Community organizes to reduce damage done by drug users

Discarded syringes litter the ground near an area formerly known as The Hole in Melrose. Photo: Kalah Siegel

Local leaders ask: where’s the mayor?

“Look both ways when crossing the street.”

“Don’t take candy from strangers.”

“Beware of used needles.”

These are some of the messages Mott Haven parents drill into their children. The needles are a growing concern.

“I had to teach them that when you’re walking in the park, you gotta look down,” said Presil Garcia, a mother of six, while watching kids swing at a playground in St. Mary’s Park on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. “There’s no running around free.”

Behind her several yards away, two separate pairs could be seen huddling behind patchy foliage in the park and further in, another two people met for less than five minutes between two trees and a chain-link fence. Hundreds of needles adorned the park’s foundation, scattered on the asphalt path, around trees, bushes and plants, some even camouflaged in the grass.

Increased needle sightings are just one of the symptoms that surfaced this spring, after the 40th Precinct shut down The Hole—a notorious drug den out of sight from onlookers near AutoZone on E. 149th St. The 4-0 and harm reduction centers confirm there’s been a notable uptick in community complaints of drug activity in St. Mary’s Park and The Hub, though recorded data does not reflect the change.

In response, a team of local organizations and businesses have formed a coalition aimed at addressing community concerns by helping addicts.

“Naturally they all have to go somewhere else now,” said an officer in the 40th Precinct, who asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak to the press. Locals have been complaining to their respective Neighborhood Coordination Officers (NCOs) at community meetings since the raid. The officer believes it’s not due to an increase in the number of addicts, but simply because the displaced heroin users are now more visible.

In The Hub, business owners are chasing people out of their stores more than ever, that they believe are soliciting money for drugs. One restaurateur who’s been in business almost 30 years, said that in the past seven months or so, the problem has become distinctly worse. He currently has about ten incidents per week involving drug users. Most recently, a couple came in, ate and didn’t have money to pay. He called the police, who eventually let the duo go.

To help business owners, Michael Brady, executive director of Third Avenue Business Improvement District (BID), recently announced a coalition of public and private sector organizations that will address chronic substance abuse in the neighborhood. Its goal is to gather decision makers to create solutions and ultimately be a model that can be replicated throughout the city.

“Addiction is real and people need to be treated with human dignity and provided sustained services to address the root of the problem,” said Brady. “And in terms of enhancing a commercial corridor, substance abuse and visual substance abuse is not healthy for small businesses and is not healthy for economic development of the area.”

The alliance includes harm reduction organizations like St. Ann’s and elected officials like Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., Bronx Borough President Rubin Diaz Jr., along with the 40th Precinct. The missing puzzle piece however is City Hall.

“It makes me think that the only people who really care about this issue are the people on the ground,” said Brady. “It’s really disheartening that such a progressive mayor is so boldly ignoring this issue.”

According to Brady, he tried to coordinate several meetings with various entities including NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Department of Sanitation and the mayor’s office. All promised meetings were canceled. The Mayor’s office could not be reached for comment.

“It’s unfortunate that all the other players are at the table but city government is not,” he said. “People are literally dying and we are not assigning the appropriate services or tools to address the issue.”