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VIDEO – Fast Bus, Slow Business

by Wanda Hellmund

Fast Bus Slow Business from on Vimeo.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Transportation0 Comments

Mayor’s Proposed Budget Cuts Threaten AIDS/HIV “Epicenter” in Bronx

By Wanda Hellmund

Outside the hearing on budget cuts in City Hall

Outside the hearing on budget cuts in City Hall

AIDS is on the rise in the Bronx, the borough with the highest prevalence of HIV infections in the state. “We are the epicenter of the disease,” said Sean Barry, 28, co-director of New York City AIDS Housing (NYCAH).

And critics fear that the City’s new proposed budget cuts will make things even worse for the many Bronx residents suffering from the disease. Part of the cuts are programs by HASA (HIV/AIDS Services Administration), a government-run program providing benefits to people with HIV/AIDS.

Sojourner McCauley, Coordinator of Community Services at the Bronx Aids Services (BAS) said that the proposed budget cuts would have a drastic effect on BAS’s work. “We would have to cut back on case managers and discontinue many programs,” McCauley said. “With the result that the quality of life for many would drop, the engagement in medical services would drop and I fear that the numbers of HIV infected people would go up.”

According to McCauley, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed cuts will cause a proportional decrease in quality of life for the 45,000 people currently on HASA programs in New York.

The combination of poverty and HIV makes the disease ever more dangerous, because people with HIV are dependent for successful maintenance on a consistent program of medication and nutrition, which is easier to manage when they have a place to live. Wanda Hernandex, 47, board member of New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN) and Bronx resident who has lived with Aids for 15 years says her living conditions have improved drastically because of HASA, which provides food stamps and access to better housing. “It’s a crutch people fall on – an important one,” Hernandez said.

But the New York City budget cuts, announced in January, put many of these programs in danger of being discontinued. The Mayor proposes cutting $6.5 million from the HASA programs this year, another $8 million over the next few years and an additional $8 million out of supportive housing programs. According to the NYCAH, these cuts would decrease the number of case workers by 35%, reduce supportive housing contracts, and cut funding for food and nutrition by 50%.

“We understand the need for budget cuts in times like these,” said Barry. “But what the mayor proposes is disproportionate. We would support a cut of $2 million. That’s where we have to draw a line in the sand.”

Councilwoman Annabel Palma, along with supporters from New York City AIDS Housing and Housing Works, both organizations dedicated to end the dual crisis of AIDS and homelessness, opposed the mayor’s budget cuts vocally on March 8th at City Hall.

“What the mayor proposes is simply illegal,” Diana Scholl from Housing Works said. “It is against the disability act.  It’s just really shortsighted.” If the cuts are implemented in July, as planned, she anticipates devastating consequences for the Bronx, not just for the individuals who live with the disease but for the community as a whole.

Barbara Brancaccio, a spokesperson for the Bloomberg administration, responded in an email to BronxInk: “These reductions will not affect the City’s commitment to providing reasonable access to benefits and services to eligible clients of HASA.” Brancaccio did not specify what support under the new budget would look like.

Right now, 45,000 low-income New Yorkers living with HIV and AIDS and their families rely on HASA for support and benefits, and to them the fear of losing that support is real.

James Dean, 57, a Brooklyn resident who has been living with the disease for ten years, is afraid of how the cuts might impact  him and the HIV community – or as he calls it his family.

“Where would homeless people with HIV go?” Dean asked. “They have no where else to turn to.”

For Dean, HASA helped him get back on his feet when no one else did. “My family didn’t have the means to help me financially,” he said.

He lost his business in building maintenance because his illness made it impossible for him to continue work. HASA helped him get an apartment, one of the biggest hurdles for many living with AIDS. Legally, landlords cannot let the illness affect their decision, but for many it is a real problem finding a place to stay.

Because of HASA, Dean is now living a good life despite his illness. But without HASA this might have not been the case, and he worries for people who are in the same situation he was in a few years ago.  “Without HASA, many people with AIDS are just going to be without support out on the streets,” Dean said.

