Tag Archive | "highbridge"

State Pulls Funding from Highbridge’s only Mental Health Clinic for Children

One Monday in October, therapist Shlomit Levy was called to a classroom at I.S. 313, a middle school on Webster Avenue in the Bronx where she has worked for the last four years. A student was causing disruptions, storming out of class.

The clinician from a nearby mental health clinic, Astor at Highbridge, took the student aside for a two-hour therapy session. The student was able to return to class with the help of Levy, but not for long. Half an hour later, she had lost control again.

In her emergency session, Levy discovered the student’s family was not cooperating with her therapy. If Levy had been able to see the child earlier, the crisis might not have happened.

But last year, the state pulled its Clinic Plus funding that required I.S. 313 to have parents fill out mental health assessments for their children. Now that the program is gone, the clinician has no information about which children may need help.

The result is that Levy now in October has only one new student patient, at a time when she usually has at least 10. “I’m missing a lot of information,” she said.

Shlomit Levy, a clinician for Astor at Highbridge in I.S. 313, is seeing far fewer children ever since the clinic lost its state funding. (VALENITNE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink)

Levy’s referral numbers from schools in no way reflects the area’s need. The only mental health outpatient clinic for children and teenagers in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, Astor at Highbridge  serves more than 400 clients ages 2 to 21. Patients are seen in its Shakespeare Avenue clinic and inside six local public schools. Its future is uncertain in a community where 52 percent of the population has already received mental health treatment or counseling. In 2006, mental illness hospitalization rates were significantly higher in Highbridge and Morissania than in the rest of the Bronx and New York City.

Levy said the children she sees are suffering from trauma and anxiety among other issues. Some of them have lost a family member to gang violence, or have been sexually abused. Others have parents who are either arrested, incarcerated, or deported. Levy has had patients who lost all contact with their deported parent. Undocumented, these students can’t leave the country to go visit them.

“All these children have such challenging life environments,” Levy said. The therapist is convinced five clinicians like her are needed in I.S. 313. “And we would all be very busy.

The end of Clinic Plus not only curtailed services for needy children, but also created a greater financial problem for the clinic. It came at a time when Astor at Highbridge is being squeezed by yet another cut in state funding. Since 2010, New York State has gradually reduced its direct support for Astor’s two outpatient clinics in the Bronx by 25 percent per year. The same day Levy was called to P.S. 313, the clinic received word that a third 25 percent reduction would go into effect next year, totaling 75 percent lost revenue in three years.  The cuts mean clinicians are under pressure to increase the number of clients who bring in Medicaid or private insurance money.

Astor at Highbridge opened the satellite clinics in schools in 2007. The clinic now has six clinicians who work in neighboring schools. Astor was keeping these services afloat after Clinic Plus money ended, yet times are difficult.

“A couple of my schools want more clinicians,” said Zory Wentt, program director at the Astor at Highbridge clinic. “Do we need it? Yes. Are we going to get it? No. We don’t have enough funding for that.”

Wentt has worked a Astor at Highbridge since it opened seven years ago. It remains the only mental health clinic in the area. It was difficult at first to convince residents to overcome their fears and seek therapy, she said. A strong stigma attached to mental health needs was a barrier.

“A lot of children need mental health services. Yet they have never received it,”  Wentt said.

A book Levy and other clinicians use to help students in schools. (VALENTINE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink)

At the clinic, therapists see children with conditions ranging from attention deficit-hyperactivity or oppositional defiant disorders to those with bipolar or suicidal symptoms. Violence in the area spills over into their clinic. Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorders are common illnesses.

“We had a little girl whose father was shot right in front of her,” Wentt said. “We have a lot of death cases, along with children being placed in foster care or suffering from sexual trauma.”

In a neighborhood where 35 percent of residents live below the poverty line, according to a study by Queens College, lack of resources can become a triggering factor when it comes to mental illness. The majority of the clinic’s patients are low-income, Hispanic and African-American residents. Eighty-five percent of them are on Medicaid and 5 percent have no insurance. Only 10 percent can afford a private health insurance. Revenue from these insurances is now Astor’s only chance to survive financially.

“Funding is a challenge, we’re constantly out there seeking private funding,” said Sonia Barnes-Moorhead, the executive vice president of the Children’s Foundation of Astor. Astor Services for Children and Families operates 12 sites in the Bronx, including two outpatient clinics. Clinicians have had to provide the same services in a way that could decrease costs.

Astor at Highbridge has been affected by what appears to be a national trend: increasing and larger cuts to mental health state funding.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than $1.8 billion has been cut from mental health state budgets in the U.S. from 2009 to 2011. At the same time, one in 10 American children have serious mental health conditions like depression or stress disorder. New York is the second state where cuts are the largest, after California. It cut $204.9 billion in its mental health budget between 2009 and 2012.

Three years ago, the New York State announced it would reduce its Comprehensive Outpatient Program Services (COPS) funding by 25 percent each year, until no funding is left. The state increased Medicaid rates to keep outpatient clinics afloat, but centers like Astor at Highbridge face direct consequences. The COPS funding represented half of the clinic budget, about $1.5 million.

Services at the clinic have been reorganized, and the workload has become barely manageable for some therapists. In 2009, a clinician had about 20 cases in total. Now, their caseloads vary between 50 and 55 people.

