Tag Archive | "Mott Haven"

Naloxone: A Life Saver in a Neglected World

Organizers passed out purple candles at St. Ann's Corner of Harm Reduction in the South Bronx Aug. 30 in memory of those who have died of heroin overdose.

Community members lit candles Aug. 30 in memory of those who have died of heroin overdose in the Bronx.

MOTT HAVEN–Walking through the streets of the South Bronx one afternoon in July, Tino Fuentes, 53, said he sensed trouble across the street.

“You get this little gut feeling like something’s not right,” Fuentes said.

He found a man on the ground, unresponsive, drawing faint, shallow breaths. Bystanders said the man had been unconscious for several minutes, and his breathing was getting weaker as time passed. Amidst the chaos, a woman leaned over and whispered, “He did a bag.”

Fuentes, who knew she meant the man was likely overdosing on heroin, said he sprung into well-rehearsed action. An ambulance had already been called, but in the case of an overdose, every second matters. An injection of the drug Naloxone can reverse the effect of opioid overdose, but the success rate depends on rapid response.

Fuentes had a Naloxone kit across the street. After retrieving it, he removed the orange top of the vile, filled the syringe with its contents, and plunged the two-inch needle into the sinewy part of the man’s shoulder. Fuentes said he was rolling the man over to begin rescue breathing when he came to — brought back by the medication Fuentes injected.

“It’s such a selfish feeling, but I feel great. I just saved someone’s life,” Fuentes recalled.

Fuentes claims to have saved more than 75 lives with Naloxone since 2006, though he said he has lost count. He is not an EMT or doctor. He just makes sure he always has a kit on him when he is walking around New York.

“I do this because I came from these streets,” Fuentes said. “I gotta find a way to give back, you know?”

Fuentes serves as the co-director of the Syringe Exchange Program at St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction in the South Bronx, where he also trains other people to administer Naloxone. Under New York State law, anyone can carry the medication after undergoing the twenty-minute training and earning a blanket-prescription.

“There is really no reason not to get trained,” Fuentes said. “We’re reaching out to try to train everybody.”

Between 2014 and 2015, Mott Haven and Hunts Point had the highest rate of heroin overdose in New York City by a significant margin. The death rates have steadily increased in recent years. Joyce Rivera, founder and executive director at St. Ann’s, said socioeconomic status and race cause people to ignore this public health crisis in the Bronx.

“The only people who really pay the price for using drugs are poor, working class people,” Rivera said to a crowd on National Overdose Awareness Day at the end of August. But she said harm reduction programs and Naloxone are saving lives in marginalized communities. “Every life matters. Who’s life is expendable?”

Across the country, heroin is becoming increasingly deadly. New reports confirm that heroin is now commonly cut with prescription Fentanyl, a drug 100 times stronger than morphine, causing users to underestimate the potency of what they inject.

“[Dealers] put whatever they put in heroin to stretch it out, to make more money,” Fuentes said. “Not too many people know what’s being put in there.”

According to Fuentes, the man he saved in July was a frequent user, injecting up to five bags a day. The day he nearly died, he was only on his first bag, which he had sniffed rather than injected. Since those are not the conditions that generally lead to overdose, Fuentes said he suspects Fentanyl was present in the mixture. Naloxone is still effective against Fentanyl-laced heroin though experts say in those cases it might take more than one dose to revive the person.

Since the Naloxone program began at St. Ann’s in 2006, awareness around heroin overdose has increased dramatically in New York. Now, all police officers in Mott Haven carry Naloxone. Overdose response trainings are being held in local prisons. Laws around prescription to carry have changed to give easier access to the life-saving medication.

Organizers at St. Ann’s say the shift in awareness and action was influenced by the changing demographics of heroin use and abuse throughout New York State. In 2013, more white New Yorkers than black or Hispanic New Yorkers died of overdose statewide.

“The progress we have made, the general tipping point we have passed, has to do with all of the white people who have overdosed,” said Bill Matthews, clinical director at St. Ann’s.

For Fuentes, it’s frustrating to believe nobody cares about the Bronx. But he said the most important thing is that progress is finally being made, and it’s helping people and saving lives.

“This is hurting everybody,” Fuentes said.

Posted in Health, Southern Bronx, The Bronx BeatComments (0)

‘Violence Interrupters’ Answer SOS in South Bronx

The whiteboard at the SOS South Bronx office displays the number of days since the last shooting in the territory SOS covers. (LAUREN FOSTER/The Bronx Ink)

The whiteboard at the SOS South Bronx office displays the number of days since the last shooting in the territory SOS covers. (LAUREN FOSTER/The Bronx Ink)

It’s hard to hold your breath for 108 days.

At Save Our Streets South Bronx, which launched in January 2013, a whiteboard in their Mott Haven office read “107” on Oct. 13 and “108” on Oct. 14. They dread when that tally of days without a shooting in their 20-block territory must go back to zero.

Save Our Streets, or simply SOS, originated in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in 2009 and has since expanded to 15 sites across the city. The City Council along with the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, the largest U.S. charity devoted to public health, have pumped millions of dollars into this unconventional anti-violence initiative modeled after Chicago’s CeaseFire program. Now called Cure Violence, the program was celebrated in the award-winning 2011 documentary “The Interrupters.” Cure Violence has been emulated in roughly 50 cities worldwide since its inception 15 years ago.