HASA also offers mental-health services that could be cut altogether under the new budget, even though it is an important part of the support that people with AIDS need. To Dean and Hernandez, emotional support is as important as medical one. Hernandez and Dean like most people on HASA, do not have to worry about medication costs because they are covered by Medicaid. But with no guarantee of housing and support services, they face an increase in the emotional burden and stress that comes with the AIDS diagnosis.

According to a study published in the February issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, the suicide rate amongst HIV-infected individuals is more than three times higher than rates of the general population.

“It used to be a death sentence,” Hernandez said. “But it doesn’t have to be. Things like HASA help you realize that. That’s why HASA is so important it can save lives.”

Hernandez and Dean have experienced first-hand how much the projects helped them live a good life with HIV. And now they want to make sure that others can too. “HASA helped me turn around my life for the better despite the disease,” Dean said. “I would hate see other people get denied access to that support.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Health, Politics2 Comments

VIDEO – Health Care Reform – Bronx and Brooklyn React

by the staff of the Bronx Ink and the Brooklyn Ink

Video by Dan Lieberman and Rania Zabaneh

Text by Matthew Huisman

First came the campaign for healthcare, then a year of debate in Congress. Yet at the end of a nine-hour deliberation and a vote that will send the bill to the president’s desk this week, people seem unclear about what the law means to them.

On Monday morning the reaction of hospitals, businesses, politicians and people in the Bronx and Brooklyn was one of confusion. Jennifer Brookland examined the numbers, breaking down people enrolled in Medicaid and what it could mean for the people of the borough. We found that the majority of small businesses won’t be adversely effected by the bill, as business leaders greeted it with optimism.

State and local politicians added their own input on the legislation. Brooklyn Republicans were disgruntled, calling the law a slippery slope toward socialized medicine. State Assemblyman Joseph Lentol who represents Fort Greene, Williamsburg and Greenpoint praised the bill. Fellow Democrat Charles Barron, City Council representative of Brownsville and Canarsie as well as parts of East New York and Flatbush, had some harsh words for “blue dog” Democrats who watered down the bill.

The legislation also sent ripples through the Health Care Industry where Brooklyn pharmacists reacted with apprehension and confusion. Nursing homes faced similar confusion about the insurance coverage for seniors and those on Medicaid. One Brooklyn doctor with a 25-year career feared an increase in the number of patients  which could mean less one-on-one time between doctors and their patients. At the Montefiore Medical Center, some are concerned funding will be cut for low-patient care. While legal immigrants will enjoy the benefits of the law, undocumented immigrants won’t have access, which, many say, runs contrary to the goal of greater access to health care.

One of the lesser known facets of the bill is the revamping of the college loan system. The government would be the direct lender rather than going through private banks.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Health, Multimedia0 Comments

VIDEO – Puerto Ricans have highest asthma rate in nation

by Wanda Hellmund

Posted in Health0 Comments

Heather Mills Picks Up the Check for a Vegan Cafe in Hunts Point

By Wanda Hellmund

Heather Mills at the opening ceremony of VBites Oct 2 - Photo by Wanda Hellmund

Heather Mills at the opening ceremony of VBites Oct 2 - Photo by Wanda Hellmund

Heather Mills won millions in her bitter divorce from Paul McCartney, but the tabloid did direct damage to her public image. Now, she’s using some of that money to create good will and good health in the South Bronx by opening a vegan take-out cafe in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, Hunts Point.

But so far, free food seems to be  the big draw at VBites, which opened in October. The vegan message seems to be secondary.

“Can I get hot dogs and chicken please?” said Amparo Espinosa, 25, as she stepped up to the counter. Her meal doesn’t sound vegan, but it is. The “hot dogs” and “chicken” are actually made with meat-free soy substitutes.

