The Lady of St. Mary’s

FDNY medics tend to a young man who had recently overdosed in St. Mary’s Park. Photo: Trevor Boyer

It’s a sunny and mild late-November afternoon, and Leidanett Rivera is picking up used syringes strewn about one of the large rock outcroppings in St. Mary’s Park in Mott Haven. She’s concerned children might find the needles and play darts with them. Like many others who shoot up, Rivera is HIV-positive.

Later she sits underneath a tree nearby and applies magenta lipstick with slow strokes. 

“I’m homeless, but that doesn’t mean that I gotta be dirty, you understand?” she said.

Rivera, 39, uses heroin and cocaine and visits a clinic daily for a 60-milligram dose of methadone. She sleeps mostly on the sidewalk in front of the AutoZone on E. 149th Street near the park. Previously, she was a denizen of the adjacent Hole—the decommissioned railroad tunnel at St. Ann’s Avenue and E. 150th Street that was a homeless encampment and heroin shooting gallery—until the 40th Precinct shut it down on May 23 on the orders of the mayor’s office.

The Aftermath
Rivera, who goes by “Lady,” featured prominently in the May 20 Daily News story that immediately preceded the mayor’s directive, the subject of both a photo and a video that showed her friend injecting heroin into her neck. Outgoing and outspoken, Rivera believes she was a reason The Hole was shut down, which troubles her for many reasons.

“It was people that was homeless, and they used to sleep there,” she says. “They would still have a place at least to rest they head without worrying about somebody coming to harm them.”

Rivera says both drug users and dealers have called her a snitch, and worse. She used to work as a car mechanic outside AutoZone but says she has lost work as a result of the press attention.

“Some customers started like getting like, ‘No, it’s all right. I don’t want you to do my car. I don’t want you to touch my car,’” she said.

Rivera also says that soon after The Hole was closed, drug dealers sold her heroin that she tested and found positive for fentanyl, a cheap, potent opioid that dealers often use to stretch out batches. Because of its potency, fentanyl figures into many overdoses. Rivera believes that this batch of fentanyl served as reprisal from dealers angered by the story and the closing of The Hole.

Like most of those who were displaced after The Hole was closed, Lady continues to use drugs, choosing to go to St. Mary’s Park to shoot up.

‘Zombies’

Rivera’s nickname (Lady”) still emblazons the fence
surrounding The Hole. Photo: Trevor Boyer

Her friend Juan—he would give only his first name for fear of reprisal from the community—is also homeless and struggles with heroin addiction. Juan attended York College in Queens, graduated from a California State campus, and worked in business administration for several years in Modesto, Calif. He says that he started using drugs in college at parties with friends, and was clean for 11 years before relapsing in May.

“So now the addict is actually using parks, he’s using hallways, he’s using corners, he’s using behind cars,” he says. “He’s using anywhere they can find to actually get their fix.”

He added, “You know what they call us? They call us zombies.”

Gaunt and middle-aged, Juan says he wants to detox, but he says he’s had trouble finding a program, as he does not have insurance. To counter the negative image he says Mott Haven residents have of him, he cleans the park of needles, often with Rivera.

Rivera was born in Puerto Rico. She says she was raped by her father in 1993, as a teenager, and moved to New York to live with her mother soon after. She says her mother sexualized her further by padding her bra with toilet paper and having her wear high heels and miniskirts.

Rivera has five children, all adults now. She lost custody of her youngest, Christal Rosa, 19, because of her use of marijuana, according to both her and Rosa’s adoptive parents. Rivera says she started using heroin in the late ’90s, when she was 20.

At various times since, Rivera says she maintained a relatively stable life. She says she lived most recently in an apartment near Crotona Park but lost it because of her drug use.

Soon after the 40th Precinct closed The Hole, Rivera says, she overdosed outside of the AutoZone and was taken to Lincoln Hospital. Since then, she says she has used less cocaine and heroin, partly because of her methadone regimen.

Overdose Reversed

Less than an hour after she had been cleaning up needles in the park that day, Rivera was sitting under the tree and saw her friend Chino fall and hit his head on the curb of a sidewalk.

She rushed over and sprayed into the young man’s nose a dose of Narcan that a reporter had been carrying. As Chino revived after a second shot, she patted his face with her worn, tattooed hands and chatted to him, trying to keep him conscious and to identify the drugs in his system.

Five medics from FDNY Ladder 55 responded. They strapped Chino into a wheelchair and led him to the waiting ambulance. Rivera took his green backpack for safekeeping. An FDNY medic said that the pharmacological rundown that Rivera provided—likely cocaine, a benzodiazepine such as Xanax, and heroin—was “more professional” than what he usually would get on scene.

Rivera said that she knew his habits because she and Chino would get high together—and huddle together on the pavement against the cold.

Six days after Chino overdosed, Rivera was standing in the parking lot of the AutoZone. She had slept in a friend’s car the previous night. Still carrying Chino’s green backpack, she had yet to find him.

Read our special series Opioid Addiction: Local Face on a National Crisis

The story was updated on March 2.