“We’ve had to work harder, we’ve instituted a business-like model in mental health services,” Wentt said.

The mental health clinic started to launch open access sessions four days a week for three hours in order to build their client base.

Things can easily become hectic during open access time. Children cry when their parents meet with the therapist, leaving them in the waiting area. Crises can erupt when children fight. A parent advocate and front desk receptionists are available to care for them, but they can often feel overwhelmed.

“With open access, no one is allowed to have a free moment when people come in,” Wentt said.

Zory Wentt has worked at the Astor at Highbridge clinic since 2005. (VALENTINE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink)

With Astor’s limited staff, new clients are often left waiting. On Oct. 1, Nilza Martinez, a 26-year-old resident of Highbridge took advantage of open access hours. She and her 6-year-old child waited for  more than an hour, only to be given an appointment two weeks away. No Spanish-speaking clinician was available that Monday.

Her son’s pediatrician at the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center had referred her to the Astor clinic. Her son, she said, was showing extreme anxiety about sleeping, and being left alone.

Clinicians said their heavy caseloads prevent them from being entirely available during open access services. Every week, they need to have an average of 25 billable hours of direct contact with their clients to keep the clinic alive. Some of them say they have to schedule appointments almost every hour to maintain this requirement.

“There is a lot of pressure since we have a lot of paperwork and accountability on top of the work you do in sessions with the children and families you’re working with,” said Audrey Williamson, a 26-year-old social work intern working as a full clinician at the clinic since September. She works 21 hours a week at Astor at Highbridge, besides her classes at Columbia University School of Social Work. She is required to see her clients for at least 10 billable hours.

“Yet I think the pressure of helping and assisting children and their families is much bigger,” Williamson said. “You have lives in your hands for the most part.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Health, Southern BronxComments (0)

Runners race around Yancey Field with Yankee Stadium in the background

Yankees strike out on promises

Runners race around Yancey Field with Yankee Stadium in the background

Yancey Field is a new track and soccer field built as a compromise to Bronx residents on top of one of the Yankee Stadium parking lots. (NIGEL CHIWAYA/Bronx Ink)

The parking was supposed to get better. That’s what New York Yankees president Randy Levine promised Bronx residents and city council members back in March 2006 when the team was negotiating for a new Yankee Stadium. By adding 3,000 parking spots, Levine said, Yankee fans would not need to cruise the streets looking for curbside parking spots. The result would be a less congested South Bronx.

Bronx residents don’t see it that way. According to them, things have actually gotten worse since the new stadium went up.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Joyce Hogi, who has lived on 165th Street and the Grand Concourse for over 30 years. “There are still people that are looking to park on the streets, but now the police block off 161st Street on game days. I have friends in Highbridge and it takes them two hours to get through.”

Decreased street congestion was just one of the four key promises the Yankees made in 2006. At that city council meeting Levine also pledged to create new public parks to replace those lost during stadium construction, to establish a benefits fund for Bronx non-profits, and to provide 1,000 permanent new jobs at the stadium.

But five years after the team broke ground on the new stadium, the parking garages sit half empty during game days, the benefits fund has come under fire for the way it manages the money, and no one is exactly sure how many Bronx residents work in the stadium.

While the city may have determined that the new Yankee Stadium was worth over $60 million to New Yorkers, those who live next door to it in the South Bronx believe is not nearly as valuable.

“All you have to do is look around to see that it wasn’t worth it,” said Ramon Jimenez, who runs the For the South Bronx Coalition, a community group that has been trying to pressure the Yankees into living up to their promises since 2009.  “The new Yankee Stadium has not added to the community.”

Requests to the Yankees organization and city council members Helen Foster, Joel Rivera and Maria Carmen del Arroyo for comment were denied. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz did not return calls to the Bronx Ink.

Parking garages: The increase that nobody needed

“The same number of cars and buses already come to the stadium.  However, today, they just park all over the street, and all over the community… It causes disruption.  So we’re trying to fix it. By building the new parking spots, the cars will get out of the community.  Won’t circle around the community and disrupt it.  And will go into parking lots.”  -Randy Levine to New York City Council, March 28, 2006

As part of the stadium proposal, the Yankees asked the city and state to build about 3,000 new parking spaces. Critics balked at this request, citing the fact that 7,000 parking spaces already existed and the current stadium would seat almost 4,000 fewer fans. Additionally, the stadium is located along the busiest subway station in the Bronx and the MTA planned to build a Metro North station a few blocks away, providing car-free transportation for Yankees fans from upstate New York. Finally, even the best parking garages wouldn’t attract those that were determined to park for free on the street.

“Additional parking spots doesn’t necessarily mean the fans are going to elect to park in those garages,” said Councilmember Maria Arroyo at the 2006 meeting.  “And as long as there’s free community parking, they may opt to do that before they go into the garage.”

Nonetheless, the City Council approved the Stadium along with the new parking facilities in April 2006 and the city’s Economic Development financed the parking garages with $237 million in public bonds. Three new garages were built: one adjacent to the new stadium and two across 161Street behind the old stadium. The city selected Bronx Parking Development Corporation; a company located 121 miles north of the Bronx in Hudson, New York, to operate the garages.