The cornerstone of Cure Violence is the work of “violence interrupters,” “credible messengers” and “outreach workers” who patrol the streets and nurture relationships with at-risk individuals, typically young people, in an effort to undo a culture of violence of which they themselves were once byproducts. A job flier for SOS South Bronx (they’re hiring) describes such responsibilities for violence interrupters as identifying youth who are gang members or at-risk for joining, finding tips on potential conflicts, mediating with those parties involved to prevent retaliations and diffusing “hot spots” where shootings are likely to occur.

The credibility of these paid staffers is rooted in empathy.

“What I like about Save Our Streets is it’s composed of staff and volunteers who are former gang members or drug abusers themselves, or people who have been incarcerated,” said City Councilmember Vanessa Gibson, a Democrat who represents neighborhoods such as Morrisania and Melrose. “The best person you can get to really understand what a young person is going through is someone who has been in that situation before.”

Gibson allocated $5,000 of her discretionary funds for the 2015 fiscal year to SOS South Bronx. Democrat Robert Cornegy of Bedford-Stuyvesant and northern Crown Heights set aside $9,000. The Council voted earlier this year to expand SOS efforts from three neighborhoods to 15, including new posts in the 44th, 46th and 47th precincts in the South Bronx.

Jeffrey A. Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, echoed Gibson’s assertion that knowing the streets is key for SOS employees. “They have to have some connection to the community that doesn’t make them seem like an outside meddler or do-gooder,” explained Butts. Researchers at his school are currently evaluating the Cure Violence model and its implementation in Crown Heights and the South Bronx. “Some of the programs have successful employees who’ve never been arrested, but they might be the son of a well-known gang leader,” he said.

SOS is guarded about disclosing details on its organization. An SOS staffer said the program’s parent organization, the Center for Court Innovation, clamped down on news media access after The Mott Haven Herald published the criminal record of an SOS interrupter. Robert Wolf, director of communications for the Center for Court Innovation, denied that claim but said “everyone is tied up here” and would be unavailable for interviews indefinitely. SOS staffers have been instructed not to participate in interviews without approval from the Center’s Midtown Manhattan office.

Butts, whose center at John Jay received more than $1 million from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation and $750,000 from the city council to study Save Our Streets through 2016 in conjunction with the Center for Court Innovation, explained the concern over public scrutiny.

“These programs do get very skittish. There have been lots of stories about some of the dominant political infrastructure forces running to the media to explode the situation when something goes wrong,” Butts said.

“Cure violence does not conform with the dominant political culture surrounding public safety,” he added. “So when you’re talking about crime and violence in a public policy arena, people immediately think of policing, prosecution and punishment. This program does not fit that model, so you start off with immediate opposition from the people who think conventionally about public safety.”

In the South Bronx, SOS outreach workers are unarmed and identifiable by their red T-shirts. Although sanctioned by the city, they operate in communities where cooperating with police work is a serious taboo. Despite often being privy to criminal activity, SOS explicitly refuses to have contact with police.

“You have a disconnect with a lot of young people who don’t trust the police and don’t think police are there to serve the public and to protect them,” Councilmember Gibson said.

This wall of separation between law enforcement and social workers is not unusual.

“I was visiting some police departments in Washington, D.C., and they said they keep in touch with outreach workers at these types of programs, but only at the highest level,” Butts said. “They might hear, ‘Things are really heating up in this neighborhood’ or ‘We’re getting rumors that something is about to go down between this crew and that crew,’ but no individual names, no tip-offs and certainly no post-incident information to help the investigation find a perpetrator. As soon as you do that, word gets out and the whole program is dead.”

SOS South Bronx employs three interrupters and three outreach workers, all middle-aged, to engage a territory composed of four public housing complexes and about 20,000 residents. They work full-time Tuesday through Saturday, with shifts running as late as 2 a.m.

In Crown Heights, interrupters underwent 40 hours of training in direct consultation with Cure Violence experts in Chicago, according to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. SOS South Bronx is also in frequent contact with Chicago, allowing for a uniform implementation of the model.

Crown Heights had a homicide rate for those aged 15 to 24 nearly four times the city average in 2011, at 41.9 homicides for every 100,000 people in that age bracket, according to a report by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (The department is now an advisor to SOS.) Fordham / Bronx Park and High Bridge / Morrisania in the South Bronx were also in the top-five neighborhoods most plagued by youth gun violence. Whereas SOS Crown Heights developed a successful “Youth SOS” program driven by student volunteers, efforts to duplicate that youth engagement in the South Bronx have foundered.

“The youth are disempowered and basically have no opportunity. One of biggest frustrations from a social work perspective is when you’re not addressing the core causes behind these issues,” said Markus Redding, a professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work who has worked extensively in non-violent conflict resolution. “It’s going to be very similar to what we do in the court system, which is reacting to what’s there but not getting at root causes like better education.”

The Crown Heights program reported recruiting 96 community members between January 2010 and May 2012 to participate in the SOS mission. All but one of these recruits was male, 94 were black and two were Hispanic. An SOS South Bronx official said his team has fostered about 25 such relationships.

Researchers led by Butts have interviewed roughly 200 people about gun violence in neighborhoods with and without SOS programs, and they are analyzing shooting data in these test and control areas. Butts would not give any tentative findings — their work began in February 2014 and will conclude around August 2016 — but he did outline basic variables that impact Cure Violence:

“To what extent are public institutions well-coordinated? Do social services people talk to the schools? Do law enforcement know their own community? How do neighborhood residents feel about their access to necessary support? Are police seen as an outside occupying force?”

