From sun up to sun down, homeless men, some sleeping, others people-watching, congregate at the triangular shaped park, deceivingly named Juan Pablo Duarte Square, located at 169th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. Aside from a passing “hey,” the men do not talk for the most part.
One of them, a former marine, Leshon Jones, 54, first came to the park in July. “I’m currently homeless, obviously, trying to get my life together,” Jones said. Sitting next to Jones was Vincent Miley. A dishwasher on weekends, Miley has made the park his own for five years.
Like the men in the park, the square, located smack down the center of Broadway and 169th Street, is at a crossroads. Residents in the surrounding neighborhood are starting to complain and the future of the square as a spot for homeless men to gather is uncertain.
“It’s their home. It’s their bathroom. It’s their living room,” Washington Heights Gardening Crew member Mary Moran said at a Community Board 12 meeting held on Sept. 23 . She also complained about the increasing presence of homeless men around the park on Monday, Sept. 29, while petitioning passersby outside the No. 1-train station across the street from the park. According to Moran, the “number of ill dressed men and overflowing carts” peaked in the summer months.
Prior to the community meeting, Moran lobbied for homeless authorities to help the men in the park. But the constant presence of the homeless men keeps the park in disarray, Moran reasoned, and plans to clean it go unmet. “We used to be able to go out there and clean up in the summer. One person would be able to go and do it without any bother, but this year it wasn’t safe to do so,” Moran said.
The homeless men in the square are representative of the collateral damage that results from the shift of Washington Heights as an affordable abode on the fringes of New York City to an increasingly popular space for high-income professionals to settle down. A February 2014 report released by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness used 2010 Census Data, showed a 26 percent rise in homeless shelter occupancy in Washington Heights.
The report suggests that young professionals, who have potential to increase their income, are settling down in Northern Manhattan because of the modest living expenses. As a result, the median income in Washington Heights increased 16.1 percent between the years 2005 and 2010. The influx of financially stable professionals has caused inflation, such that lower-income residents can no longer afford their rent.
The homeless men of Duarte Square put faces to these facts. The men silently point across the park in the direction of their designated square spokesman, St. Claire Boatwright, to vocalize their collective condition
Boatwright, who lives in the homeless shelter around the corner from Duarte Square, echoes the study’s findings. “Standing out here on one of these corners, you see the poor, the middle class, and the upper class. They seem to get around one another and get things accomplished, but at the same time, there is homelessness,” he said.
Ten years ago, the Washington Heights Gardening Crew began to transform what was once a barren piece of concrete bisecting the avenue into two, into a leafy, tree-lined park. The gardening crew had the park cordoned off by a railing crafted by a metalworker down the street. They also installed benches to encourage local enjoyment of the city’s green space. Moran remembers Columbia nursing students using the square as, “a place of reprieve,” when on break.
Moran says the 33rd precinct’s officers try to clear the park of the homeless, but men still stay stay well past the 1 a.m. closing time for city parks,. She speculates the police do not have enough manpower to keep up with the round the clock presence of the homeless. Moran wants the square squatters to know that overstaying their welcome in the park does not mean jail time. Furthermore, she has every intention of preventing their incarceration. This, she confessed, was her primary purpose for petitioning on September 29.
“Most of all we’re hoping to get those poor guys treatment and shelter. They’re not well, clearly. We would just like to see them being taken care of somewhere,” Moran said, her eyes scanning the silhouettes of men inside the square as it began to rain.
Earlier in the day, Boatwright expressed the same concern as Moran: “The most important thing is that these individuals have issues mentally and emotionally that are not being addressed properly,” he said. “The shelter needs a wing for them and a wing for veterans, but they got them all mixed up together, and some people – they just fall through the cracks. They fall through the cracks, which leaves them out here to do things like this.”
Meanwhile, the homeless still linger on the benches of Duarte Square.
“I’ve got a few housing interviews that I’m going on. I’ll leave, but I’ll come back here during the summer,” Jones said.
“I don’t think I’m going anywhere,” Vincent said.