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‘Picture the Homeless’ Challenges Perceptions of Marginalized

June 22, 2011

In March, Picture The Homeless members Arvernetta Henry (far right) and Jeremy Saunders (second from right) were among protesters at a rally at the Albany Capitol Building. (Photo by Sam J. Miller)

By Rachel Sander

Adjusting the yellow bow in her thick gray locks of hair, Arvenetta Henry clasped her hands under her chin. “Everyone calls me Miss Henry,” she said with a smile, “because I am a teacher.”

Henry, who wouldn’t give her exact age, but admits she is over 50, spent most of her adult life as a Bronx teacher. She is no longer in the traditional classroom setting, but through a nonprofit homeless advocacy organization operated by the very homeless population it serves, Henry continues to teach.

“When I was teaching in the 1980s, I didn’t know what transitional housing meant when my students told me about it,” she said. “Now that term has a whole new concept.”

Henry became homeless 18 months ago and sought refuge in a local shelter. But one day, she returned from work to find her bags packed. Shelter workers informed her that she and other homeless city workers were being transferred to Queens.

While living in Queens, she had to wake up at 5 a.m. in order to commute to her teaching job in the Bronx. Her transitional apartment building had an 8 p.m. curfew. Henry was having trouble making it to work and home on time.

“I went to the union,” she said. But, “being homeless is almost like having a disease; they didn’t want to touch it.”

She eventually lost her teaching job as well. It was at this point a friend told her about Picture the Homeless (PTH).

Located in the same building as Fordham Lutheran Church, at 2427 Morris Ave., just south of Fordham Road, PTH is a nonprofit that functions as a learning center for homeless advocacy in the Bronx. The organization focuses on a variety of homeless issues and challenges, including housing, civil rights and police violence. But above all, PTH teaches the homeless how to be their own advocates and how to challenge the system.

At PTH, Henry learned the shelter that kicked her out had violated her rights. “I learned that I have rights and those rights must be posted in a shelter!” she said.

PTH does not provide typical homeless services such as housing, food, or clothing. But Henry says, “[PTH] teaches us how to be services for others. I have gained knowledge that I know I can share. It’s a hands-on academy.”

Even the name of the organization — Picture the Homeless — challenges public perception of the homeless. “Contrary to the media [perception], the homeless are not all substance abusers or mentally ill,” said Jean Rice, a longtime PTH board member and leader of the civil rights campaign.

In fact, inside its walls, PTH appears to be a typical office setting: members making phone calls, sending e-mails, designing fliers and scheduling events. Most PTH members, like Kendall Jackman, are trained professionals who used to be paid to work in such settings.

“The face of homelessness has changed,” said Jackman, who spent 27 years as an office worker. “The majority of homeless people have jobs or had jobs and just need to be retrained for another job.”

“You would be surprised at who’s homeless. There could a homeless person next to you on the train or in front of you in the supermarket. You’d never know,” she said shaking her head.

Most of the workers at PTH, like Jackman and Henry, are volunteers. Although the organization used to have a staff of seven, Henry said they had to cut four of the positions due to a lack of funds.

The organization was originally founded in 1999 by two homeless men, Anthony Williams and Lewis Haggins, in direct response to the Giuliani administration’s draconian homeless policies, which they believed were violating basic human rights.

“The problem is systematic…the homeless are excluded from policymaking,” Rice said. “I always say that it was Giuliani who criminalized homelessness but Bloomberg who industrialized homelessness. And it’s taxpayers that are paying for the inadequate homeless services.”

“It is expensive to be homeless,” Henry said. “People make assumption it’s a free ride, but it costs the state $3,500 a month to keep people in shelter.”

Henry credits PTH for helping her advocate for herself and for teaching her how to empower others to do the same.

“I want all you young people to realize, you don’t have to leave your home … A shelter is no place for children,” Henry said, as if talking to a new PTH member. The teacher in her added, “Please, stay in school!”

This article originally appeared in the Norwood News May 5-18,2011.

Librarian Started Career as a Teen

June 22, 2011

Jerome Park librarian Linda Acevedo (left) was honored by Councilman Fernando Cabrera (center).
Photo courtesy of Councilman Fernando Cabrera

By FAUSTO GIOVANNY PINTO

A local librarian was recently honored by Councilman Fernando Cabrera for her outstanding track record of work for the New York Public Library.

Liana Acevedo, 31, the manager at the Jerome Park branch, who has been working for the NYPL since she was 15, nearly half her life, received the recognition during a small ceremony in mid-April.