Five years later, the critics have been proven correct. Though the Yankees have drawn more fans than any other team in baseball since the stadium opened, the garages have struggled to reach 60 percent capacity. In fact, city records show that the parking garages were only 45 percent full during September 2011, when Yankee closer Mariano Rivera recorded his baseball-record 602nd career save.

The anemic performance of the garages has caused Bronx Parking to repeatedly alter its financial projections. The company expects to bring in only $12 million in revenue from the garages in 2012, down from the $22.6 million it projected in September 2010.

On top of the empty garages, Bronx Parking must repay the public bonds issued in 2006 and must make two payments of $6.9 million to the city in April and October of each year. Facing a revenue shortfall, financial records show that the company has had to dip into its cash reserves to make the last three payments, withdrawing $2.3 million in October of 2011. With only $9.2 million remaining in its reserves and facing a projected deficit of $8.3 million, Bronx Parking will have little choice but to reach into its reserves once again next year. The company’s own financial projects show that it is on pace to exhaust those reserves by April 2013.

Too many options

The garages have struggled to compete with free parking offered at the nearby Gateway Center. Budget-conscious fans leery of paying the $35 fee to park at Yankee Stadium have instead opted to pay the Gateway Center’s $10 fee.

“People are trying to save money,” said Jimenez. “So you park in the mall and you walk three blocks to the stadium.”



View Yankee Stadium Parking in a larger map   Yankees fans have several options for traveling to and parking at Yankee Stadium. In the chart above, items in blue represent Yankee Stadium parking lots, items in red represent competing lots and items in green represent mass transit options.

And in direct contradiction to Levine’s promise, fans are still parking on the streets. “Seasoned fans that know they can find a spot on the street do that,” said Hogi. “It’s gotten so bad that we’ve tried to get a resident parking permit. The garages have not freed up the streets at all.”

Faced with an embarrassing default, the city has begun searching for exit strategies. In September, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. announced a plan to tear down one of the garages and replace it with a hotel. Diaz, who admitted that the parking lots face “severe financial problems” in his 2011 state of the borough address, believes that replacing garage 8­– the 1970’s-era garage that stood next to the old stadium­– with a 200-300 bed “world class hotel” would be a win-win for the Bronx and Bronx Parking.

“This development would serve as a new tourism hub for our borough, while creating hundreds of good jobs for Bronx residents and greatly enhancing the area surrounding Yankee Stadium,” said Diaz.

Community Board 4, which voted against the new Stadium in 2005, is on board with the new plan. And while William Casari, a librarian at Hostos Community College who sits on the board’s parks commission, would rather see the garage turned into parkland, a hotel is better than nothing.

“If it’s done correctly, sure; it’s better than a parking garage,” Casari said. “But it’d have to be a Marriott or something. Not some government-assisted thing.”

Public Parks: The long wait to play

“There will be baseball and softball fields on the site of the original stadium, where Bronx and City kids will play on the same hallowed ground that Yankee greats from Ruth to Gehrig, to DeMaggio to Mantle, to Berra, to Jackson, to Rivera and Jeter have played. The new park will have a new running track, a new soccer field, new baseball and softball fields, new basketball courts, new handball courts, and new tennis facilities.”
                                                       -Randy Levine to New York City Council, March 28, 2006

Yancey Field is a racetrack and soccer field that sits across the street from the new Yankee Stadium. Every morning, even before she has her breakfast, Hadiyah Colbert runs laps around the track. Colbert, originally from Yonkers, is quite fond of the track.

“This one is cleaner,” said Colbert, who moved to the Bronx seven years ago.  There used to be garbage in the old one.”

The track that Colbert runs on is part of a grand compromise that the parks department and the Yankees made with Bronx residents. The new Yankee stadium was built on top of Macomb’s Dam and Mullaly parks. To replace the destroyed parkland, the parks department spent $195 million rebuilding Macomb’s Dam Park across the street from the stadium. Yancey Field–part of the new park–sits on top of one of the stadium’s parking garages.

It didn’t come easily. Originally scheduled to open in 2009, Yancey field didn’t open until 2010, which meant that Bronx residents went four years without a track. Colbert made do by running around the remainder of Mullaly Park, but added that she would have preferred the old park.

“They didn’t need to build a new stadium,” Colbert said. “I think the money could have been put to better use.”

Baseball players have had to wait even longer. The area lost its only regulation baseball field when Macomb’s Dam Park was paved over. The parks department promised to replace it when Heritage Field–a complex of three ball fields built in the footprint of the old stadium–by 2010, but delays in the demolition of the old Yankee Stadium pushed the park’s opening date back to fall 2011. The park opened for one day in late November, when Little Leagues competed on the field. The park was then shuttered for the winter the next day. Casari said that he has noticed parks officers shooing residents away.

“Two guys with big bags for baseball bats were headed toward the field,” Casari said, “and the officers took them off the field.”

When they finally open to the public, the ball fields will require a permit to play on. While it children under 18 will be able to obtain a permit for free, adults will have to pay, which Jimenez said makes them less attractive to the community.

“The old parks were open,” Jimenez said. “This just doesn’t replace the old parks.”

