. (Photo credit: Allen Devlin)

Recently, advocates throughout the city have revived the campaign to make more stations accessible. In early August, advocates held a rally at the elevated Number 4 Line Mosholu Parkway Subway Station in the Bronx to demand an elevator. Speakers at the rally claimed that an elevator was needed because the surrounding area consisted of both hospitals and retirement homes.

“If you’re someone with a disability, a single step, can be an impediment to you getting from one place to another,” said Eric Dinowitz, Community Board Chair for the Aging in the Kingsbridge, Fieldston, and Riverdale area of the Bronx.

“The fact that there is no elevator here at this train station means there are people with disabilities who are unable to get to and from a doctor’s visit, businesses, a loved one,” Dinowitz said.

Dinowitz believes that the Mosholu Station is a priority because 10 percent of the residents in the surrounding area–around a thousand people–are unable to use the subway station. For these people, the 54 steps to the station platform above is an impossible climb to make.

Dinowitz, along with other community leaders, started a petition to present to the MTA board, requesting that an elevator be installed at Mosholu Parkway.

A woman with a cane slowly makes her way up the 54 stair climb to reach the Mosholu Parkway station platform. (Photo credit: Allen Devlin)

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, federal, state and local government institutions are required to protect disabled individuals from discrimination. New York City subway stops have not been compliant with the act since it was enacted.

“It is now 28 years after the passage of the ADA and we are still faced with defiance in getting our city and our state to implement law,” said Dooha, who has been on the front lines of the initiative for the last decade.

She believes that the MTA has dropped the ball in terms of improving New York City’s subway stations for better accessibility, which negatively affects the 2 million New Yorkers who live with at least one disability.

In January, the MTA hired Andy Byford as its new president. Byford immediately recognized the problem of accessibility in New York and listed it as one of his top priorities. Since taking office nine months ago, Byford has spoken to accessibility advocates across the city and has had many public appearances with the groups for the improvement initiative.

In June, Byford proposed an extensive investment plan titled “Fast Forward” that would, in theory, drastically improve accessibility to the city’s stations.

According to MTA.org, the plan would cost around $40 billion to implement. It relies heavily on outside funding. The MTA emphasizes that the plan will not only help those in a wheelchair or someone on crutches, but also “those who have vision or hearing loss, or are elderly and have trouble climbing stairs, or have a cognitive disability, or have a baby in a stroller, or any number of other challenges.”

A poster detailing Andy Byford’s “Fast Forward” plan is tacked to the wall at the 125th Street Station. (Photo Credit: Allen Devlin)

The plan includes training for all employees to prepare them for assisting the disabled, better communication, and an additional 50 fully accessible stations by 2023. The 50 stations will be spread out in a way so that subway riders are never more than two stops from a usable station. The MTA is aiming for full accessibility in New York City by 2033.

But, many of the disability advocacy groups who have voiced their disapproval of the lack of accessibility in New York City subway stations, claiming that the MTA is not following the law and discriminating against the disabled, including “Rise and Resist,” “Access Denied,” and the Center for the Independence of the Disabled in New York, are skeptical about the MTA’s ability to complete the plan in the schedule given and are unhappy with its unwillingness to commit to a concrete time table.

“We don’t want vague promises that X number of stations will be made accessible without any form of legal documentation backing that up,” said Dooha.

The main hang up for the MTA is where the $40 billion will come from. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio believes that the state should put a significant amount of money towards the project, while Gov. Cuomo has said that the project funding should be “50-50” between the state and the city. Byford is hoping the city and state governments will reach an agreement in terms of supplying funding, but a resolution has not yet been reached.

Bartley says it all sounds too familiar.

“We’ve heard it all before, where the MTA had a plan to make subway stations accessible, and we see stations being renovated, but elevators are not put in,” said Bartley, “I am hoping that they will honor their commitment to the Fast Forward plan. I am hoping that when this is all settled, we will have some firm agreement to the number of stations that will be made accessible, as well as a timeframe in which all of that will be done.”

“Funding is a key part of the project.” She added.