The SOS South Bronx office displays posters advocating to end gun violence. (LAUREN FOSTER/The Bronx Ink)

The SOS South Bronx office displays posters advocating ending gun violence. (LAUREN FOSTER/The Bronx Ink)

SOS South Bronx has struggled to form alliances with institutions in the area. An exception is the Bronx Christian Fellowship, a church in Mott Haven where Rev. Que English has collaborated closely with SOS efforts. English reiterated the need to solve violence through means outside law enforcement.

“There’s an idea in these communities that if a cop kills us they’ll get away with it,” she said. “It’s circulated throughout generations. I once heard a 5-year-old say, “I don’t like cops.’”

Religious figures are a core component of the SOS strategy, according to literature distributed at the program’s Mott Haven office. One form reads, “Faith-based leaders are encouraged to preach against gun violence from their pulpits.”

What would it take for programs such as SOS to thrive in the pastor’s community?

“My first thought is a miracle,” English responded. “If we had a wish list, it would be ongoing community awareness and a lot of media coverage because we need to get the word out on violence to turn the tide.

“It’s going to take a while, and there’s no quick answer,” she added.

Anti-violence initiatives are not new in New York City. In 1979, Curtis Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels, whose red berets and jackets became trademarks of the amateur pseudo-police force that patrolled the subway amid a rash of violence. That operation was controversial for its vigilante approach, instructing volunteers to make citizens arrests and even providing them training in martial arts. The Guardian Angels do not accept volunteers with gang affiliations or serious criminal records.

But Redding and Gibson support the inclusion of ex-convicts in SOS South Bronx.

“With the prison industrial complex — we have more people incarcerated in the United States than any other country in the history of the world — there’s such labeling and the stereotyping of anyone who has committed a crime,” Redding said. “That lack of a second chance is very frustrating.”

In areas of Chicago where Cure Violence has been implemented, shootings are down 75 percent, according to cureviolenge.org. Crown Heights saw a 6 percent drop in shootings from January 2011 to May 2012 — the first year and a half of SOS activity — while comparable Brooklyn neighborhoods saw increases of 18 to 28 percent in that period. Experts say it is premature to conclude a cause-and-effect relationship between SOS efforts and diminished shooting rates, but they point to these data as cause for optimism about the efficacy of Cure Violence.

Still, Chicago is far from eradicating its gun epidemic or the culture behind it. The city has suffered 329 homicides in 2014, the Chicago Tribune reported, following 440 in 2013.

Lil Bibby, a 19-year-old at the forefront of the hardcore rap movement in a city nicknamed “Chiraq,” spoke in January on New York’s HOT 97 hip-hop radio station about gun violence in his hometown.

“In the last couple of years everybody got guns now, man. There ain’t no more fist fighting or arguing anymore, just guns,” Lil Bibby said. “Guns come out right away. There are kids, 13 or 14, playing with guns, and there ain’t no big homies telling them, ‘Stop this.’”

Several months later, HOT 97 debuted “Hot N—-” by the then-19-year-old from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, named Bobby Shmurda. The song is now ubiquitous on New York street corners, and it was blaring on repeat from a stereo across the street from the SOS South Bronx office on the day the whiteboard showed No. 95.

“Hot Boy,” as it’s called on the radio, reflects a pervasive gun culture that SOS staffers are fighting desperately to reform. Seven of the song’s first 10 lines, and most thereafter, draw on boastful anecdotes dealing with guns.

Although experts such as Redding note the peril of discounting underlying political causes behind crime, Save Our Streets is premised on changing a cultural mentality — as Butts put it, “accepting violence as normal behavior.”

“It’s not an easy thing or a quick thing, but I think it’s the only way you fix this problem,” he said. “If we continue to see community-level violence through the lens of a war on crime, it will just be a war on crime forever. It takes someone bold enough to say maybe there’s a new way to think about this problem.”

To keep urban shooting tallies like the one on the Mott Haven whiteboard low, must interrupters patrol violent street corners indefinitely?

“The foundational idea behind this model is that you implement it for three years or 10 years  — some period of time  — and you slowly shift away the social norms in support of violence, then you’re done,” Butts said. “There’s no need for people to be constantly funding programs to stop cigarette smoking: that cultural shift has already happened in this country. It’s the same thing with violence.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Crime, Culture, Southern BronxComments (0)

Couple Set Up Craigslist Sting on a Mott Haven Street

A Staten Island couple set up their own sting operation in Mott Haven on Wednesday night by posing as customers interested in remote control cars they saw on Craigslist. The rare cars they tried to buy had been  stolen from them the previous week.

Lugo's custom remote control Baja 5Bs are back at his home in Staten Island after he found his stolen property for sale on craigslist.

Custom-made remote control Baja 5B cars are back in Lugo’s Staten Island collection.

Christian Lugo, a granite and marble installer, saw the posting on the website and arranged to meet the seller on Third Avenue to exchange $1,200 for the two custom-built hobby cars. Lugo and his wife Tabitha feigned interest in one of the rare model Baja 5B for just a moment before pulling out the remote controls that correspond with the car.

“This is my car,” Lugo said three times to the would-be seller. Tabitha then texted the police, whom the couple had alerted in advance. Officers who were waiting nearby then escorted the seller to his Bronx apartment to retrieve the second car. The young man claimed to have bought the cars from a drug addict for $150 and said he did not know the hobby cars were stolen.

“I am disappointed that I lost the money I spent on buying them to not get anything for it,” said the seller in a text message. He declined to give his name. “I knew the value so I wanted to resell them.” The Lugos did not press charges and were just happy to have the cars back. The young man was released without charges. “He spoke politely,” Tabitha said. “I told him, ‘But you are in possession of stolen property.’”