Community Benefits Fund: money with no oversight

“As part of the benefits agreement that we’re negotiating, we’re talking about putting a very sizeable amount of money  — I’ll give you a ballpark right now, about $700,000 a year, which, for each of 40 years, which will go to a committee… There will be a grant apparatus set up.  That everybody in the community will come, make an application, and the people in the area, in the community, will decide which is appropriate, which is prioritized, and which is not.  -Randy Levine to New York City Council, March 28, 2006

If the parking situation irritates Hogi, the Community Benefits Fund makes her seethe. To Hogi, the fund is another example of the lack of input given to the people of the Bronx.

“Nobody knows how much money is in there and how it’s handed out,” Hogi said. “It’s demoralizing to the community to be so left out of the loop.”

Despite its name, the Yankee Stadium Community Benefits Fund operates independently of the community and the Yankees. Created in 2006 as part of an agreement between the team and four Bronx politicians, the fund is a non-profit organization that handles $800,000 worth of grants provided annually by the Yankees. The fund has been a magnet for contention since its inception. While the Yankees said they began donating money annually in 2006, the fund’s committee wasn’t established until 2008.

According to the fund’s 2008 and 2009 tax documents, it has distributed over $1.6 million to several Bronx non-profit organizations. Records show that the Highbridge Community Life Center and the Highbridge Voices children choir received grants of $20,000 and $7,500, respectively, in 2009.  However, groups outside of the community, like the Manhattan-based New York Road Runners club, which received a grant of $16,250 in 2009, also have access to the money.

“That money was supposed to benefit the people in the South Bronx,” said Jimenez. “It’s supposed to be for those who had to deal with the disruption the stadium caused. How does that money go to Throgs Neck and Riverdale?”

The fund came under further fire in September, when the New York Post reported that several groups without non-profit status were receiving grants. The groups in question include El Maestro, a Foxhurst boxing gym that was for-profit when it received $5,100 of sports equipment in 2009, and Flo-bert Ltd., a Manhattan tap-dance troupe that last filled out tax forms in 2007 yet still received $2,000 in 2009. Flo-bert’s non-profit status was revoked in 2010.

Serafin Mariel, the fund’s president and the former chief executive of National Bank, refused to comment or provide copies of the fund’s annual reports to the Bronx Ink. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak to reporters,” Mariel said.

Jobs: the unproven investment

“This new stadium will create thousands of construction jobs, and at a minimum, as President of the Yankees, I’m telling you 1,000 new, permanent additional to what we have, new permanent jobs at the new stadium. And they will be good jobs… A commitment by the Yankees to significant Bronx employment.”
                                                   – Randy Levine to the New York City Council, March 28, 2006

In the same agreement that created the fund, the Yankees also promised that 25 percent of all new jobs created at the new Yankee stadium would be reserved for locals. It is difficult to verify whether this promise has been fulfilled, however, because the Yankees have not provided figures.

Even so, Levine’s promise of 1,000 permanent jobs rings hollow. A 2009 report by former New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky revealed that the Yankees reported to the city’s Industrial Agency that they intended to add only 15 full-time jobs in 2009. And while the Yankees disclosed in a 2008 application for public funding that they would add 1,100 contract jobs, the majority of those jobs were in concessions.

If Bronx residents are outraged by the lack of transparency, they are powerless to combat it. Only five people signed the community benefits agreement: Levine, former Borough President Adolfo Carrion, and council members Arroyo, Maria Baez, and Joel Rivera. Only the politicians that signed the document have the legal standing to enforce its terms, and both Carrion and Baez are out of office.

This lack of community input has caused the community benefits agreement to be widely criticized as a sham that was thrown together to help the Yankees get their stadium.

“I’d give an ‘F’ to whoever drew up that benefits agreement,” said Jimenez, “if I thought they were drawing it up in the interests of the community.”

Bettina Damiani, Project Director at Good Jobs New York, a watchdog group that tracks government subsidies, summarized the community’s legal woes by saying: “there is no CBA – not a real one anyway – at Yankee Stadium.”

Unhappy anniversary

For Hogi, the anniversary of the groundbreaking is not one she cares to mark. In fact, these days she does her best to avoid the stadium altogether.

“If I have to be out driving on the game day I go all the way east and come around,” Hogi said. Part of her reason for staying away is to avoid the traffic, but part of it is to escape the irritating feeling of being right.

“Those of us that were really fighting the intrusion,” Hogi said. “Everything that we said would happen, has happened.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, Southern Bronx, SportsComments (1)

Highbridge tackles childhood obesity

Highbridge tackles childhood obesity

Students at P.S. 73 warm up for their health lesson.

At 8:15 am Thursday, nearly 30 4th graders sent mini tremors through P.S. 73.

“Who can last longer than Mr. Rios?” said Juan Ramon Rios, director of Healthy Highbridge. He was trying to get children half his height through a warmup routine of jumping jacks.

Despite all the activity, 37 percent of the students in this class are overweight or obese, according to body mass index measurements that Rios and his team at Highbridge Community Life calculated this week. Two classes even measured in at 59 percent.

The overall rate of overweight students at the Anderson Avenue elementary school is consistent with that of the entire South Bronx, where 40 percent of students are overweight or obese. That percentage is higher than the alarming national level, which the American Heart Association estimates at 33 percent.