The cafe is handing out free take-away vegan food every Wednesday to local residents in need through a $1 million food donation by Mills. Jenny Cantarero, a 35-year old mother of two, comes frequently. “The kids love it and it’s healthy,” she said. Her six-year old son Ronal is looking over the counter to see what they get this time. “I love it,” he said. “I wanna get more.”

Getting people to enjoy vegan food was one of the goals of Mills when she opened the VBites cafe, which is named after her vegan food brand based in the UK. “We want to get children off fast food,” said Mills. But instead of expecting them to switch from a burger to plain vegetarian food, Mills proposed to replace “like for like,” meat-free versions of fast food favorites like hot dogs and burgers. “People can eat exactly what they like already,” Mills said, “but it’s much better for them and their family.”

The take-out cafe is located in the main building of the Hunts Point Alliance for Children (HPAC). The project was born two years ago when Mills met James Costa, executive member on HPAC’s board, in Los Angeles. “She was talking about a food line,” said Costa.  “And we were thinking about how to bring healthy food into the neighborhood and we just brought those ideas together.”

Mills became convinced that the idea had potential after running a pilot version of VBites for the last year. The project, called the NoBeef Cafe, is located in the non-profit organization The Point and prepares free vegan meals as well. It will remain in operation.

On last week’s menu: chicken curry and beef stew prepared by chef Kelston Bascom with Mills’ products. “People like it,” Bascom said. “In the beginning, only two kids showed up.” Now, every seat is packed and Bascom said the cafe usuallydraws 45 to 60 people every Thursday.

With the NoBeef Cafe running, Mills was ready to open the VBites Cafe. “We certainly wanted to make sure that having a free vegan cafe is actually something people would enjoy – and they do,” said Mills. She said she beame a vegan after she was hit by a police motorcycle in 1993, and part of a leg. Vegan food made her healthy again, she said, and that is why she wants to make it more accessible.

Mills hopes that VBites Cafe in Hunts Point is going to encourage families to start eating vegan and then demanding vegan food in their local supermarkets and fast food chains. That is a huge challenge. Even though Hunts Point residents live next to the huge wholesale food market, they have little access to fresh produce in their local grocery stores.

But even if kids and their parents start to like vegan food, it is not guaranteed that they can afford to buy it on a regular basis in an area like Hunts Point, where 45.5 percent of residents live below the poverty line.  VBite’s burgers sell for an equivalent of $2 per slice on their online store while a complete hamburger at McDonalds costs $1. This applies just to VBite products, which are so far only available for purchase in the UK. If a family starts to switch to a vegan diet, there are many extra expenses. A gallon of cow’s milk is certainly cheaper than vegan alternatives such as soy or rice milk. And while VBite products are easy to cook – simply microwave – many Bronx residents will not know how to prepare vegan meals from scratch at home.

Vegan cooking classes at the non-profit organization Project Hope helped residents incorporate vegan cuisine in their routine. Cantarero said they explained how to use soy and other vegan ingredients and now she is teaching her friends how to cook vegan.

Mills is not planning on expanding VBites anywhere else in the Bronx for now, while she keeps her main focus on the British market, where she just opened her first vegan fast-food restaurant.

The profit made from the UK restaurant and the online shop are supposed to help fund projects like the VBites Cafe. The HPAC hopes to find new donors to support it after the money from Mills runs out in about five years, but so far nothing  has been set up yet.

For now, VBites Cafe brings healthy and free food onto tables of many families who could not afford it otherwise. It might not change Hunts Point into a vegan neighborhood, but it seems to have an effect on kids. “I try to eat more healthily but it is difficult,” said Anacelia Gomez, 16, a student at Jane Addams High School.  “We have little to no healthy food in our school cafeteria”. Although she still has to get used to the taste, she could imagine having vegan food in her school cafeteria soon. Nine-year old Angelique Taveras could not believe that what she was eating was vegan. “It’s really good,” she said. “When I found out its soy it was even better because I wasn’t eating an animal.”

