Faces of the Northwest Bronx Homeless

Faces of the Northwest Bronx Homeless
SUNNY, WHO’S BEEN homeless since 2006, sits on a bench inside Dead End Park on Oct. 6. Sunny is among the many homeless settled in Norwood and its adjacent neighborhoods.
Photo by Adi Talwar

From the freneticism of Fordham to the more bucolic parts of Mosholu Parkway, the uptick in homelessness has not gone unnoticed by residents. In many instances, makeshift beds can be spotted in parts of Fordham while a camp for the homeless is commonly used in a leafy section of Dead End Park by Allerton Ballfields.

For the number of homeless the Norwood News spoke to, living on the streets is a life more familiar than a roof over their head. It also presents the safest option. And as the city Department of Homeless Services (DHS) mulls over the site of another shelter in Norwood, a move that has roiled community stakeholders, convincing the homeless to abandon the outdoors for a homeless shelter remains the hardest part. Many of the homeless the News interviewed prefer the outdoors to a bunk bed, becoming recurring faces to a borough burdened by a homeless crisis.

With traditional shelters making a comeback, getting people like Sunny, a 53-year-old homeless man, into one may be a tough sell. A Guyanese native, Sunny was found sitting on a park bench at the entrance of Dead End Park by East 204th Street and Webster Avenue on Oct. 6. Though he has been homeless since 2006, Sunny has had very little faith in the shelter system since 2007.

Clutching a worn out portable radio and pulling a shopping cart filled with recyclables, Sunny recalled having his backpack stolen after leaving it inside a shelter in the Concourse section of the Bronx a decade ago. At the time, Sunny had been collecting cans and had missed the shelter-mandated curfew. His bag contained his green card and other forms of identification. Since then, he has remained distrustful of the homeless and those employed in city-run homeless shelters. These days, Sunny, who emigrated to the United States 26 years ago and has a son, sleeps on the subway – usually preferring the longer distance route of the D train, which terminates in Norwood.

Counting the Homeless
DHS contracts with the nonprofit BronxWorks to talk to people like Sunny, a familiar face around Norwood. So-called HOME-STAT teams persistently canvass Norwood, Bedford Park, Fordham and University Heights currently making repeated contact with 15 people who are or believed to be homeless.

Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for DHS, said teams visit those neighborhoods “three to six times daily to identify and engage individuals who may be homeless and encourage them to accept services.” McGinn added that, “Through compassionate persistence, those teams have made nine recent placements from this area to transitional or permanent housing opportunities.”

DHS has attempted to get a full picture of the problem. During this year’s annual HOPE Count, which estimates the number of street homeless in New York City on a given winter’s night, DHS saw the Bronx’s number of homeless go from 43 individuals in 2016 to 255 individuals, a 453 percent surge. DHS has noted this year to be somewhat of an outlier. The night of the count, which happened Feb. 6, the temperature had been 40 degrees, 12 degrees warmer than when the HOPE Count was conducted on Feb. 10 2016, suggesting an anomaly in the number.

The count works to ensure more federal funding arrives to combat homelessness. With some 61,000 homeless out on the streets, the city has increased the number of HOME-STAT teams.

Faces of the Northwest Bronx Homeless
DANIEL MCALEAVEY SITS at a bench on Mosholu Parkway near Decatur Avenue. He wears clothes given to him by the New York City Department of Sanitation.
Photo by Diego Barcacel Peña

Daniel McAleavey
While DHS teams have notched a few successes, luring the homeless back is ongoing work that needs to remain consistent. In one day they could miss someone like Daniel McAleavey, a homeless man who arrived to Norwood recently. Sitting sleepily at a park bench on Mosholu Parkway near Decatur Avenue, McAleavey has been in and out of places he’s slept in but never quite called home. For the last 20 years, McAleavey has been homeless.

A former drug addict, McAleavey was born in Brooklyn, later spending a few years in upstate New York, crashing at the homes of friends he’s since lost contact with. He’s briefly held down jobs at fast food restaurants, though not for long. An undisclosed illness kept him from becoming a steady employee. “I tried to keep the job, but I couldn’t. I started seeing blindness and hallucinating a lot,” McAleavey said.

When he eats, he usually downs “extra so I don’t get hungry.” McAleavey, who appears malnourished, loads up on hamburgers, French fries, and chicken sandwiches in one sitting. “I had an egg sandwich from Burger King,” said McAleavey. “Some people bought me egg with cheese. I think it had bacon on it.”

As for staying in a shelter, McAleavey has tried them, but prefers the outdoors. His true wish is for an apartment. “No big place because I’m only one person and I’m alone,” he said.

Mosholu Parkway remains a frequent location where the homeless are publically spotted. McAleavey has noticed this too. They often settle there for the night, picking a bench that lines the parkway. Residents around the area notice them mainly at night. “They mind their business,” said Lamont Taylor, a Bedford Park resident who usually sees the homeless sleep at the parkway.

