Daily News: MANHATTAN, New York – For Hell’s Kitchen resident Bernadette Mastrangel, a lunch date with a friend ended ugly — discourtesy of an unhinged and uninvited guest.
A bare-chested homeless man, wearing a red, white and blue cowboy hat, flew into a rage when the restaurant manager told him the bathroom was for customers only. “F–k you!” he screamed before turning on Mastrangel’s pal at a nearby table.
“He goes crazy, started yelling at us, gets in our faces,” recalled Mastrangel, an eight-year neighbourhood resident. “And he spits into her food.”
The bizarre and unprovoked incident comes as residents of the Manhattan neighborhood complain their streets are increasingly overrun with the homeless, many relocated to local hotels during the pandemic. The list of complaints is both creepy and criminal: Men masturbating on the sidewalks, public urination, aggressive panhandlers, drug-addled zombies.
And it’s all happening brazenly in broad daylight, with residents alleging their complaints to the city elicit little response.
“It looks like a ‘Thriller’ video,” said local resident Katie Hamill Decker about the scene on the local streets.
On a Saturday morning, a homeless couple enjoyed their own personal happy hour, openly splitting a 12-pack of Heineken at the bus stop on 42nd St and Ninth Ave. An obviously stoned young man, his eyes barely open, moved languidly down the street as if working his way through a bowl of Jell-O. A barefoot and shirtless panhandler set up shop near the Port Authority Bus Terminal, accosting passers-by for loose change at 8:45 am.
“We’re getting 20 texts and emails every two days from people with complaints,” said Hell’s Kitchen Neighbourhood Action Committee co-chairwoman Marisa Redanty, who described the scene as reminiscent of the local streets circa 1977. “Why are people obviously dealing drugs allowed to do this, at noon on a streetcorner?”
The neighbourhood is home to 12 homeless shelters, three “stop-gap” shelters and eight hotels converted into shelters, according to a city map. Only one community board district citywide hosts more of the reconfigured hotels, and locals say the negative impact is both intense and unending.
“Oh my God,” said Leesa Squires, 50. “This whole area has gone from being like a really nice neighbourhood to I got my bike stolen and I’ve been harassed twice.
“We’ve got at least two prostitutes working outside the Skyline (Hotel),” she continued. “I saw a woman and a man having sex right here on the damn sidewalk. I don’t even want to describe it to you, it was so disgusting.”
Local deli worker Edward Hudson described a chaotic scene where the homeless shoplift or open beer cans from the fridge and start drinking inside the store — with no intention of paying. Regular customers steer clear if the homeless presence is too large out front.
“You got another homeless guy walked outside naked just to answer his phone,” he said. “People come and look, and see them standing there and they don’t even want to come into the store. They just feel threatened.”
According to Redanty, her group has complained to politicians and the police, to the Manhattan district attorney and the Department of Homeless Services, all to little avail. The local precinct placed beat cops on the street for rapid response to criminal behavior, but they’re only available five days a week.
It’s not enough, said Alita LaFargue, head of the tenants association at Manhattan Plaza.
The towering W 43rd St apartment complex opened in 1977 as a home for the neighborhood’s actors, artists and Broadway workers. What she sees now is reminiscent of Hell’s Kitchen before the Disney-fication of 42nd St and the area’s revitalization.
“I’m not going to compare what’s going on today to that,” said LaFargue. “Yet I hate to see all the hard work that goes into making our neighborhood safe go down the drain. There’s no justification for it anywhere.”
She recounts leaving the building one morning to see drugged-out women, wearing no pants, sitting on the benches outside.
“Do I want my son being greeted by this?” she asked.
A police source dealing with similar issues just a short hop south in Chelsea recounted a similarly tumultuous situation, with local cops reluctant to make an arrest thanks to a lack of direction from above.
“Nobody wants to do anything,” the source said. “There’s a fear of being jammed up if one of these arrests goes sideways. There’s no strategy from the top.”
Isaac McGinn, spokesman for the Department of Homeless Services, said the city was following state law in placing the dispossessed in former hotels regardless of their past history.
“The city cannot commit to arbitrarily prohibiting certain New Yorkers from housing/living in certain neighborhoods — ie, the city cannot tell certain New Yorkers that based your background or prior experience you cannot live here,” he said. “That would be unlawful discrimination.”
Yet even the homeless want nothing to do with the shelters.
Jose Reyes sat in a folding chair opposite the Port Authority with his worldly possessions, surrounded by four men slumped on a bus stop bench and one sprawled nearby on the pavement. He prefers the outdoor life to staying in a shelter.
“If you look to the left, they’re smoking crack,” said Reyes, who returned to the streets in May. “If you look to your right, they’re shooting dope. I’m doing the best that I can. I take care of myself. I stay clean.”
A few blocks away, across from one of the converted hotels, a unconscious man was slumped across one of the tables at a local cafe. Two EMTs responded to the scene and left, followed shortly by two police officers who roused the man, said Lupe Escobar, an employee at the Vanilla Gorilla.
He rose, only to collapse on the sidewalk. The cops helped him up, but the incoherent man was soon crouching and unable to stand. When the officers left, he was passed out again.