The Lugos have put a lot of custom work into the aluminum cars, which Tabitha claimed were worth about $3,000 each. The remote control Baja 5Bs are one-fifth the size of a real car and sell for $1,600 on the RC Superstores website. Lugo is an avid collector and builder of remote control cars and Craigslist is a go-to site for buying, selling and trading parts.Lugo estimates he has anywhere from 40 to 50 remote control cars on top of the hobby planes and boats he collects.

Two weeks ago, Lugo left the two Baja 5Bs at the Staten Island home of a friend, also a collector. Two days later the friend said the cars  had gone missing, but not the remote controls.  While searching Craigslist the following week, Lugo spotted his Bajas for sale. “He was ready at 8 o’clock last night to run over here and get the cars,” Tabitha said in Mott Haven, after they had retrieved their property. The couple had called the phone number posted on Craigslist and made an offer, setting a meeting place near the 40th police precinct on Third Avenue and 138 St. The Lugos alerted police of their plan. “I’m not from around here,” Lugo said. “I didn’t know if he had a gun.” The seller was unarmed and appeared to be about 18 years old.

Selling stolen property on Craigslist is against the company’s policies, although doing so is difficult to detect and impossible to prevent. Selling stolen property is prevalent enough that the Internet stolen property database site, stolen911.com, has a special page through which victims of theft can search for their property on Craigslist.

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

Lack of Cheap Housing Boosts Illegal SROs in the Bronx

The Brook, an affordable housing complex located at 455 East 148th St., offers 190 units to people with mental health problems and low-income residents. (MARIANA IONOVA / The Bronx Ink)

Edgar Gamble has everything he needs packed into 250 square feet of living space. His compact home includes a bed, a small bathroom and a partial kitchen. His window looks onto a leafy, tidy courtyard.  A miniature walk-in closet tucked in the corner of the bedroom would be the envy of most New Yorkers. All of it costs him $600 per month and it certainly beats his last address: a shelter for homeless veterans.

The 49-year-old ex-Marine lived on the street for nearly five months before residence management approved him for a unit at The Brook, a nonprofit supportive housing development providing single-room homes in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. The 190-unit nonprofit complex was built just three years ago. It has a shiny, pale grey exterior, which stands out next to the neighboring crumbling brownstones with facades slashed by strings of colorful laundry hung onto fire escapes.

The luxury of the Brook is an anomaly in the world of single-tenant homes, which often offer cramped quarters the size of a parking space. Gamble, who recently got hired as a blood laboratory specialist at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, has lived in about a half dozen single-unit homes in specialized Single Room Occupancy (SRO) residences since he left the Marines. Most lacked cooking facilities and extra space was unthinkable. “If you were lucky, you got a room with a bathroom,” he said. “If you got it, it was smaller than a jail cell.”

About 30,000 of these legal SRO units exist in New York City today and they account for only about 8 percent of the housing market. The city defines them as one-bedroom dwellings that usually share bathroom or kitchen facilities with other units. Rooms must be at least 150 square feet and each one has to have a window, city regulations say. All rooms must have access to a fire exit and only tenants over 16 are allowed to occupy them. Owners usually collect the rent each week, charging each tenant somewhere between $100 and $200.

While today single room units are a sliver of the city’s real estate, this wasn’t always the case.  Researchers estimate that, in the 1950s, approximately 200,000 units existed in New York City. But in 1955, the city, motivated by a deep belief that cramped single rooms offered substandard conditions, banned further construction of new SRO residences. The idea was to phase out poor housing and replace it with better-quality dwellings, said Brian Sullivan, an attorney with the SRO Project at MFY Legal Services, a nonprofit firm that represents low-income tenants in housing claims.

“The problem is that the people of the ’50s imagined everyone would prosper and be able to afford good housing,” he said. “So the number of legal SROs plummeted catastrophically over the last 50 years, without any real sense of alternatives.”

The response has been a boom in illegal single room units, which have been springing up outside the city’s regulatory reach with unprecedented speed. City officials say that owners of one- and two-family houses are illegally chopping up their homes to convert them into multiple-unit dwellings that can be rented out to desperate tenants looking for low-cost housing. These homes are often crowded to the point of exceeding city regulations and rooms lack access to proper fire exits, posing a serious risk to tenants.

Francisco Gonzalez, manager of Community District 9, said illegal single units in the Bronx in particular have been on the rise in the last two years, as more new immigrants looking for cheap housing have moved into the borough. The increase in his district has been mostly around Boynton and Ward Avenues, where most newcomers have settled in recent years, according to Gonzalez.

“Many immigrants, they can’t pay $1,000, $1,200 for an apartment,” he said. “These places, some of them cost $150 or $200 a week. That’s much more doable for them.”

But illegal single room occupancies remain a highly contested issue. The city came under fire last year  when three Mexican immigrants died in an early-morning fire that engulfed an illegally converted brownstone in the Belmont section of the Bronx. The tenants, a couple and their 12-year-old son, were living on the second floor of the home and could not reach the fire exit.

The way the city currently deals with illegal units like that one is through inspections and fines, which are usually triggered by complaints from neighbors. Between January 2010 and March of this year, the city received 5,587 complaints about illegally converted homes in the Bronx, according to city records of 311 service requests.

The borough also has the highest rate of serious housing code violations, says a report by NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, which found them in 9.4 percent of all rental units. By comparison, similar violations exist in six percent of rental units in Brooklyn, four percent of those in Manhattan and just two percent of those in Queens. The overall city average hovers around 5.4 percent.

