Caring for the Homeless and Van Cortland Village

Caring for Van Cortlandt Village and for the Homeless

On Monday, March 8, 2010, community activists from the Fort Independence Park Neighborhood Association (FIPNA) were shocked to hear Councilman G. Oliver Koppell (11 C.D.) refused to support the Fort Independence Historic District, not because it was unworthy of designation, but because he supports a proposal to build a huge supportive housing development in the area.  In what can only be described as a subtle quid pro quo, the veteran community activists were deeply disappointed in the Councilman’s veiled threat.  They were not going to get his support if they continued to fight the size of the project.  Rumors abound that the Council Member has been using this method with his appointees and re-appointees to the community board.

While we may have had our differences over the years, there is no question that I respected Council Member Koppell’s reasoning ability and political acumen … until the meeting last Monday.  Now perplexed and disappointed, I can not understand how he can just dump on one neighborhood, Van Cortlandt Village.  Council Member Koppell knows that in Fieldston where he lives and in much of Riverdale, that area is not zoned for such a large development.  Obviously out of touch with his constituency, he seems more interested in accomplishing some city-wide mandate to single handedly house homeless people en mass in the newest form of SRO.

He thinks just because there are big buildings in Van Cortlandt Village that the proposal fits in.  Let this be a lesson for our community homeowners: his type of NIMBY will sell you out for big development that has to go somewhere!  Clearly this debate with his constituents last Monday night, had little to do with the respect for the human quality of life, but was more about real estate.

Thirty years ago, while working for City Council President Carol Bellamy in the Tweed Court House in City Hall Park, I was involved in the placement of small group homes in local Bronx communities as well as other parts of the City.  Group homes were homes; they resembled family life and fit seamlessly into the neighborhoods.  Placement was a big job; it took time, was expensive and difficult at times, but in the end, that is what made it a success.  After the horrors of Willowbrook, those clients and their families deserved to be treated with dignity.  The State placed 8-10 clients in group homes throughout the city and successfully managed the crisis – for the developmentally disabled.  Some of the homes were run and staffed by State workers; others were from the non-profit sector.  People were outraged because these clients were different, but those fears were unfounded.  I worked with One-to-One and the State to help quell the fears.

This current Koppell proposal is very different:  it is not run by a local group, but a downtown one; it is not rehabilitation, but construction; it is not managed by one agency in charge of care, but many.

In my community experience, I worked with the homeless problem.  I remember early one morning in the early 1980s, the phone rang; it was the Commissioner of Health announcing to me, the Chairperson of Bronx Community Board Seven (where I lived at the time), that they were going to open a shelter in the district for homeless women in the Kingsbridge Armory.  Fearful over the size of the Armory, I asked how many.  Then quickly I remembered the school across the street, and said: we need rules.  Then I remembered that my parents were living on Giles Place, and said:  you will have to increase services to the population and come to Community Board 7 and 8 Human Service Cabinet meetings.  Of course the city agreed.  By the end of the night, I was visiting the shelter as they prepared to open.  Our community board, were kept abreast of the census which ranged from 50 to 200, and while this shelter is now closed, it was a major concern for Kingsbridge Heights, the local schools and the community center.

In comparison to the current Koppell proposal, no one lived across the street.  There were rules, doors opened and closed at a set time – mostly because of the proximity to the school children.  The sponsoring agency attended monthly meetings of an overseeing body.  The public could attend these meetings, and they could also refer their complaints.

In the early 1990s, when I was working for the area’s State Senator Jeff Korman, the homeless debate continued.  Now the debate was over where to put the homeless; in local churches and community centers, rather than large shelters as proposed on Fairfield Avenue in Riverdale.[1] Almost every elected official representing Riverdale were against the Fairfield proposal, including Koppell.  Maybe he did not remember that proposal; but I am sure many others do.  Last Monday when Koppell met with us, he said that he never got any complaints after the projects were built.  Maybe that is because the really bad ones were stopped – as in the case of the Fairfield Avenue project.

During this time, the local community center agreed to take in a few homeless men a few days a week to sleep.  Our community welcomed them into the area; it was one block from my house on Giles Place.  But I knew who was running the center.  My neighbors were on the board — not just a committee overseeing the homeless.  I knew that people lived across the street and would watch.  The most disruptive part of the homeless men sleeping at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center was that if we held a meeting at the center on the night that the men were coming, we had to leave early.  They did not disturb us; it was the community who would disturb the men if we stayed too long.

People lived across the street, but there were rules.  The sponsoring agency was a local group, not a corporate-like Manhattan based group.  They would take complaints and make sure they were dealt with.

The community has made an effort to demonstrate how these and other projects have been accepted in the past.  Our neighborhood has done its job.  You can read about them on the www.fipna.org web page.  The Jericho Project, working with the local Veterans Administration Hospital, is a 72 unit mixed-use facility for veterans less than one mile from the proposed facility.

Unfortunately, this current Koppell proposal is not any of the above.  As the Chair of the City Council’s Committee, Koppell should know how much more fragile this new population is, what kind of support they need, and whether or not they will ever connect with their family and move on to a successful new life;  he does not.  The neighborhood association offered to assist him in research; he did not want any help as his mind is made up!  We asked for increased funding for the existing client population in our own communities; too slow he stated.

One solution could be found in emulating what people did before: look to history.  Find existing buildings and, in the definition of the concept we are discussing, create a home for people, with support.  All over this city and the borough, you can find empty buildings blighting communities and lowering the economic standard in those neighborhoods.  If the so-called city leaders were really interested in swiftly solving this problem, rather than some other agenda, they would take these empty building shells by eminent domain, hire a housing management firm to oversee the rehabilitation and management, and use the existing and local social service organization to handle the paper work for the homeless resident who used to live in the community.  This quick fix would also be a great stimulus, an economic boom, while at the same time, shoring up the neighborhood concept of place.  But you have to be willing to listen!

As for the Historic District he is holding hostage, well, we tried twice before and we will try again.  For now, it is important that the people get the message from Council Member Oliver Koppell:  “You can not change my mind!”

Remember this: If we can not change his mind, then it is time to change him!

For identification purposes only – FIPNA Vice President Karen Argenti


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/1991/10/11/nyregion/new-shelter-looms-and-some-riverdale-residents-cringe.html?pagewanted=1