A few years ago, when Tony James was homeless, he looked for help to the Living Room, a drop-in center then in the BankNote building on Lafayette Avenue.
Today, James calls the Living Room a neighborhood nuisance.
He lives near its new location on Barretto Street, in a sprawling row house on Manida Street with his 11 children and a small dog.
He says homeless men loiter and beg near his home. They “are out there every day asking for change.”
James no longer allows his children to go to the Hunts Point Recreation Center half-a-block from their house without adult supervision because he’s concerned for their safety.
When the Living Room moved into its new building at 800 Barretto Street in June, it became a shelter as well as a drop-in center, adding 50 private rooms for clients deemed “chronically homeless” by the city.
James is not the only neighborhood resident to worry about a large homeless population, many of whom may have mental health issues, converging on their block.
Maryann Hedaa, managing director of Hunts Point Alliance for Children has seen Living Room residents going to the bathroom in the park on Lafayette Avenue, several times since the June expansion. She has also heard recent complaints from female students in her program.
“Some of the older girls have said that walking by there scares them, because of the cat- calls and stares,” she said.
Hedaa’s organization uses the Corpus Christi Monastery’s parking lot on the same block, and she has been dismayed by the recent increase in Living Room residents she has noticed on her way to work.
“I would like to see them get the services they need, so they’re not hanging out and doing nothing all day,” she said
But according to Noel Concepcion, director of adult homeless services at The Living Room, every effort is made to help clients transition out of a life on the street.
“We offer pretty much every service that a homeless person can need,” he said.
In addition to medical and mental health treatment offered on site, Concepcion’s staff works with outside organizations like Common Ground to place residents in permanent housing.
The 41st Precinct has received no reports of law-breaking by Living Room residents, according to Community Affairs Officer, Aida Haddock, who said the last quality of life complaint came in June.
The Living Room has always had a presence on Lafayette, she said, and “in our perspective, nothing has changed.”
“They’ve always lingered in this neighborhood,” she said
James wishes the Living Room residents would put their time into something productive.
“You’ve got to know what you’re doing with yourself and not just hang out all day and drink beer,” he said. “Otherwise you’re going to be in the same place and stay homeless.”
But according to a 70-year-old Living Room client who asked to remain anonymous, the organization discourages smoking or loitering in front of the building. It is a policy he can understand.
“That doesn’t look right, all these homeless people coming out here and kids going to school,” he said, referring to the John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy Charter School in the Bank Note building.
Like the three other Living Room clients interviewed for this article, other than another shelter, he has nothing else to fall back on.
“When you get old you don’t have anywhere else to go,” he said, the deep lines on his face telling the story of his struggle. “You’re just an outcast.”
Baby Eugene, another Living Room client, offered a similar sentiment.
“Not even my family, no one wanted to have anything to do with me,” he said.
All four men praised the facility as being clean and said the Living Room staff took particular care to insure that it was safe.
“This place is a lot better than a lot of other places I’ve been to because they provide security and they check us to make sure no one’s coming in with a weapon,” said 46-year-old client Angel Figueroa. “They won’t let anybody get hurt in there.”
According to Figueroa, the facilities offered at the Living Room’s new location are far superior to what it provided at BankNote, with the more peaceful setting allowing him to take a major step towards getting into permanent housing. He proudly held out an envelope containing his Common Ground application.
Figueroa currently spends his days in one of the chairs in the Living Room and his nights at one of the neighborhood churches that have partnered with the organization. He has a girlfriend and two small children he hopes he can provide for.
He described how critical Concepcion and his staff have been in helping him get his life back on track, and feels a few “bad apples” shouldn’t overshadow the work the Living Room is doing.
“I believe this is going to be the place where they helped me,” Figueroa said.
A version of this story appeared in the November 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.