Citywide, the Department of Buildings receives approximately 20,000 complaints about illegal conversions each year, according to spokesperson Tony Sclafani. Inspectors investigate all complaints and, if the residence houses more people than legally permitted by the city’s zoning codes, the Environmental Control Board issues the landlord a fine. They are typically asked to pay around $2,400 but the fine can go up to $25,000 for repeat offenders.

If inspectors find pressing hazardous conditions, they can also issue an order for tenants to leave the building on the spot. Last year, city inspectors issued more than 1,200 vacate orders for converted residences that posed an “immediate threat,” lacked fire exits and were not safe for occupancy, said Sclafani.

But the inspection process is far from seamless. Many inspectors face owners who refuse to open the door and, in such cases, they have no other legal way of gaining access to the inside of the building. They can visit the residence again but, after the second time, they have to post a form requesting access on the door and mail it to the owner. If they still receive no response, the department’s policy says the case must be dropped. This year, inspectors were able to gain access to just 46 percent of properties that received illegal conversion complaints, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. Inspectors can only request an access warrant when there are visible signs hinting the building is an SRO, like multiple mailboxes or doorbells.

Since 2009, the city has tried to crack down on illegal conversions in a more concerted way. Sclafani said his department has orchestrated undercover operations into illegal dwellings, distributed 160,000 fliers as part of an education campaign and formed a task force to target high-risk conversions. The task force — a joint effort between Sclafani’s team, Housing Preservation and Development and the fire department — is aimed at focusing resources on buildings with structural problems and histories of fire incidents.

But the crackdown on illegal conversions will not curb their popularity because there is a large pool of renters looking for cheap housing, said Harold Shultz, a senior fellow at the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a nonprofit research group that aims to improve housing conditions in the city.

“It’s an issue of a demand that is being unmet by the housing market,” said Shultz, who spent 30 years in the city’s Housing Preservation and Development department, working in the areas of housing preservation and code enforcement. “There’s a lot of single people looking to rent and they don’t have a lot of money.”

This is especially true in the Bronx, where 80 percent of people rent and tenants spend 34 percent of their income on housing, the highest percentage citywide. Although the borough still offers the cheapest rents in New York City, with prices 25 percent lower than those in Manhattan and 22 percent lower than in Queens, upward rental trends have not spared tenants. In 2011, prices averaged $1,008 per month, nine percent higher than what rents were two years ago.

“Illegal units are going to occur as long as there’s a lack of cheap alternatives,” said Sullivan. “There’s just a need for that level of cheap housing.”

The city has attempted to address the shortage of affordable, smaller housing in New York City by toying with the idea of loosening the rules and legalizing technically illegal single room occupancies that pose no real risk to tenants. The city has received recommendations by research organizations like the Pratt Center for Community Development that point to legalization of those SROs as the best way to cope with the demand for affordable housing. Erik Martin Dilan, chair of the city’s Committee on Housing and Buildings, has publicly said that he’s begun to look into the suggestion but no concrete plans have been made yet.

Jill Hamberg, a long-time urban planner and housing expert, worked on drafting legislation that would legalize safe single room occupancies back in the mid-1990s, when the issue first caught the attention of the City Council. The draft legislation was eventually tossed aside but, in the course of the year and a half she spent on the project, she began to understand just how difficult it would be to implement.

“The zoning and building codes are just too complicated to allow for that,” said Hamberg, who now teaches urban planning at Empire State College. She said building owners looking to bring their converted homes up to par with legal SROs will often find it impossible to meet regulatory standards. Most brownstones, for example, would never meet the size requirements of legal SROs because the rooms are often less than the mandated 150 square feet. Technicalities like that, she says, pose barriers to legalization of single room occupancies.

But, Shultz argues that preserving this type of housing is crucial to the city’s low-income population because, without it, homelessness would reach new, unprecedented levels.

“Imagine if you could effectively enforce the rules on all the illegal SROs in New York City,” he said. “Suddenly, you might have another 100,000 homeless people. What would you do with them? Would you rather have them sleeping on the street?”

Mariana Ionova can be contacted via email at mi2300@columbia.edu or on Twitter.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (0)

Violent crime in Mott Haven, Melrose at five-year high

Weekend mornings in Melrose are usually about sounds that help people relax. There’s the bell from the Church of Immaculate Conception, and soft music from shops that have just opened up for business. So when Maximino Rivera heard shots early on a Saturday last November, he couldn’t believe his ears. Minutes later, he walked in on an armored truck that had just been looted on Third Avenue.

Members of the South Bronx Community Congress, a consortium of various community organizations, demand more jobs to control violence. (NASR UL HADI/The Bronx Ink)

The weekend after, Rivera and other members of the South Bronx Community Congress — a consortium of various community organizations — marched down Brook Avenue in Mott Haven, demanding measures to control the violence. “We haven’t seen such heists since the 70s,” said Rivera, who has been involved with welfare work since 1989. “The statistics may or may not show it, but we can see that violence is becoming a bigger problem.”

Rivera’s instincts are fairly accurate. The South Bronx’s 40th Precinct, an area of less than three square miles, has reported almost 500 incidents of violent crime this year. More than 90 percent of these are felonious assaults, mostly shootings. In October, six incidents of gun violence were reported on a single Sunday.

Violence has climbed steadily, almost straight up, since 2008. This year’s toll — both overall, and individually for murder, rape and assault — is the highest in at least five years. The count so far is at least 20 murders and 23 rapes; that’s about one of each every two weeks, in a population of less than 180,000.