Healthy Highbridge meets with fourth and fifth graders at P.S. 73 once a week to combat the repercussions of obesity in an area that has a lot of obstacles to staying healthy. In the South Bronx, 38 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, according to the 2010 American Community Survey. Highbridge also has too few supermarkets to meet the needs of its 34,000 residents, a 2008 city study says. Rios said these factors lead to poor food choices and, by extension, poor health for area children.

“We’re losing a generation,” Rios said three days earlier from his cramped basement offices at Highbridge Community Life Center. “All of this is going to create a health cost”—that is, unless everyone gets moving.

After the exercise, Rios instructed students on how to take their pulses.

“Why did we do that?” Rios asked as 60 index and middle fingers pressed against 30 wrists.

“To lose some weight,” said Fatumata, 9.

“Because it could be fun to exercise,” said Shantel, also 9.

“Because we need to get exercise,” said 10-year-old Jonah.

These children are all participants in Healthy Highbridge’s year-long health education program, funded by a $30,000 grant from the Communities Impact Diabetes Center, which in turn receives its budget from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Before they start their education curriculum, Healthy Highbridge staff must measure the students’ body mass indexes, test their prior health knowledge and survey them on exercise and eating habits as well as their attitudes and beliefs regarding working out and eating. These initial studies will be used as a baseline to track students’ progress, as Rios and team return each week to tackle a different health subject: Michelle Obama’s “My Plate” and “Let’s Move” campaigns, diabetes, nutrition, and exercise, among others.

P.S. 73 students eat a breakfast of sausage, biscuits and orange juice.

The goal is to help youngsters understand what it takes to be healthy, said Michelle Ramos, the diabetes center’s community project manager.

“As attitudes around healthy behavior improve, hopefully the behavior itself will improve,” she said from her Harlem office. Ramos said that while she doesn’t encourage children to lose weight, she believes that as they grow, they’ll maintain their weights and their body mass indexes will drop.

“Hopefully they’ll pick up healthy habits and go and share them with their families,” Ramos said.

P.S. 73’s principal, Jean Mirvil, said sharing health information with the parents is critical to solving the obesity problem. Many of the families, he said, come from different countries and have a hard time making the proper, healthful adjustments in their new homes (34 percent of people in the South Bronx are foreign-born).

“The kind of food they’re used to does not present itself in the same way as they are making the adjustment with this country,” Mirvil said.

He expects that the children will bring information about what and what not to eat home to their parents.

“At school, they are given a full picture of what a regular, healthy meal should look like,” Mervil said.

To combat the obesity problem, this September the school instituted a salad bar at lunch, so students can add a rotating variety of produce—spinach, corn, radish—to their meals. The main courses vary according to the Board of Education menu. Recently, Mervil said, students had chicken and a choice of pasta or rice. Students can choose milk—not chocolate milk—or water for a beverage.

On the day of the Healthy Highbridge visit, breakfast consisted of a sausage and biscuit sandwich, and orange juice.

During this class, students were asked to pick which food choices they would make: chicken with the skin on or off, whole wheat or sweet bread, regular peanut butter or freshly ground.

Shannon takes her pulse after a round of jumping jacks.

Shannon, 9, said she preferred popcorn without butter, low-fat milk to skim, and would eat an apple before a piece of candy most days.
“Salt? Ew,” she said, her neat cornrows jostled back as she shook her head.

Winston, the largest boy in the class and the first to cease his jumping jacks, said he was less into self denial. He puts butter on his popcorn because, otherwise, “it doesn’t taste like anything.” The nine-year-old did acknowledge that salt isn’t always necessary.
“Sometimes, if you don’t add salt, food can still taste good,” he said.

Jaheim, 10, said he couldn’t replace french fries with potatoes, nor could he exchange a burger for a salad. “French fries?” he asked rhetorically as his hands shot from his striped hoodie to the sky. “I love them.”

As for burgers? “They’re very good,” he said. “You could even put bacon on them.”

When asked if all his poor eating choices left him a healthy individual, Jaheim was confident.

“Yeah, I do weights.”

 

Posted in Bronx Beats, Health, Southern BronxComments (0)

Man wielding gun shoots two, steals McDonald’s, NYPD

Police seek help identifying a man responsible for a spate of incidents, including two shootings last week in the 44th precinct of Highbridge, according to the  New York Police Department. At 4:10 am Sunday Oct. 30, the suspect fired two rounds into the air outside 145 E. 149 St. He then walked down the street and fired one round into the Newsroom Bar; no one was hit. He walked north on Walton Avenue and shot his first victim in the leg. He then walked to the McDonald’s on Grand Concourse, threatened a worker with a gun and stole food from the counter. Afterward he went to the Nuestro Bar on Mount Eden Parkway, got into an argument with the bouncer and shot him in the arm. Both victims are in stable condition, the first at Lincoln Hospital, the second at St. Barnabas.  Police are looking for the suspect, a heavyset,  light-skinned black man in his 30s,  5’8″ to 5’10” tall, and are asking those with tips to call NYPD’s Crime Stoppers Hotline at 800-577-TIPS.