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Food1 Comment

Hope for the “Ocelot” Tenants?

Entrance to Manida Street building, Photo by Wanda Hellmund

Entrance to Manida Street building, Photo by Wanda Hellmund

By Wanda Hellmund

It was a moment the tenants in the decaying apartment buildings on Manida Street had sought for more than two years. “Omni bought the debt,” Carmen Rodriguez, head of the residents’ group, declared at a tenant meeting on December 7.

The room–filled with Hunts Point residents who have endured rats, collapsing ceilings and months with no heat or hot water–erupted in applause

It has been a long fight for residents in Manida Street and hundreds of other residents in the decrepit Ocelot-owned buildings all over the Bronx. This is their first victory. But it was a victory with a caveat.

“This is a huge success for the tenants,” said Jill Roche from the Hunts Point Alliance for Children, who represented the Manida  Street tenants. “But there is still a very long road ahead for us.”

On Dec. 2, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the sale of the portfolio of 14 of 26 Ocelot-owned buildings to Omni New York LLC, a low-income real-estate development company, as a boon for residents all over the city. “The sale of these buildings to an affordable housing developer with a track record as strong as Omni’s is a home run for the residents, the neighborhood, and all of New York City,” the mayor said in a statement. “That’s something all of us can cheer.”

“Omni is thrilled to have been chosen as the successful bidder for the Ocelot portfolio,” Omni’s co-owner Maurice “Mo” Vaughn said in a statement.  Vaughan is a former New York Met player. “We look forward to moving ahead with the foreclosure process and substantial rehabilitation of these properties.”

“I want Omni to do right by us,” said Rodriguez, a 35-year-old mother of five, who had help lead the fight against Ocelot Capital Group that bought the four Manida Street buildings and 22 others across the Bronx in between 2006 and 2008, only to abandon them to foreclosure months later.

“We don’t want to be treated like trash no more.”

This pyrrhic victory may have a broader impact on future tenants’ cases against their landlords. “This is a success not only for these tenants,” said Roche. “This is a success for tenants all over the country.”

But the victory is muted. Omni did not buy the buildings outright from Ocelot. It bought their $23.8 million debt from Fannie Mae and Deutsche Bank. As long as the deeds are still held in the hands of companies linked to Ocelot, improvements may take some time.

What does this deal mean for tenants tomorrow? “Not a whole lot,” said Roche at the meeting. “But this is a huge step. It just might take a year or so.”

Omni officials pledged to transfer $1 million in emergency repairs to the current receivers in various buildings, though they are well aware that one million will not go far.

“I think $30 million is the right figure to put these buildings back to where they ought to be,” said Omni manager, Gene Schneur, acknowledging the enormity of the buildings’ decay.

For instance, the Bryant and Morris Avenue receiver claimed in October that he needed $325,000 alone to make capital improvements such as waterproofing, sidewalk repairs and new electrical services.

“Nothing is going to happen until we get the deeds,” said Schneur. “This could take 12 months, this could take 18 months. We hope it doesn’t.”

A spokesperson for Fannie Mae, which owns much of Ocelot’s bad debt, said Ocelot has not been cooperative. “So we had to sell the notes for now to secure the deeds,” said Jon Searles.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez is hopeful. She visited some of the buildings Omni has rehabilitated in the city – a portfolio that includes 2,937 units of affordable housing.

“You should have seen these buildings,” Rodriguez told Manida residents at the tenants meeting. “These buildings looked beautiful!”

Tenants are both excited and skeptical about the new developments.   “We would have preferred a non-profit organization,” said Jonathan Levy, a lawyer for the Ocelot tenants. “But this is the second best option for us.”

Most prefer to hold out hope. “We didn’t have hot water and heat for a year,” said Tamara Taylor, a 48-year old Manida Street tenant and mother of two. “Nobody was there to help us. “I have waited this long. I can wait a few more months.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Housing0 Comments

621-627 Manida St.