Statistics

Murders in the community have gone up by more than 35 percent since last year. The last time this number was at par with the average across other precincts in the Bronx was in 2008. Since then, the borough’s average has remained below 12, while the 40th’s numbers have gone up by more than 50 percent.

The 2006 Community Health Profiles rank homicide among the top five causes of premature death in Mott Haven.

The rise in incidents of sexual violence is even more disturbing. Rapes are up by 75 percent since last year. Also, for the first time in five years, the 40th has registered more incidents than the borough’s average per precinct.

Assaults in the neighborhood remain at a much higher threshold than the rest of the Bronx, and the gap has been widening consistently. There were 445 incidents of felonious assault in the 40th Precinct this year, 20 percent more than the borough average of 367.

Analysis

Banners at the residents’ march against violence primarily demanded more jobs and less poverty, as a solution to the spike in violence. “It’s all about connecting the dots between our social problems and violence,” said Raymond Figueroa, who runs a development program for incarcerated youth at Brook Park.

“Poverty and unemployment statistics are like canaries in the mine,” he said. “The minute they start acting up, you know that the situation is becoming dangerous. It’s a circle. Violence happens when people are violated.”

Figueroa explained that there are several jobs in the neighborhood that are just not available to locals, mostly because they are not educated enough. “Our schools haven’t been able to help our children, because they don’t have enough human resources to address our needs,” he said.

New York University’s Furman Center found that more than 75 percent of students in Mott Haven and Hunts Point perform below grade level in reading. In math, that number is almost 65 percent. Eventually these students drop out; more than half the residents in this community do not have a high school diploma.

“These unemployed youth then turn to underground businesses,” said Figueroa. “Prostitution and drug/gun running provide something that is very tangible and immediate.”

This reasoning does seem to hold ground. At least two-thirds of those involved in this year’s murders — both victims and perpetrators — were 25 or younger. Also, all the data charts shared earlier in this text show the 2008-09 recession to be the start of the upward trend in violent crime. During the same period, unemployment in this community doubled, going from about 9 percent to more than 18 percent.

“Joblessness feeds poverty in our community,” reiterated Figueroa, “which in turn makes it difficult for our kids to stick to school.” The 2006 Community Health Profiles estimate the poverty level in Mott Haven at 45 percent, twice as much as New York City overall.

“Poor school-age kids eventually turn to friends on the street for support, and that’s how they become gangs. The Dominicans go to the Trinitarios, the African Americans stick with the Bloods, the Puerto Ricans with the Latin Kings, and so on.”

“We call them gangs, but they think of themselves as street families,” he said. “And these families run the underground economy, which is the source of most violence.”

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Images of the Libyan conflict find a South Bronx audience

Images of the Libyan conflict find a South Bronx audience

World Press Photo award winner Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya on April 20, not long after he took the image above. (TED REGENCIA/The Bronx Ink)

One image shows an elderly man and two boys posing with spent mortar shells. Another captures a family fleeing a wrecked building, terror etched on their faces. In still another, a young soldier brandishes a machine gun, bullets wrapped around his body.

These full-color photos from the recent civil war in Libya are on display in Mott Haven as part of “Visions: Tim Hetherington,” the inaugural exhibition of the Bronx Documentary Center that opened on October 22, to honor the slain photojournalist and award-winning director of the documentary, “Restrepo,” a feature-length film on a U.S. platoon in Afghanistan.

Some of the photos on display were taken on the fatal day, when Hetherington and his fellow photographer, Chris Hondros, were caught in a crossfire in the Libyan rebel stronghold of Misurata.

The grim images notwithstanding, the center buzzed with energy in anticipation of the opening.

The newly renovated Beaux-Arts building on the corner of Courtlandt Avenue and 151st Street is home to the new center, the first of its kind in the South Bronx, which seeks to educate students through photography and video, while serving as a venue for world-class photojournalists and filmmakers to engage an “underserved” local community.

“Despite his success, Tim never lost sight of the human dynamics behind the violence he documented,” reads the exhibition’s synopsis posted on the wall.

The gallery was the brainchild of Michael Kamber, 48,  a New York Times photographers and reporter, to honor his friend, the late Hetherington. “I came up here with Tim, and we thought this is a community that doesn’t see documentary photography,” said Kamber, 48, who renovated the historic four-story building with financing from Fractured Atlas, a non-profit organization for the arts.  “This is the place to build it.”

After the legendary photographer was killed in Libya, Kamber moved back to the Bronx after a 20 year absence, and rushed to finish the first-floor gallery space. The top floor of the building that Kamber bought for $614,000 serves as Kamber’s home.

Sebastian Junger, another award-winning photographer and friend of both Kamber and Hetherington, said the center is an important addition to the community. “The South Bronx obviously is a community that’s had some tough years in its past and I think it’s just amazing that the photo community has an outpost here,” said the author of the bestseller, The Perfect Storm. “Typically you think of that as being in Manhattan.”

For Kamber, a three-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize — twice for photography and once for reporting — it’s his way of enriching his own neighborhood.

“We want to get young people in here,” said Kamber. “We’re going to show them this work and explain them what documentary photography is.”

The Bronx's newly opened Documentary Center displays Hetherington's work (TED REGENCIA/The Bronx Ink)

Aside from welcoming students, Kamber also plans to organize talks about veterans and post-war trauma – two of Hetherington’s most cherished issues.

It took five months of hard work for Kamber and his team to renovate the gallery. Photography students and friends, as well as fellow veterans of the war in Afghanistan pitched in to help.