On September 26, the Bronx Disability Advocacy Group “Access Denied”, including Dinowitz and Bartley, presented 2,000 signatures from advocacy supporters in favor of improving the Mosholu Parkway Subway Station to the MTA board in downtown Manhattan. Dinowitz believes that transportation oversight is lacking and that city, state, and federal assistance is crucial to improve subway stations, but he does not think that pointing fingers is the right thing to do.

“For six weeks, the Northwest Bronx has made their voice clear: They want an elevator at Mosholu Parkway,” said Dinowitz after the board meeting concluded. “From residential neighbors, to local businesses, to both hospitals in our community we stand together in this simple request. Our community has waited long enough for full access to our city.”

Bartley believes that the Mosholu Parkway station would be a step in the right direction, but the process of making New York City’s subways accessible for everyone is not over.

“I wish I could really just [travel] independently,” said Bartley, ” I wish I could just go about my business like other New Yorkers.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Community Resources, Featured, Money, North Central Bronx, Northwest Bronx, The Bronx Beat, Transportation0 Comments

96 Year-Old-Store Facing New Challenges

Stein has been working at Frank’s since 1950 and says he is thankful for his loyal customers; some which have been frequenting the store for decades.

Moe Stein shuffled through the front door of Frank’s Sports Shop wearing a light blue Frank’s button-down shirt and dark grey pants — the outfit he now spends most of his time in.

“I just came back from the cemetery. I was visiting my mother and father,” Stein said.
“When they died we buried them right away. They don’t do refunds,” he joked.

Frank’s Sports Shop has been on East Tremont in the Bronx selling sporting goods and apparel for 96 years. Moe began working at the store in high school alongside his father and founder of the store, Frank Stein himself, in 1950.

With his late father’s cane in hand, the 90-year-old slowly made his way from the door to the store’s main counter, passing racks of jerseys and shelves packed with neatly folded sweatpants no more than a couple of feet from each other.

Frank’s is stuffed with a rainbow of sporting gear and apparel that covers the store from floor to ceiling.

On this day, the counter was cluttered by orders from customers that hadn’t been shipped yet. Moe looked closely at one of the shipping labels that was bound for lower Manhattan and shouted across the store, asking to see where it was going. Frank’s does its best to keep a steady stream of orders going out the door to customers all around NYC and remain competitive in today’s dynamic and technological retail market.

More recently, however, Frank’s has faced a new obstacle: its own retailers and suppliers. Stein said that after 100 years, Frank’s has managed to outlast many of the local family-owned retail stores in the area, but now the store is competing against the manufacturers and retailers of the gear and clothing that Frank’s sells.

“It’s a very competitive world. You can look at one product or maybe another product, and you buy it cause it’s a nickel cheaper,” said Stein, “but business has all changed. Its changed drastically.”

Manufacturers are looking to push customers away from stores like Frank’s and back towards their own as they continue to open more storefronts in the area and expand their brand online. Because they manufacture and own the brand, they determine the minimum price that Frank’s is able to sell their product. They are also able to sell the same product themselves at a lower price than what they require a store like Frank’s to.

“Take Red Wing for example” said Stein, “they’ll require me to sell a shoe for $120, but then they will sell the same shoe for $110 or $100 in their own stores or online. It makes it hard to keep up.” A number of retail shoe stores have opened in the past 10 years on East Fordham Road in the Bronx, less than two miles from Frank’s.

Regardless, Frank’s has become a local landmark in the Bronx and Stein himself has become a staple of the community. Stein believes that although he may not be able to price all of his items as low as some of the retailers, his loyal customer base will continue to support the family owned store.

Stein stands behind the counter and speaks with an employee as they help a customer.

Moe takes pride in continuing the legacy his father left behind and serving customers who have been shopping at the store for decades.

“What are you looking for?” Moe said as he glanced and over to a couple who had just walked into the store.

“Oh nothing in-particular, we’re just looking,” one of them responded.

“Well if you’re just looking, the Museum is down the road,” Stein uttered back as he stuck his tongue out, right before letting out a soft chuckle.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Culture, East Bronx, Sports, The Bronx Beat0 Comments