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Advocates stomping out South Bronx cigarette ads

"Power walls," where cigarettes products and ads dominate the area behind cash registers, are common in Highbridge. (RANI MOLLA/The Bronx Ink)

A day before Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced record lows for smoking in New York City on Sept. 15, Bronx anti-smoking advocates were on the ground in Highbridge, still trying to put out a habit that has persisted despite citywide measures to curb it.

Coordinators from the American Lung Association and Healthy Highbridge are part of a campaign to stop point-of-sale smoking advertisements—the cigarette ads that plaster the insides and outsides of stores, as well as the “power wall” of cigarettes and advertisements directly behind the cash registers.

“They can’t advertise anymore on TV, billboards, clothing—this is the last arena for them to advertise,” said Spitzner, as she walked from bodega to bodega with Rios on Ogden Avenue, photographing what they said are new tobacco advertisements. “That’s where they dump all their money.” Rios, who was part of the Bronx Smoke-Free coalition that advocated to make New York City parks smoke-free earlier this year, said that the concentration of point-of-sale tobacco advertising has gotten worse in recent years.

Although the percentage of smokers citywide has plummeted (from 17.5 percent in 2007 to 14 percent, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene), current smoking rates in the South Bronx are the same as 2007. In the South Bronx, 19 percent of the adult population and 5.2 percent of 14 to 18-year-olds smoke, compared to 17.8 percent for adults and 5 percent for children in 2007, according to the Department of Health spokeswoman Kari Auer. The South Bronx has the second highest percentage of smokers in the city, right after Staten Island. Spitzner and Rios believe that if they can curb point-of-sale advertisements, they can decrease smoking, particularly among young people.

The two were staking out Highbridge Wednesday for a “walking tour” for local politicians next month. Their hope is that after politicians see the saturation of tobacco advertisements in Highbridge, they will enact legislation to curb point-of-sale advertising.

Anti-smoking activists Juan Rios and Lisa Spitzner stake out Highbridge businesses that advertise cigarettes. (RANI MOLLA/ The Bronx Ink)

A majority of signs that blanket most bodegas in the area are for tobacco products. Many of those signs—particularly those for Newport—appear to be very new.

“Menthol advertisements target African Americans and young people,” said Rios, citing the large percentage of blacks who smoke menthol cigarettes. According to a 2005 Harvard study, advertisements for menthol cigarettes are more heavily marketed in areas with large minority populations.

According to the district profile for Community Board 4, of which Highbridge is a part, nearly half of the area’s residents are black and a third are under 18.

“We’re trying to educate kids, lawmakers, parents and teachers of tobacco’s practice of targeting youth,” said Sheelah Feinberg, director of the New York City Coalition For a Smoke-Free City.

Feinberg said that 90 percent of adult smokers started when they were teens, an age group that is particularly susceptible to advertisements.

“When you’re a young kid and you go to the store to buy gum or water, when you go to make that purchase, you’re bombarded by ads,” Feinberg said, pointing out that many of the power wall advertisements are located at kids’ eye-level.

“For us, the big concern is that the tobacco industry is always going after the next generation,” she said.

Rios believes that unless lawmakers halt point-of-sale advertisements, young people will continue to be vulnerable to ads because vendors will continue to put them up. Vendors receive discounts on their cigarettes depending on the prominence of their stores’ advertisements, according to Rios.

After multiple calls, voice mails and emails to local and national representatives at Lorillard Tobacco Company, which produces menthol Newport cigarettes, no one at the company would comment.

The effectiveness of smoking advertising is difficult to measure since it would require exposing a large number of people to long-term cigarette advertising.  Tobacco companies usually contend that advertisement is not to attract new smokers but to broaden market share for a certain brand.

The Bronx Ink interviewed several vendors whose buildings featured advertisements. All said they receive a discount on their cigarettes for placing the cigarette advertisements inside and outside their stores.

Jin Kim, manager of K.J.Y. Fruit on Gerard Avenue and 161st Street, said the decision to put up ads is about money.

“This is a business,” Kim said. “We sell cigarettes to make money. I don’t like that, but it’s a business.”

A cashier at the nearby Nadal 3 Deli said he’d be fine with giving up the advertisements. “It’s all good so New Yorkers stop smoking,” he said, adding that those who already smoke will continue to come in with or without the advertisement.

 

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Juan Rios travels the world to return to the Bronx

Juan Rios travels the world to return to the Bronx

Juan Ramon rios looks through papers at his desk

Juan Ramon Rios works to combat smoking and promote health eating in Highbridge (NIGEL CHIWAYA/The Bronx Ink)

Hints into Juan Ramon Rios’s past and present are abundant.

The way Rios rolls the r’s in “Ramon Rios” speaks to his Puerto Rican heritage. The Yankees hat on his back shelf reveals a native allegiance to baseball. Photos of himself and students meeting with Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr. hint at the appeal of political activism.

But it is the Harvard Law School banner that is the most curious. It’s the only reminder of his former life.

Rios, 45, was previously a litigation lawyer, a career that involved suits, ties and California sun. It was a life that thousands of law students dream of every year. But it kept the Mott Haven native away from the Bronx, and so it didn’t make Rios happy.

“My dream was to come back to the community and help,” said the dark-haired, bespectacled Rios. “But the work I was doing was interfering with that.”