By Wanda Hellmund

Additional reporting by Donal Griffin

Residents at 621-627 Manida St. have had a rough year. The list of complaints includes no heat, no hot water, cracks in the ceiling, mold everywhere. More than 3,000 similar conditions have been reported so far. A court-appointed receiver has been slowly carrying out repairs and restoring basics like running water, residents are facing an uncertain future.

The buildings, known locally as the “House of Horrors,” are primed to be sold to a new landlord.  But residents don’t know if that will improve their living conditions. “I won’t believe it, until I see it,” said Carmen Rodriguez, a 35-year-old mother of five who heads the newly formed tenants’association.

Rodriguez and her neighbors have been disappointed in the past. “This building is a mess,” said Asia Ezmonds, 30. “Many apartments are vacant and now they’re occupied by drug addicts.”

All they have to do is kick in a door of an empty apartment.

Building residents formed the tenants association because they said they have had enough. Jill Roche from the Hunts Point Alliance for Children heard about the conditions on Manida Street and is representing  residents as a legal co-counselor with Urban Justice Center since early March. “Living conditions were awful,” Roche said. “Some of the children were not going to school because they could not even take a shower in the morning.”

Parents like Tamara Taylor, 48, worry about their children’s health. Taylor did not have gas in her apartment for a year, making it impossible to cook for her 12-year-old daughter. “The landlords just don’t care about us,”she said.

Residents have stopped paying rent and say they won’t pay again until their complaints have been addressed. “Everything should be gutted,” said Rodriguez. “Otherwise these issues will be coming back again and again.”

This leaves the receiver, Howard Vargas, who is managing the properties until Fannie Mae can unload them, with the task of trying to improve conditions in the building without rent money. Fannie Mae contributed only $100,000 for repairs, $20,000 of which Vargas used to repair the leaking roofs.

Nonetheless, he and his team have so far dealt with over 700 housing violations. “It’s certainly better than it was,”he said. But there is also still a long way to go.

Now, the residents of the Manida Street apartments are hoping to hear that a non-profit organization might come in and buy these buildings. Until then, the apartments continue to deteriorate around them.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Housing0 Comments

Fire Destroys Five Businesses in Hunts Point

by Wanda Hellmund

The aftermath of the fire - Picture by Wanda HellmundBy Wanda Hellmund

A four-alarm fire destroyed five Hunts Point businesses on Wednesday night along Southern Boulevard in South Bronx. The cause is still under investigation.

Minor injuries were reported, but no one has been hospitalized, according to officials.

Firefighters from the 3rd batallion were called to the scene near Hunts Point Avenue and Southern Boulevard at approximately 9.30 p.m.  “The NYPD called us about heavy smoke in the area,” said FDNY commander Francis Mannion.

Fire officials declared the fire under control at 3 a.m., but it was still smoldering by 10 a.m. Thursday morning, October 29.

All the residents from the neighboring building were evacuated for two hours while the FDNY fought the flames. “The flames were sky-high,” said  local resident Melinda Ramirez, “and for hours it was not getting any better.”

Despite the efforts of the firefighters, the five stores–Boulevard Shoes, Man-Fix Fine Men’s Wear, Ponce De Leon Federal Bank, and Rincon Musical Store –burned to the ground. Golden Dreams Jewelry was impacted heavily with water and smoke damages.

Because of the severity of the fire, most of the buildings are structurally unsound.  “They are probably going to be torn down soon,” said district manager John Robert. The Office of Emergency Management and the Department of Buildings were also on the site to guarantee the safety of the buildings.

Employees from Ponce De Leon Bank were handing out flyers advising their customers to go to other locations in the Bronx until further notice. “It might take a year until we can reopen,” said Albert Rodriguez the branch operation assistant.

Most of the businesses have become part of the community. “That’s my shoe store,” said Josephine Infant, President of Hunts Point Development Corporation, as she passed by on her way work. “And I know the people at the bank. This is devastating!”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime3 Comments