With about half of its planned caseload of 325 clients now occupying the Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC) shelter at 127 West 25th Street, local business owners have begun to voice their opinions on how the facility is impacting the neighborhood. While some spoke of quality of life offenses, representatives from the BRC and the NYPD maintain there is no correlation between the homeless clients and alleged criminal activity in the area.
“BRC has and will continue to operate our programs in Chelsea, as we do throughout New York City, with a commitment to responding to the concerns of our neighbors. That is why we continue to convene a monthly Community Advisory Committee at our West 25th Street building, and respond to specific, factual issues brought to our attention. We look forward to working with those who will work with us,” said BRC Executive Director Muzzy Rosenblatt.
For the past 15 years, Janet Lederman has run the Flash Clinic photography supplies store 164 West 25th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. She has noticed a change on the block in the last two months, and hopes the new homeless shelter will not affect her business.
“I hate it,” said Lederman. “People are hanging out all over, drugged up and disgusting, and you can’t even get by. I am not angry at the homeless and mentally unstable people. But whoever’s idea it was to build this doesn’t live in Chelsea. There are million dollar apartments here, and people are hanging out all over the street.”
“I think it’s going to hurt business,” added Lederman. “The whole reason I didn’t open up on the West Side was that I wanted walk-in business. But if I were to see that, I wouldn’t want to come in here.”
The street is home to many small art galleries, including the Standpipe Gallery. Curator Michael J. Bowen said that although he appreciates his neighbors’ concerns, the BRC opening has had no impact on his business.
“I am not sure what I’m supposed to see, but I haven’t any sense that the neighborhood has changed in any way,” said Bowen. “I saw people protesting, and the concerns they expressed seem valid, but if I’m supposed to be seeing drug-addicted criminals, I haven’t. There are no people staggering into the gallery or peeing in the doorway. These people are trying to get help, but maybe a couple of them have not had success with that and are giving the others a bad name.”
Residents voice concerts at 10th and 13th Precinct meetings
During a September 19 Community Council meeting at the 13th Precinct, Jon Schneck, owner of New York Vintage, had harsh words to share about the BRC’s new clientele.
“There is drug dealing, urinating, garbage in my doorways and the streets are like ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ with zombies walking back and forth smoking cigarettes. It is a litmus test for what is to be,” said Schneck.
Schneck said he reported the activities to 311, and told BRC’s Rosenblatt, “I don’t feel like your enterprise has done anything to deal with the collateral damage. There is only one camera there, and I fear for the kids and female employees here. The quality of life is gone.”
Lt. Hempstead of the 13th Precinct said that, more often than not, he staffed the desk and logged 311 calls. “Statistically, we’re not up in complaints, we’re down in the reports there. If we get more than five 311 calls at one location in a week, we will send a car to follow up. I haven’t gotten that info,” said Lt. Hempstead.
During that meeting, Tony Juliano, president of the Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce (GVCCC) noted that, “This kind of thing is hurting business significantly. We have to look at what we can do as a business community. It is a real concern, because it doesn’t seem likely that the BRC is going anywhere. We need to put more security on the street.”
Rosenblatt noted that he had in the past repeatedly offered to meet with the GVCCC to discuss these concerns, and said, “We have staff in uniform going up and down the block in a highly visible way. If they see clients they encourage them not to loiter, and if they are doing something wrong, we stop that behavior.”
At September 28 10th Precinct Community Council meeting, Rosenblatt attended and, at the invitation of Deputy Inspector Elisa Cokkinos, spoke. Before introducing Rosenblatt, Cokkinos acknowledged that residents had attended the September 19 meeting to air their grievances. She then stated that, “We’re all on the same page, working very closely with the 13th Precinct.” Cokkinos encouraged residents to bring their concerns to her as well, then noted that representatives of the 10th Precinct would begin attending the BRC’s monthly Community Advisory Committee (CAC) gatherings — although none were visibly present at the October 4 meeting.
Rosenblatt also pledged to work with residents, business owners and representatives of both the 10th and 13th Precincts. “The problems that the homeless and addicts have can, and do, lead to criminal activity,” he acknowledged — quickly following up that observation by remarking that, “Homelessness, in and of itself, is not a crime.”
When asked by a resident, “What should I say to a possibly homeless person who’s sitting on my stoop?,” Rosenblatt advised, “Use good judgment. Say ‘Excuse me, can you find some other place to go? This is my home.’ Ninety-nine times out of 100,” he said, “they leave.” Rosenblatt, who handed out orange cards with BRC contact information which could be given to people in these and other situations, also said he encouraged such quality of life complaints to be sent to him via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
BRC holds monthly Community Advisory Committee meeting
At the October 4 BRC Community Advisory Committee meeting, Chelsea resident Tina DeFeliciano shared a story about a BRC client who had recently approached her and her son while they were walking their dog. The man yelled at DeFiliciano, threatened to kill the dog, and tried to kick the animal.
DeFiliciano noted the time of the incident and reported it to Rosenblatt, who reviewed video footage of the incident, and within 24 hours, had the man moved to another facility.
“I saw that he was engaged in behavior that, while not illegal, was not appropriate,” said Rosenblatt. “He tried to kick Tina’s dog, and was yelling at her and her son. I looked at his record, found this behavior consistent inside the shelter, and…moved him to a more appropriate place,” a Next Step shelter of last resort.
Another resident of 25th Street told of having seen an intoxicated homeless man passed out on her block. A neighbor called the BRC Helpline, and she said that within 30 minutes, outreach workers had arrived on the scene. They escorted the man to Main Chance, a local drop-in center. He noted that BRC’s Outreach team had gotten seven people off the streets this month.