Rios, who traveled the world to become a lawyer and escape the poverty of the South Bronx, found that the South Bronx was where he wanted to be all along. So Rios traded in the suit, tie and high salary to return to the Bronx improve the health of the children of the South Bronx.

Rios runs the center’s Healthy Highbridge program where he, among other things, has championed the city’s recent smoking ban in parks and beaches. Rios also created a health curriculum for the students of P.S. 73.

Rios stresses healthy habits to Bronx kids because he’s seen the effects of the bad ones. The son of two Puerto Rican immigrants, Rios grew up in the Mitchel housing project in Mott Haven and came of age during the Bronx’s low period in the 1970s, when crime, drugs and arson committed by landlords crippled the borough.

“A lot of my friends from that era,” said Rios, “are either dead, in prison, or they fell into substance abuse.”

Rios avoided falling into those same habits in part because of his parent’s work ethic. Neither of them spoke English fluently, but his mother taught herself while his father labored as a factory worker.

According to Rios, this dedication to hard work translated to their children. Rios’ older sister, Angela, graduated from Columbia University with an engineering degree.

Rios took a different route. He joined the military after high school, touring the world as an emergency medical technician in the Navy. Though he was stationed in California, Rios’ tour took him through Europe, Asia and Australia.

After four years in the Navy, Rios returned to New York and worked on Wall Street at Smith Barney, starting as a clerk and working his way up to the position of assistant broker despite never having gone to college.

The lack of a higher education degree caught up with Rios a few years later, when Rios said he “saw the ceiling” in finance. So Rios enrolled at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he studied government and philosophy and graduated with a 3.98 GPA – good enough to get him into Harvard Law School.

Timothy Stroup, a philosophy professor at John Jay, recalled Rios’s time at the college. Stroup, who taught Rios in an ethics and law class, noted that Rios “was always the first to volunteer” in class.

“He just has an unquenchable love of learning,” said Stroup, 68.

Stroup noted a mock affirmative action debate he held during the final class of the semester. The students were to argue against their natural belief. Rios was one of the three debate captains. Stroup was so impressed with the performance that he struck up a friendship with Rios and the two other captains, who went on to attend Boston College law school. With all three students in the Boston area, Stroup and his wife, Alice, would visit the students and take them out to dinner once a semester. Though the tradition has lagged in the past year, Stroup, who has been a professor for over 40 years, still speaks highly of Rios.

“He’s one of the students of which I’m most proud,” Stroup said.

After law school Rios went west, where he worked for the law firm Jones Day in California for two years.  He followed this up with a two-year stint at Gary Wright in New York.

According to Rios, life as a lawyer was tough. Rios said he waded through piles of documents and law books, researching complex trade laws and advising big clients.

The job came with a big paycheck, which Rios, who originally wanted to become a criminal prosecutor, needed to pay off the Harvard student loans, but it also came with a culture shock. The poor Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx was now a big-time lawyer, hanging out with other rich lawyers and seeing the disparity between where they lived and where his family still lives. Rios said that this “dark contrast” began to gnaw at him.

“It was really an eye-opener,” Rios said, “to see that certain classes have more than others. It instills an understanding that you have to come back.”

Stroup was unsurprised by his former student’s struggle to cope with the world of law, saying, “It’s one thing to play devil’s advocate in class. It’s another thing to have to actually represent real devils in business. Juan found it inconsistent to work for big corporations.”

Rios said he began to wonder what he could do to help those back home in the Bronx. He settled on children, realizing that if he couldn’t work as a prosecutor to keep criminals off the streets, he would try to reach them before they became criminals.

And so, in 2005, Rios changed careers again. This time he left law behind to become a New York City teaching fellow. Rios returned to the Bronx and was placed in Christopher Columbus High School in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx, where he taught social studies to grades 9 and 12.

Rios, who now owns a house in Morrisania, said that he earned more satisfaction from his five years at Columbus than during his time as a lawyer. Rios is especially proud of his work with Columbus’ high school seniors, for whom Rios said he wrote “dozens” of college recommendations.

After his teaching licensed expired last year, Rios didn’t get it renewed. He decided to give one last shot at law, trying to run his own private practice. However, Rios said that “difficulties” led him to dissolve the partnership. Once again, Rios could go in any direction. Unsurprisingly, he decided to help the community.

Rios said he heard through friends that the Highbridge Community Life Center was looking for a program assistant that would help promote health in the neighborhood. With nothing to lose, the former medic decided to give it a shot.

One year later, Rios has already drafted the health and wellness curriculum for P.S. 73. The program, which features bilingual lessons on healthy eating, the dangers of smoking and the merits of exercise, debuted for fifth graders last year and was expanded to include fourth grades this year. Rios teaches the courses himself, fittingly placing him back in the classroom.

In addition, Rios has championed the smoke-free New York campaign, lobbying in Albany for a ban on smoking in parks, plazas and beaches. The law was successfully passed in February.

Outside of the Highbridge center, Rios is still active in the area. He sits on the community board four health committee and said he never misses a general meeting.

When asked why he works so hard for the children of the Bronx, Rios’ answer hints at a slight selfishness. Though Rios, who is engaged, doesn’t have any children of his own, he said he does have to look out for his former students.

“You could say,” Rios noted,  “that I have 8,000 kids.”