Other homeless people prefer a more obscure location.

Back at Dead End Park, a few yards from where Sunny was spotted, a bushy section serves as makeshift camp for the homeless. There, cans of Goya beans, beer bottles, gallons of water, toothpaste, aluminum trays used for cookware, and a bed fashioned out of blue rug were found. The setup is similar to a camp found at a hilltop on Mosholu Parkway North, where bedsheets, water bottles and pans are scattered about.

The Dead End Park camp is familiar ground to Hung Vo, a homeless man who visited the park on Oct. 3 to drink a can of beer. Having emigrated to the United States from Da Nang 25 years ago, Vo said he originally lived and worked in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Unable to secure a job and having lost his Section 8 support, Vo soon found himself living on the streets. He’s been homeless in the Bronx ever since.

Faces of the Northwest Bronx Homeless
A CAMP COMPLETE with this makeshift sleeping area was found in a section of Dead End Park in Norwood.
Photo by Adi Talwar

When asked why he didn’t go to the one of the city’s homeless shelters, Vo explained that the homeless are often treated poorly inside the shelters. “When you come there, they don’t respect you because you have no job, no money,” Vo recounted. “They don’t respect you… I don’t go no more.”

While Dead End Park serves as a hidden haven for the homeless, some prefer to be out in the open. Dan O’Connell, a 32-year-old who’s usually found panhandling in front of the Fordham Road Metro-North station with his fiancée, who is also homeless, says that it seems like there are “two new people every week.” The lanky O’Connell, who sits cross-legged with a sign that reads, “Please help. Any change, food is appreciated. Thank you, God bless,” said he started living on the corner of Fordham Road and Webster Avenue by Rose Hill Park more than a year and a half ago.

The inflow of new homeless people has often forced O’Connell, who collects change in a dirty cup from the nearby McDonald’s, out of the park. According to the native Californian, the homeless regard Fordham as a good place to stay. “There’s a lot of us here and people don’t really bother us,” O’Connell told the Norwood News. He does, however, say that being stopped by the police is a common occurrence.

Faces of the Northwest Bronx Homeless
DAN O’CONNELL SITS on the ground near Fordham Road and Webster Avenue panhandling with the help of this sign.
Photo by Aaron Mayorga

Daniel Bernstein, co-executive director of the Fordham Road Business Improvement District, whose borders occupy Fordham Plaza where the homeless tend to sleep, said that there were about 20 homeless people who set up camp inside the empty plaza. Early this year, there were broken windows and people sleeping in unsupervised kiosks, according to Bernstein. “[The Business Improvement District] wants to beautify Fordham,” Bernstein said in a phone interview, “but we also want to make sure that we do whatever we can legally to rectify the situation for the homeless in a positive way too.”

But the BID’s efforts are limited. Bernstein said bureaucratic red tape has limited the NYPD’s ability to do something about the growing problem. Under the New York State Mental Hygiene Law, the homeless in New Yorks cannot be involuntarily removed from the street unless they pose a threat to themselves or others.

To fend off the homeless, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation closed off the restrooms near the Fordham Metro-North station across from the plaza. Previously, it was a common spot for the number of homeless sleeping inside. Since they were locked in mid-September, the station has remained empty and locked.

In some cases, those who panhandle in the streets aren’t necessarily homeless, a factor DHS teams consider when distinguishing the homeless from those who have shelter. But many are edging towards homelessness or have been there before.

At the mouth of the Gun Hill Road exit of the southbound side of Bronx River Parkway, James Kent Jr., a New Jersey-born and Virginia-raised 28-year-old who has been living on the streets intermittently for the past five years, was found panhandling. Kent, who is HIV-positive and bisexual, currently lives in housing provided by the New York City Human Resources Administration. He told the Norwood News he would often avoid homeless shelters out of fear of being harmed due to his sexuality and his illness.

Faces of the Northwest Bronx Homeless
ALTHOUGH FORMERLY HOMELESS James Kent Jr. is currently living in a facility provided by the Human Resources Administration, he was spotted at the Gun Hill Road exit by the southbound side of the Bronx River Parkway panhandling on Oct. 6.
Photo by Adi Talwar

Through a Southern drawl, Kent recounted an experience at a shelter in Georgia, N.J. and said, “I got scared because they tried to rob me and slice me with a knife so I don’t like going… because I’m scared it’s going to happen again.”

Portchester native Tiylek Jones, who panhandles just a stone’s throw away from Fordham Plaza, said that he finds the community’s concerns understandable. Jones, who describes himself as being freshly released from prison, admitted that despite his love for his poverty-stricken peers that he wouldn’t want a homeless shelter in his neighborhood either. “It just doesn’t look good,” Jones quipped. “I think it lowers the property value of the area.” 

Additional reporting by Diego Barcacel Peña and Stephanie Luciano.

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