On opening night, many of New York’s photography aficionados trooped north from Brooklyn and Manhattan for the event. Attendees huddled around the photo installations, while an overflow crowd packed its backyard. Spotted among the hundred or so attendees were veteran South Bronx photojournalists Mel Rosenthal and Ricky Flores, as well as Bronx artist Carey Clark from the community group, The Point.

Lawrence Scott, a 64-year old television producer, said he “fell in love with the concept” of a documentary center and decided to volunteer his time.

“A lot of people that would not normally come to the Bronx would come and realize that it’s a neighborhood just like any place else,” said Scott, who lives nearby.

Fanny Placentia, an 18 year-old Bronx native studying visual arts, said she was excited to learn that a new gallery was opening in her neighborhood. The young brown-haired teenager came with a classmate and their teacher to have a look at the 36-by-30-inch war photographs.

“I don’t have to go to great lengths to get to the center,” said Placentia, who found the exhibition inspiring, even though she had never heard of Hetherington. “It’s right there near my home.”

The photo exhibit runs until Dec. 2, 2011.

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The cost of murder in Mott Haven

At 3 a.m. on October 15, Maria Rojas woke to the sound of her phone ringing. Police from the South Bronx’s 40th Precinct said that her eldest son had been stabbed. By the time she reached Lincoln Hospital, doctors had tried, and failed, to revive 24-year-old Joel.

Hours later, as she spoke to the local funeral director, Rojas, 42, felt her heart break for a second time that day. She was at least $1,800 short of what she needed to pay for the cheapest burial possible. That was more than she had ever made in a month.

By the end of the week, Joel was interred in Chietla, Mexico, 2,600 miles away from his family, only because they couldn’t afford to bury him in New York City.


View From New York to Chietla: Joel Rojas’ Journey in Death in a larger map

Death is an inevitable burden in any community. But in neighborhoods such as Mott Haven, epidemic levels of poverty, illegal immigration and violent crime provide the worst context to human loss. Rojas’ experience since her son’s death illustrates how this district, both as individual families and as a community, does not have the fiscal or social resources needed to deal with the consequences of murder.

Funeral expenses

Rojas washes employees’ uniforms at a restaurant in lower Manhattan. At the end of the month, she pays $1,300 in rent-cum-utilities and takes home about $200 to support a family of six — an unemployed ailing husband, three school-age children, and until recently, Joel. It took her five years, on a radically austere budget and a regular job, to rack up $700 in savings. She hoped, nervously, that it would be enough in case of an emergency.

It wasn’t enough. An average funeral in the United States costs at least $6,560.

Rojas’ options for a funeral were limited. A city burial, though free, would place Joel in the potter’s field on Hart Island, in an unmarked trench along with several other indigents. The most economical yet dignified option was a direct burial, which saved on costs like embalming, flowers, et cetera, because it didn’t involve a memorial service or visitation.

But Rojas’ budget still didn’t make the grade. “Our direct burials start at $2,547,” said Michael Ortiz, 73, owner of the R. G. Ortiz network of more than 20 funeral homes across Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. “Add any of the optional elements that are part of traditional burials, and the cost can go up to $8,000.”

Ortiz’s chain is headquartered at Hunts Point, and has a smaller branch on Willis Avenue in Mott Haven. Most families in these areas have a median household income of about $1,600 per month, and cannot afford to bury their dead. Latinos like the Rojases, who comprise about 70 percent of this population, often choose to ship their dead back home instead.

Joel's memorial at the Rojases' apartment in Mott Haven, on the last day of the traditional Mexican mourning period. (NASR UL HADI/Bronx Ink)

“Sending Joel’s body to Mexico was the logical choice for many reasons,” said Rojas. The shipping process, mediated by Ortiz’s enterprise, cost a total of just $1,700 — about 35 percent less than what she would have paid in New York. The fact that the Mexican consulate sponsors the transport of remains when immigrants cannot afford it, allowed Rojas to spend her $700 savings on a small wake instead.

“For the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans or Mexicans, shipping their dead home just doesn’t cost as much as a grave in this city,” said Ortiz. Buying a burial plot in the Bronx costs anywhere between $650 and $6,450. “And this cost will only rise as the number of grave lots at cemeteries like St Raymond’s and Woodlawn goes down over the next few years.”

That’s why more and more people are switching to cremation. The cost of interring then comes down to anything between $600 and $1,450. The management at Woodlawn too pointed out this trend. “Ten years ago, our annual burial and cremation count was 1,200 each,” said Susan Olsen, Woodlawn’s director of historical services. “This year so far, we have already had over 2,400 cremations with just about a 1,000 burials.” There is no denying that cost has been a major factor. “We also offer another low-cost option, which clients find more ‘engaging’ — glass entombment of memorabilia in our mausoleum,” said Olsen.

Cost-efficient or not, Rojas, a devout Catholic, just wouldn’t consider cremating her son. “He might not be near us, but I feel content that he is near our ancestors. With the money I had, that is more than I could have asked for,” she said.

Trauma and stress

Funeral expenses are the most obvious fallout of murder. But there is also an intangible component to the cost, which includes fear and psychological injury, among other consequences. The City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene estimates that 10 percent of adults suffer from serious psychological distress in Mott Haven and Hunts Point.

“Our neighborhoods are just not equipped with support systems to help families affected by murder,” said Lew Zuchman, director at the Supportive Children’s Advocacy Network (SCAN), an organization that works with youth to prevent violence. “The only city employees a victim’s family sees after the tragedy are cops. But their job is to investigate the case, not help the family deal with it.”