“I encourage people to use the BRC Helpline number at 212-533-5151 to report homeless people in need,” said Rosenblatt. “But if people are engaged in illegal activities, there is another number for that. Calls about people doing drugs on the block should go to the police.”
NYPD: No link between BRC and crime
“There is no tie-in or link between the quality of life offenses and BRC clients,” Lt. Hempstead told Chelsea Now without equivocation during the last 13th Precinct Community Council meeting.
He did note that the 13th Precinct would send plainclothes “conditions” teams to patrol the area, and said, “If you call 311, it does get noticed. I know exactly what’s going on. You just gotta reach out. I’m on the desk, and I’ll get a car over there quickly. If it is someone selling drugs or masturbating, those are crimes, and you should call 911.”
Detective Mike Hnatko added, “We have the best conditions team in the city, with the cop of the year for four years running. If you help us direct our resources, that’s where the officers will go.”
Still, local business owners do feel an impact. The ArtQuilt Gallery, located right next to the BRC shelter, is a nationally renowned quilting school that attracts a primarily female clientele. Owner Dale Riehl said, “The issue is that no one in the city government ever seemed concerned about the perspective of the small business owner. Even with the community board, small business concerns were not reflected.”
Riehl felt as though an unbiased study should have been conducted to evaluate the impact the shelter would have on the area. His shop has been operating on the block for the past nine years, and he notes that, “Although we don’t have any quality of life issues to report, we do think it’s not appropriate for this shelter to be on this block.”
He found early statements made by Department of Homeless Services (DHS) Deputy Commissioner George Nashak linking the growth in the Bowery to BRC to be ridiculous, believing that such statements should not have been made without a study.
“The way it was written was that having BRC around helped the Bowery’s businesses grow,” said Riehl. “They may not cause a negative effect, but there is not going to be a positive effect unless these homeless people and employees are patronizing local businesses quite a bit.”
Still, Riehl said that small business owners are usually smarter than people think, and are accustomed to scramble for employees and customers in order to survive. While he wished that Rosenblatt had engaged him directly as BRC’s next-door neighbor, he had no complaints to report regarding its clients.
Neighbors on the east side of the BRC facility told a different story. They say BRC clients are drawn to the stores along Sixth Avenue. Recent trips to the neighborhood bore witness of BRC clients congregating on the corner in front of David’s Bridal, wandering up and down the street, and asking passers-by for cigarettes.
And although Lt. Hempstead had no record of the incident, several business owners reported that on September 19, four police cars were called to the BRC to subdue an unruly client who exited the building and began to smash parked cars.
Other business owners noted that their customers expressed concern about the ambulances parked in front of the BRC every day, and the fire trucks that visit the site on a weekly basis. There has also been some talk among merchants about hiring private security guards.
Officers at the 13th Precinct have said they will investigate all complaints, and will send a car to any location where three 311 calls are logged in a given week. To report criminal behavior, call 911.
BRC responds to community concerns
At the October 4 CAC meeting, Rosenblatt outlined the ways that the BRC had already begun to address concerns.
Rosenblatt said he had given a shelter tour to officers from the 10th precinct, and participated in a tour of the Penn South Mutual Redevelopment Houses, a place where homeless people frequent. He spoke with the security officers there about creating a protocol about how to do homeless outreach, and how to deal with BRC clients who may be loitering in the area.
“I believe it is important to respond to the public, and we are looking for other ways to engage the public, such as through social media,” such as through Twitter, or by creating an iPad app that will help people report homeless people in need.
Aware that an additional 200 people on the block will create more mess, Rosenblatt also said that he has instructed his staff to now sweep the north side of 25th Street twice a day; in the morning, and again after lunch.
“A lot of the mess can be attributed to the pizza place, because once the pizza is gone, the paper plates fly to the ground,” said Rosenblatt. “But we are still cleaning that up.”
Rosenblatt said he has already responded to suggestions made at the 13th Precinct CAC meeting to put a garbage can in front of the facility.
“I am looking to get one that is permanently affixed to the sidewalk, but there is a permit process for that,” he said. He will also affix “butt stations” to the BRC façade, to accommodate smokers.
“I have also heard concerns about the mid-block telephone kiosk,” said Rosenblatt. “I have seen people use it as a garbage can, and there is the potential for it to be used for all kinds of things that are inappropriate. I have made an inquiry to the Department of Transportation, to remove that temptation.”
Rosenblatt also assured residents that the large construction trailer that has been sitting curbside in front of BRC since they opened will soon be gone.
“Our boiler and hot water heater were not working together, and we had to bypass the boiler into this trailer,” he explained. “We have a solution to get it out of here, and we are trying to get rid of it soon. We don’t want it there any more than anyone else does.” Once the trailer is removed, said Rosenblatt, BRC vans will be able to park directly in front of the facility, freeing up other parking spots.
“Some people on the block are not ready to accept our presence, and they are uncivil about how they communicate that,” said Rosenblatt. “And some people agree to disagree and leave it at that. But it is a disservice to the whole neighborhood to create the impression that the whole block is ruined since the BRC came in.”
While Rosenblatt acknowledged that some of BRC’s clients might experience setbacks on their road to recovery that lead them to interface negatively with local residents, he felt it was wrong to paint the whole clientele with the same brush.
“The reality is that these people are out on the streets, and will be behaving like this unless they have a place to go,” said Rosenblatt. “That’s why we are here every day, 24 hours a day, to make it be the best it possibly can.”