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Highbridge food pantry could close

Highbridge food pantry could close

By Manuel Rueda

Wearing thick cotton gloves and a leopard print hat, Myriam Aquino hands out a one-pound bag of rice.  Her client pushes his small shopping cart forward and both arrive at the next shelf.  “You can pick one of these or one of those” she says in Spanish pointing to a bag of raisins and picking up a pack of figs.

The Community Food Pantry at Highbridge on Ogden Avenue, currently has no heating and the selection of brands is limited.  But food is free here, and for thousands of Bronx residents with low incomes or no jobs, the groceries on offer enable them to save $20 or $30 that can be spent on rising rents, transportation hikes or other non-negotiable expenditures.

Aquino volunteers regularly at the pantry and is currently unemployed.  She also takes some groceries home after everyone has been served. But she is also worried about the future of the pantry. Staff member salaries were suspended last week because the agency that runs the pantry is short of funds.  And the variety of food Aquino says “is never like it was before.”

Like hundreds of food pantries across New York, Highbridge is facing difficult times.  The 2008 recession, and the ensuing period of jobless economic growth has increased the number of people demanding the food pantry’s services.

In 2007, Highbridge used to get 800 unique visits per month says director Nurah Amatullah.  Now it averages about 1,200 a month.

But funds for running the pantry are becoming scarce and its director says she may have to shut the place down in March because there is little money to pay for staff or operational costs.

Myriam Aquino is not only a regular volunteer at the Highbridge food pantry. She is also a client.

“There are things in food poverty work that requires paid staff to do it.” Amatullah says in a subtle Trinidadian accent.

Hunger levels across the city are alarming according to the Food Bank for New York.  The nonprofit estimates that 37 percent of New Yorkers resorted to emergency food aid at some point in 2010.

That number is slightly below the 40 percent figure registered in 2009.  But Carlos Rodriguez, the Food Bank’s vice president for benefit access, points out that many New Yorkers are now limiting the amount of food they buy and its quality. His organization estimates that thirty percent of New Yorkers reduced their food intake last year.

Meanwhile, soup kitchens and food pantries across the city say greater numbers of people are showing up at their doors.

The New York City Coalition Against Hunger, an umbrella organization for emergency food providers, sent out a questionnaire last year to some 1,100 local soup kitchens and food pantries.  More than 200 returned the questionnaire with 85 percent reporting they had fed more people in 2010 than in 2009.

The coalition does not keep statistics on exactly how many people were fed.  But in its survey, 53 percent of respondents said the number of people they feed has increased “greatly.”

Executive Director Joel Berg says New York food pantries and soup kitchens improved their response to increased demand in 2010, thanks to greater investments by the federal government in food stamps.

In New York City last year, the federal government spent more than $3.2billion in food stamps through its Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program he says, taking pressure off local food pantries and soup kitchens.

Seven out of ten agencies reporting to the Coalition Against Hunger last year, also said that they received additional funding from the federal government through the Emergency Food and Shelter Program.

But anti-hunger advocates say most of the money goes towards food and little is left for operational costs and staff.

On Webster Avenue, near the Botanical Garden, the nonprofit agency POTS, -Part of the Solution- runs a soup kitchen that serves 350 hot meals a day and a food pantry that gets approximately 40 daily visits.

The number of people attending the pantry has increased by 20 percent over the past 12 months says emergency food services director, Sister Mary Alice Annan, while at the soup kitchen Annan reckons attendance has increased by 50 percent.

Staffing which consists of 15 employees has remained the same for years, with POTS relying on  a large number of volunteers to stock food and serve the clientele.

“The need is getting so great and we don’t have enough money to pay for everything” says Sister Hannan. “So we would rather pay for food for the people than pay for staff.”

Like most who work in this industry however, Hannan says there are jobs that are best left to paid staff, such as operating databases, cooking in the soup kitchen and writing grant proposals. “Volunteers don’t always show up, so we use them to supplement what we do” she says.

Nurah Amatullah directs the Highbridge food pantry. She is struggling to pay her staff

Nurah Amatullah, from the Community Food Pantry at Highbridge says that while volunteers are a crucial part of her operation, she cannot rely on them to regularly receive and organize food deliveries that arrive at 8:30 am.

There is also a lack of people in the neighborhood trained to run databases that document how many attended the pantry, the number of people in their household and other data required by funders.

So while she advocates for the professional staffing of food pantries, Amatullah has had to furlough her staff of three, paying them small amounts of money as people donate cash to the food pantry through a PayPal account she set up in support of the pantry.

Amatullah’s organization -the Muslim Womens’ Institute for Research and Development- receives funds for operational costs from United Way and grants for staffing from Feeding America.

Funding from these sources has shrunk and Amatullah has not found another donor to fund pantry operations.   It costs $2,500 a week to fund Highbridge and its sister pantry in Parkchester Amatullah says, with less than one third of this money going to staff.

But the lack of funds is currently so severe that Amatullah does not know if they will make it through March. Staff are currently volunteering their time to do essential jobs like taking orders and keeping the client database at both pantries.  Amatullah claims this way of working is not sustainable.

Her three staff members are the main breadwinners for their families and they are already looking out for other job opportunities.   “When they don’t get a check it is not just them” she says.  “It is a household tethering on collapse.”

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