Rojas couldn’t agree more. Joel’s stabbing was caught on security cameras, and the police released a photograph of the suspect. Two months later, they are yet to make an arrest. In the video below, Rojas describes how she tried hard to improve her access to police information, but hit a dead end each time. ”I went back to the precinct several times, but they didn’t let me see the detective handling Joel’s case. I don’t know where else to go,” she said.

Rojas said she had no idea there were city agencies who could help her.  “If there are agencies to help these people, they don’t reach out to you,” said Zuchman. “You need to know how to find them.” The U.S. Department of Justice said between 2000 and 2009, less than 10 percent of Americans affected by serious violent crime received direct assistance from victim service agencies.

Access to victim services or other organizations is much more limited in newer migrants, said Howard Jordan, professor of criminal justice at Hostos College in Mott Haven. “There is a lack of information due to a lack of organization,” he said. “The Mexicans have a harder time because they are the most recent migrants.”

Jordan added that the Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, have representatives at various levels of governance to help them communicate their grievances. The Dominicans may not have been around as long, but they too have robust community organizations. In fact, they are organized enough to run Dominican presidential campaigns from the South Bronx.

“We Mexicans are still working to build social networks,” said Angelo Cabrera, president of the Mexican American Students’ Alliance (MASA). “Most of our organizations, like MASA or the Hands Community Center at St. Jerome’s Church, focus on education and employment training. We still don’t have the resources or political connections needed to help in situations like the Rojas case.” Cabrera also said that since most Mexicans are illegal residents, they are afraid to come forward with such issues, and try to deal with them on their own.

Loss of life

The cost of murders is felt not only by victims’ families, but also by the larger community. A study at Iowa State University in 2009 analyzed all tangible and intangible costs for murder (such as trauma, and work loss) in the United States, to calculate an average cost per murder victim. Their estimate exceeded $4.7 million. If costs to the system, such as those of investigation, incarceration, et cetera, were included, an average community in the country lost more than $17.2 million per murder.

One such intangible cost is years of potential life lost (YPLL), calculated by the City’s Department of Health as the difference between a person’s age at death and 75, the life expectancy in New York. Since the average age of homicide victims in the 40th Precinct this year was 25, the community lost 50 years of potential life per victim. With 20 homicides registered so far in 2011 — the highest toll in five years — Mott Haven-Melrose lost at least 1,000 years of potential life to murder in a single year.

Potential life is one loss that Maria Rojas understands immediately. Joel’s murder cost the Rojases 51 years of potential life.

“My son died much before his time,” she said on the last evening of the nine-day mourning period, a Mexican tradition. “He was a child who still had to live his life.”

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City locks out Morning Glory gardeners

Elliott Liu holds a rake outside the garden he helped create as city workers tear down the fence.

Volunteer gardeners in the South Bronx looked on helplessly Monday morning as city workers yanked up their kale by the roots and threw it into garbage bags.

In a few hours, the city had destroyed their carefully tended garden beds, hauled away tables and chairs, and mowed under foliage in Morning Glory Community Garden on Union Avenue and Southern Boulevard.

Two years of grassroots work was destroyed in a few hours. “What we are seeing,” said Rafael Mutis, adjunct professor at Hostos Community College, “is just another threatened community garden in a low-income community where fresh food is already so scarce.”

The city hopes to develop the area and needs the garden cleaned out to prepare the  land for sale. A Bronx housing official, Ted Weinstein, said developers have expressed interest in bidding on the site, but first need to test it to see if construction is feasible.

“We are on orders to clear out the lot today,” Carol Allen, a department of housing representative, said to the stunned gardeners, holding petitions they’d hoped would save the garden from destruction “If you attempt to stop us, we will call the police.”

Until recently, the Morning Glory community garden was nothing more than an empty lot, owned by the city, and neglected for 30 years. Two years ago, a group of community members decided to convert the space into something useful.

Residents have since used the soil to grow corn, tomatoes, carrots, collards, kale, garlic and squash. Students learned how to grow their own food. The space hosts community barbeques, open mic events and organic farming opportunities.

On November 7, community gardeners Elliott Liu and Rafael Mutis stood outside of the fence with plans to gather signatures to take to City Hall, hoping community support could stall their eviction. Their plans were scrapped when the Department of Housing representatives arrived to clear it out.

Liu and Mutis frantically made calls for urgent support as the contract workers from Innovative Construction tore down a section of the fence and backed a blue van into the lot, running over small potted plants stopping to unload garbage cans, lawn mowers, and pickaxes.

“I don’t know why the city needs to clear out this garden today,” said neighbor Elizabeth Lynch as she signed the petition to save the garden. “If they have a plan to build something here, they should let the community know.”

Meanwhile community reinforcements gradually began to arrive on the sidewalk outside the garden. Anistala Rugama, of the Harm Reduction Coalition was disappointed that the high school students, who have the most stake in the garden, could not be there to protect it.

“The city came to destroy their garden while they are in school,” she said. “They were planning to come after school, but it might be too late.”

According to James Edgar of the Department of Housing, it is too late. “We have put up No Trespassing signs,” he told gardeners. “This is city property and they will do what they want with it.”

Attorney Kafhani Nkrumah believes the garden might still have a fighting chance. “The next step is to contact Community Board District Manager, Cedric Loftin,” he said. “He should represent you.”

Gardeners planned to host a rally Monday afternoon outside of the garden, hoping to gather community support. But for now, all they could do was watch from behind the fence, as their hard work and hope for a greener South Bronx was demolished.

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