Plan to Bring Homeless to 116th on Hold
Local business owners were relieved to hear that another possible obstacle in their post-Sandy recovery may not be coming their way. After protests from residents and meetings with local politicians, Narco Freedom, the operators of the halfway house on Beach 116th Street, has decided to halt plans to bring back 40 homeless people to the old Rockaway Park Hotel.
At the end of May, Danny Ruscillo, the president of the 100th Precinct Community Council, spoke to Donna Decicco, the director of marketing and outreach for Narco Freedom, who told him that the program was planning to bring around 40 homeless people back to the 158 Beach 116th Street property which was flooded by Sandy.
The old Rockaway Park Hotel and a property located at 154 Beach 114 Street, both owned by controversial landlord, Jay Deutchman, were operated as halfway houses since Deutchman purchased the properties in 2010 and leased them to Narco Freedom.
Local business owners claimed that the residents of these properties were causing problems for their businesses as they were harassing merchants, shoppers and local residents along Beach 116th Street and were often found aggressively panhandling or loitering outside of their stores.
Maureen Walsh, the owner of real estate company Walsh Properties, located above the Rockaway Beach Surf Shop, recalled a particular event at 8 a.m on a Sunday morning in which she was harassed by one of these people. She says that she was getting out of her car when a man said to her, “Give me some money.” She told him that she would call the police and he backed off. “It’s 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, when it should be nice and peaceful, and you have these people harassing you,” Walsh said.
Ruscillo outlined some of the problems that the 100th Precinct had reported coming from the halfway houses. He said that the Beach 116th Street residents were supposed to be attending programs and would often skip them. Instead, they were getting themselves into trouble. Ruscillo said that three arrests were made inside the location on charges of grand larceny, criminal possession of a controlled substance and resisting arrest. He said there were eight police reports of incidents related to the location including robbery, petty larceny, menacing, assault and harassment and 47 calls were made to 911 about these locations since September 2010.
Last June, after meeting with Ruscillo, Deutchman and Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder, Narco Freedom agreed to provide a security detail and round-the clock counselors at their Rockaway properties in an effort to tighten security and reduce problems on the shopping street. The 100th Precinct also assigned an officer to patrol Beach 116th Street and prevent panhandling. The tighter security seemed to be working as no further issues were reported.
After Sandy hit, Narco Freedom announced that they had no plans to return to the Beach 114th Street location since it was destroyed in the storm. They weren’t sure if they would return to the Beach 116th Street property either, but their plans changed recently.
According to Goldfeder, Narco Freedom is tied into a five year lease with Deutchman, which they can’t get out of. Decicco also told Ruscillo that they couldn’t break the lease, which is why they were considering coming back to the Beach 116th Street building. Yet she also agreed that bringing these people back would not be in the best interest of the Rockaways. Locals think Deutchman is behind the problem.
“This property is a cash cow for these guys. This isn’t a new venture for Jay Deutchman, who owns the hotel. He has them all over the state,” Walsh said.
“I think the people from Narco Freedom are much more reasonable than the owner of the building,” Tom Hughes, owner of Station Liquors on Beach 116th Street said. “There are a lot of ways to make cash. You don’t have to hurt other people to do it.”
Deutchman has caused problems for other renters in the past. He was sued in March by residents of the Greenpoint Hotel in Brooklyn, who claimed that he purposely refused to fix problems such as broken toilets, falling ceilings, mold, rats and inadequate heat in the building. The city had 315 violations against the building.
Ruscillo brought the plan of bringing 40 homeless people back to the property to the attention of local business owners at a merchant’s meeting. “You have to feel sorry for homeless people, but you do it the right way,” Ruscillo said. “You don’t stick 40 homeless people in a hotel.”
Having dealt with problems from the residents of these halfway houses in the past, many business owners felt strongly about preventing them from coming back as they feel this would hurt any progress that the shopping district has made. They wrote letters and e-mails to Narco Freedom and to Jay Deutchman, explaining why the return of these people would have a negative impact on Beach 116th Street.
At various times there has been discussion of community members hiring a bus to carry protesters who would picket Deutchman’s Scarsdale home.
“We want to make 116th more inviting for people who live in the neighborhood and people who come down to the beach. Certainly these people in these facilities need help, but it’s not helping by letting them walk around the block,” Hughes said.
“These people have no jobs and nothing to do. What are they going to be doing? Panhandling, getting into trouble, smoking pot? That’s an environment that’s supposed to improve our business district? It’s not,” Walsh said. She noted that residents from the Park Inn Home, the local nursing homes and St. John’s are enough of an issue, without adding 40 homeless people from Narco Freedom. “People are reluctant to come to 116th. They’re going to be reluctant to come into my office.”
In addition to business owners writing letters, Assemblyman Goldfeder spoke with Narco Freedom CEO Alan Brand about the issue.
“When Danny called me, I jumped into action,” Goldfeder said. “It’s important, especially now. We’ve got to take every opportunity to rebuild the neighborhood. If you can clean up 116th and commercial areas, it will be better for everyone. Parents want to be able to take their kids out shopping without fear of being accosted.”
Goldfeder had a discussion with Brand for several hours and the CEO decided to halt all plans to bring these people back in the immediate future. He agreed to work out a compromise. “In the next couple of weeks, we’ll have meetings about what the community can handle and we’ll make a decision that’s in everybody’s best interest,” Goldfeder said.
“I don’t believe we’re ever going to see the facility they originally envisioned,” Goldfeder continued. “Whatever it is, it’s something that everyone is going to agree on.”
Some business owners are relieved to hear about the change of plans, while others are skeptical.
“To me, I think it’s a good thing that they’re not coming. I’m sympathetic to people that need a place to live, but if they’re not going to be taken care of the way they should be, then they should not be allowed to be let loose on a commercial block,” Hughes said.
Walsh wasn’t comfortable with the idea of being told that the plans were only on hold. She doesn’t think this is the end of their problems. “What does that mean? Hold until next week? Hold until there’s a change in administration? By the next election, that place will be full,” Walsh said.