Volume 22, Number 23 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | October 16 - 22, 2009
Downtown Express photos by Julie Shapiro
A homeless man who requested anonymity was living in a vacant lot on Greenwich St. for about four months until last week when a homeless service group took him to a substance abuse program.
Homeless man helped as vacant lot is secured
A vacant lot on Greenwich St. just south of the World Trade Center site has sprouted weeds and garbage, leading residents to call it an eyesore.
But about four months ago, a 19-year-old man looked in through the sagging chain-link fence and called the abandoned construction site home.
The man, soft-spoken, with shaggy dark hair, was thin enough to slip through a gap in the fence. He settled in a corner of the lot, beneath a few pieces of plywood and a blue tarp. He built up a wall of cardboard boxes for extra protection.
Local residents noticed the man’s clothing laid out in the sun to dry, but they never saw him. Pat Moore, who lives at 125 Cedar St., raised concerns about the empty lot at many Community Board 1 meetings over the past several months, because it was easy to enter the lot where the fence had been pushed open. But it was not until last Thursday that a homeless outreach team entered the site at Greenwich and W. Thames Sts. and spoke to the man.
The outreach team was from BRC, a homeless services group founded in 1971 as the Bowery Residents’ Committee, now under contract by the Downtown Alliance to work in Lower Manhattan.
About half an hour after a BRC outreach specialist approached the 19-year-old’s home Thursday afternoon, the man emerged, blinking in the bright daylight. Wearing a Yankees cap, jeans, boots and a hooded sweatshirt, he carried a small turquoise travel bag and a purple backpack as he followed the BRC worker out of the site.
He spoke briefly to a reporter, saying he was from Florida but left earlier this year because of problems at home. In a voice barely above a whisper, he said he picked Lower Manhattan because it was crowded. He said he did not have much trouble finding food. He asked that his name not be used, then he got in the back seat of a BRC van and drove off.
Liz Berger, president of the Downtown Alliance, said BRC placed the man in a six-month substance-abuse treatment program. The Alliance then reinforced the fence to make it harder for people to enter the lot, though it is still possible to climb the fence.
Moore, who has been complaining about the lot for months, was glad to see some progress at last.
“Somebody finally got it right,” she said. Still, she added, “I don’t understand why it’s so difficult to find the owner of the lot and get the lot cleaned up.”
The Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center has been working with the city to solve the problem, but little has happened. The current owner of the lot, Greenwich Street Developers L.L.C., declared bankruptcy earlier this year, and the phone was disconnected at the corporation’s office in Boca Raton, Fla.
Michael Keane, owner of O’Hara’s Restaurant and Pub next to the lot, said the corner of Greenwich and W. Thames housed low-rise buildings with a deli, a Japanese restaurant and a shoe store before 9/11, but the businesses never reopened afterward. In 2006, a developer demolished the buildings after a battle with the city over environmental monitoring and planned to build a 33-story hotel and apartment tower. Keane said the lot went through several owners and development plans over the last couple years, until the most recent owner died of a heart attack.
“With the economy, I don’t see anybody building anything anytime soon,” Keane said.
The vacant lot hasn’t hurt his business, but he is concerned about the garbage that is continuing to pile up.
“People see junk and they throw other junk,” Keane said. “It’s just going to be a mess.”
Matthew Lipani, spokesperson for the Dept. of Sanitation, said the city sent a letter to the owner earlier this month saying the site had to be cleaned, and Sanitation would follow up soon. The owner also has to contend with a recent $4,000 fine from the Dept. of Buildings for an expired fence permit.
Berger, with the Downtown Alliance, said she has not noticed more homelessness Downtown since the city closed the John Heuss House drop-in center on Beaver St. earlier this year. The Alliance used to fund outreach teams at John Heuss House and is now working with BRC instead.
Moore said she is glad the homeless man got help before winter set in.
“I didn’t want to find a dead body there,” she said.