“It is my pleasure to honor this upstanding member of the community that exemplifies hard work, dedication, and service of excellence,” Cabrera said. “Liana’s service has spanned over almost two decades and she deserves to be honored for her commitment to better her community for as long as she has.”

Acevedo, the child of Puerto Rican parents who immigrated to the Bronx, said she spent the majority of her Sundays growing up in the Hunts Point library. While her mom used the resources at the library to better her English, she soaked up as many books as possible. That led to the attention of a librarian who offered young Liana a part-time job as a teen.

“The library is like a family. I loved reaching out to kids,” Acevedo said. “Teens get a bad rap, but you have to communicate with them.”

After college, Acevedo was accepted to masters programs in psychology and Library Science. Her early experiences cemented her decision to become a librarian.

She’s been at the Jerome Park branch for almost two years now and is known for developing innovative programs both indoors and out.

“She is friendly, she cares for people that use the library and faced with adversity, she gets through with a smile,” said Jane Fisher, the Bronx library network manager who nominated Acevedo for the acknowledgement.

Taxi Crashes Into Fordham Rd. Store

June 22, 2011

Authorities cordoned off Bainbridge Avenue at E. Fordham Road, after a livery cab slammed into a storefront.

By DAVID GREENE and LULAINE COMPERE 

A 61-year-old Fordham-area resident was killed last week when a livery cab driver lost control of his Lincoln Town Car at a busy Fordham Road intersection last month and crashed through a storefront window.

On Thursday, April 21, at about 2 p.m., authorities and witnesses said 61-year old Carmen Ahmed had just left Cee & Cee Department Store at 331 E. Fordham Road, near the corner of Bainbridge Avenue, when the taxi jumped the curb and pinned her under vehicle.

Emergency rescue crews arrived and freed Ahmed, who was rushed to St. Barnabas Hospital but she died on the way there.

Ahmed, a grandmother of five, lived on Bainbridge Avenue, just down the block from the store, and, coincidentally, worked at the billing department at St. Barnabas for the last 18-years. “She was a popular and beloved employee, and for a long time she was part of the St. Barnabas family,” hospital spokesman Steven Clark told the Daily News. “It’s really a terrible time here.”

The still unidentified driver, who reportedly swerved to avoid hitting another pedestrian, was taken in by police for questioning, but no charges or citations have been issued and investigators appear to be treating the deadly crash as an accident.

Enerio, who has run a pastillo stand on the corner of Bainsbridge and Fordam Road for the past three years, said he saw the tragedy unfold.

“The driver was coming (east) down Fordam,” Enerio said. “He was going too fast. But he was a little too quick when he tried to turn. The guy tried to avoid people [walking], possible human error.”

Another witness, who did not want to be identified, said, “The woman had just left the store when the taxi hit her. Everyone, including the driver, tried to help her.”

Noel, a longtime customer of Enerio’s, said Fordham Road is ripe for these type of accidents.  “There are problems with the lights,” she said. “They should have a light specifically for people who want to turn. This can absolutely happen again. There are cars coming up and down all the time.”

Eli Roman, the manager of the nearby Sports Max stores, said blame shouldn’t be shouldered by the driver alone. “It gets crowded around here, especially that corner because it’s a one-way street, people don’t pay that much attention when they are crossing.”

The incident marked yet another pedestrian death in the northwest Bronx. On February 11, 11-year-old Russell Smith was killed while crossing the Grand Concourse at East 183rd Street. In March, 23-year-old father Thomas Riley was trying to hail a cab on East Fordham Road, near Bathgate Avenue, when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver.

Families Cook Up Health at Local Center

June 22, 2011

Brianna Melendez chops up a green bell pepper as part of a health cooking class at Davidson Community Center.

By FAUSTO GIOVANNY PINTO

On a recent Saturday inside Davidson Community Center, 10-year-old Brianna Melendez smiled as she diced up a bell pepper on a cutting board.

Fitted with an apron, gloves, and a plastic knife that resembled a fancy chef’s blade, she moved on to cutting peaches as she sat across from her mother. In their third culinary class at Davidson, the mother-daughter duo was busy preparing items for a black bean and fruit salsa, one of the items on that day’s menu.

The classes are part of an ongoing national initiative called Cooking Matters, a program of the Share Our Strength Foundation, which aims to empower families with the skills, knowledge and confidence to prepare healthy and affordable meals. In New York City, the nonprofit City Harvest facilitates the Cooking Matters programs.

