Latest WSZIO column by Sandi Lusk:
Mayor DeBlasio inherited a homelessness crisis from Mayor Bloomberg, who by his misguided policies caused the homeless population to increase exponentially during his terms. Mayor Bloomberg’s way to “clean up” this mess was to warehouse the homeless in shelters. So, when Mayor DeBlasio took over, he recognized this huge problem and paid lip service to it. How did he attempt to deal with it? By getting a bigger rug and bigger broom to sweep even more people under the rug so to speak. In other words, bigger and more expensive warehouses for the homeless. Every board has to take at least 2 shelters supposedly. Manhattan and Brooklyn have a number of them, so does Queens. Staten Island has only 1. And, as can be expected, the Bronx has the most with no end in sight.
By now you have all heard of the 200-bed single mans’ homeless shelter slated for Blondell Avenue 1 block in from Westchester Square. The population will include men with drug and alcohol issues and mental and emotional issues. This will be approximately 2 blocks away from the Blondell Commons low income housing also slated for Blondell Avenue. This is in addition to the family shelter and the Covenant House transitional 75-bed shelter both on St Peters Avenue and the approximately 200 bed men’s homeless shelter run by the state on the Bronx State campus. Couple this with the Montefiore mental health center on Glebe Avenue and the District 75 schools on Tratman Avenue, not to mention others. We also must not forget the thousands of high school kids going through from Lehman HS each day and the proposed affordable housing project the Friends Cemetery adjacent to St Peter’s Churchyard. As is abundantly clear, this small area of Westchester Square-Zerega has shouldered more than it’s “Fair Share” of the social services burden for the Northeast Bronx. In fact, the burden is outrageous.
So here we are AGAIN. Last week there was a “Town Hall” meeting that was called by councilmember Gjonaj and members and executives and managers from CBs 10 and 11, as technically this new shelter would be on the CB 11 side of the street (like it’s in another world) but 1 block in from Westchester Square. DHS didn’t even bother to show up. People expressed the usual frustrations with the city and our dwindling quality of life, which have all been heard many times before and ignored by the City. But there is something especially significant and destructive about the placement at this site. It will be the death knell for Westchester Square.
Approximately a decade ago Westchester Square was becoming simply another victim of urban blight and neglect. At that time some of the organizations involved with the Square decided to do what we could to stabilize the area and improve it. I will not go into details here, as I have been writing about this for years. The result was a fully renovated playground and Owen Dolen Plaza, a new school built (PS/MS 194), the creation of the Westchester Square BID, and Bronx Council on the Arts moving their headquarters in. The Huntington Library was opened up more to the community with City plans to build a new library center next to it in the coming years. The Owen Dolen recreation center is under renovation so it can better serve the community, and there have been regular events held in the Square by the WSBID. Merchants came into the Square and welcome investment money followed. There have been problems along the way, of course, the Square has never been a panacea.
Lately, however the vagrancy and homeless issues have been increasing, crime has been increasing, again causing security concerns. Let me be clear on this; Westchester Square has for a long time been on the razor’s edge. Amazingly, despite being a de facto social service campus, the area remained basically balanced. It took a lot of positive work and investment to try to counteract the negative.
The addition of this men’s shelter to what is already in the area will mean almost 400 homeless men with issues only a few blocks from the Square in addition to everything else. That is too much for any community to bear. The Square cannot recover from this onslaught and the balance will be irrevocably changed with more crime, more vagrancy, more disruption, and the Square will once more become neglected and abandoned to its fate, putting surrounding neighborhoods at risk as well.
At the Town Hall meeting I realized just how tired I was of having to fight and lose the same battles over and over again for the past 30 years. We know we cannot win this one either. We are doomed to watch our work of a decade unravel and the area once again sink to its knees under the weight of social service programs to the cost of the community. And let one person say “NIMBY.” You can have part of my backyard, but you have taken all of it. Is there nothing left then but for us to leave?
I’m sorry I have no hopeful words to offer. The City cannot or will not try to deal with the homeless crisis it has encouraged and created by stupid short-sighted policies going back a decade and more. This is a “crisis” is always the answer. It was a crisis 10 years ago and it will be a crisis tomorrow and it will continue to be a crisis as long as the City refuses to deal with it, dooming communities and the homeless alike to meaningless band aid measures that can only perpetuate the problem for decades to come.