Based on a visit to the Davidson class, the program appears to be making a difference in the Bronx, a county recently named the unhealthiest in the entire state.

“Being Hispanic, we fry everything,” said Brianna’s mom, Awilda Otero, 47, who lives in West Farms. “I try to be healthy, but it’s hard.”

Otero, who had previously come to Davidson, which sits on the corner of Davidson and Burnside avenues, for their Dress for Success program, saw a flyer for the Cooking Matters Class and has been coming ever since.

On this particular Saturday, Michelle Domenech, a volunteer chef from City Harvest who has worked at high-profile Manhattan restaurants, led the salsa demonstration. She urged the class to purchase low-sodium Goya beans and rinse them in water to reduce salt content even further.

Domenech, now a personal chef, has volunteered with City Harvest for three years and calls nutrition her personal passion.

“People lack knowledge and it’s so important,” Domenech said. “I get to change things people eat that could be killing them and when they find out they are amazed.”

That awareness is vital to residents in the Bronx where one in four people suffer from obesity, according to a 2008 city survey.

The two-hour class also included a nutrition lesson taught by student volunteers on sugar content in popular beverages. The nutritionist said a can of Sunkist orange soda contained almost 13 teaspoons of sugar, drawing gasps from the crowd. “No wonder why these kids be bouncing all over,” one participant said.

“You can only offer information, you can’t get them to change, but it is a first step,” said Alejanda Martinez, a volunteer who is studying nutrition at Hunter College.

The program, which is being documented by the nonprofit youth media organization Each 1 Help 2, runs every Saturday for eights weeks. Each class focuses on a different theme. Participants who attend at least five classes graduate from the program and receive a certificate as well as recipe book.

As the class drew to an end on a recent Saturday, participants indulged in the best part, sampling their creations. They enjoyed the salsa with Wheat Thins instead of chips, a Dijon Vinaigrette salad, and a healthy soda alternative made from seltzer water, cranberry juice and fresh fruits. All were met with approval and disappeared quickly.

Aida Martinez, Davidson’s board chair, said getting people to come to the classes has been a challenge, but those that showed up have enjoyed it and are spreading the word. She hinted that the program may be held twice a week whenever it starts up again.

Lynn Murray, 56, who lives on nearby Hennessy Place, heard about the class from a friend and showed up to the salsa class. “This is good food and a good class for kids,” she said. “I wish I had known about it earlier.”

Devastated Milbank Buildings Finally Sold

June 22, 2011

Landlord Steve Finkelstein cut a deal to buy and rehab 10 distressed Bronx buildings.By JORDAN MOSS and JEANMARIE EVELLY

It was a rare scene for the transfer of a residential apartment building: Tenants, a new landlord and a variety of city elected officials, from the mayor on down, gathered Tuesday for a press conference that turned out to be a celebration.

The now-infamous Bronx Milbank buildings, including one at 2264 Grand Avenue, were finally sold last week to a new landlord after months of local organizing and city involvement. Tenants, advocates and elected officials had fought to wrest the portfolio of 10 deeply troubled properties from irresponsible bankers and owners to a responsible party who could afford to make them livable again.

Over 100 people showed up for the announcement of the sale at 3018 Heath Ave., where the courtyard had brand new windows — the first of what tenants hope will be many improvements to come at this and the other Milbank buildings.

“We now have someone to communicate with — someone to hold accountable,” said one tenant, Twyla Rashid, who described conditions at her building as “devastating.”

The one to hold accountable now is Steven Finkelstein, a Scarsdale-based landlord who purchased the mortgage and the deeds to the properties in a $28 million deal last week, and faces a mountain of some 4,000 housing code violations.

As part of the deal, Finkelstein promised to start making serious and immediate repairs and will have to report back regularly to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development about the work he’s done.

“Accountability, I have no problem with,” Finkelstein said, as he stood surrounded by reporters with notepads and cameras. “All the press attention, I could do without,”

Eyes will certainly be on him. For the past several months, the city had been closely watching the Milbank buildings, and the debacle spurred the a new housing initiative called the “pro-active preservation program.”

The initiative, launched by HPD and largely credited to Deputy Commissioner Vito Mustaciuolo, looks to identify financially and physically distressed properties and intervene before they start to fall apart.

Bloomberg called the Milbank sale to Finkelstein the city’s “biggest achievement to date,” for the new housing program, and said it could be a lesson to landlords.

“You can make money while doing it responsibly,” he said.

Finkelstein owns 31 other buildings in the Bronx and says he’s been in the real estate business in the borough for over 40 years.

“I have an opportunity to [improve living conditions for people] while providing for my family,” he said, when asked why he purchased the properties.

California-based group Milbank Real Estate originally bought the buildings back in 2007 with a hefty $35 million mortgage, presumably with the goal of raising rent prices to turn a profit. Milbank defaulted on the loan, however, and tenants say things started to fall apart once foreclosure began.

LNR Property LLC, the servicer to the loans attached to the buildings, had been looking to sell them since last fall. Tenants, housing advocates and elected officials tried to intervene in the sale, worried that a new buyer saddled with debt would only mean more neglect for the properties. At least one potential buyer, Chestnut Holdings, backed out after pressure from HPD and city officials.

Tenants and a number of advocacy groups, organized by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, have been trying to get the buildings fixed ever since. Last year, Legal Services-NYC Bronx filed a motion on behalf of tenants to hold LNR financially responsible for fixing the buildings, eventually succeeding when a judge ordered LNR to pay $2.5 million (a decision that LNR has since appealed).

Meanwhile, a group of tenants from another batch of foreclosed Bronx buildings — mortgages lent by New York Community Bank — are waging a similar campaign to hold the bank responsible for making repairs.

Precinct Murder Count Doubles Over 8 Days in April

June 22, 2011

Following a string of shootings over eight days in the area, the 46th Precinct beefed up its patrols around Creston Avenue

By Fausto Giovanny Pinto

In April, residents within the 46th Precinct saw the coming of spring and three brutal murders.
Following the murders, all shootings, including a brazen teen-on-teen killing during rush hour near bustling Burnside Avenue, local residents fear the situation may only get worse.

“Crime was getting better and now there is no control,” said a 35-year-resident of the area who only wished to be identified as Eddie. “People need to take care of these kids.”

In front of the Pizza shop where Eddie stopped to get a bite to eat stood the stark reminder of violence, a street memorial of candles, flowers, and empty liquor bottles.

“Summer is coming,” he added as a forewarning. “They ain’t seen nothing yet.”

The Burnside incident occurred on April 12, around 6 p.m. when police say 17-year-old Shamal Coles shot and killed 16-year-old Dontae Murray, also wounding another man. According to a police press release, cops patrolling nearby heard the gunshots and after a brief chase apprehended Coles, who allegedly was in possession of a .380-caliber gun. Coles has been charged with 2nd degree murder, assault, and criminal possession of a weapon.

Recently, a large police presence could be felt along Burnside Avenue with numerous cops stationed at various corners, walking the streets, or cruising around in patrol cars.

Despite the infusion of officers, residents remain cautious. An elderly man crossing the street did not want to be interviewed for fear of retribution, a common fear. “You want me to get killed,” he said. “It’s everywhere.”

Less than three blocks away lay the scene of another grizzly murder.

“I was walking home from Church on Sunday at 2 p.m. and I see a guy dead on the corner,” said Michelle G., a local resident, referring to the murder of a Bridgeport, Conn. man that occurred near E. 182nd Street and Creston Avenue.

While the Police have not released any motives or leads in that incident, The Hour, an independent newspaper from Norwalk, Conn., reported that Norman McCassling, the man killed on Creston, was a suspected drug dealer. Last March, the paper reported that McCassling was shot in Norwalk in an apparent drug deal gone wrong and found with crack on his person when.

At the nearby 182nd Street D-Train subway station, a tattered sign was posted offering $1,000 leading to the arrest of anyone who posses an illegal firearm.

On April 19 in front of 1668 Davidson Avenue, Ernest Atiso was shot in the torso inside a gray 2007 Dodge Charger. Atiso was transported to St. Barnabas Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Crime statistics posted online for the 46th precinct ending the week of April 17 show a spike in murders, up to five so far this year, from two during the same period last year. This doesn’t include the April 19 murder, which would bring the total to 6, half of last years total of 12, only four months into the year.

Police at the 46th Precinct did not respond to inquiries for this article in time.

“There are signs citywide that crime is up in certain areas. Police are trying to address the new surge. The delay of the NYPD Academy class doesn’t help,” said Xavier Rodriguez, district manager of Community Board 5, referring to the city’s recent decision to delay the addition of rookie cops as a cost-saving measure. “I would ask citizens to play their part. Especially parents.”

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