Homeless Buses Causing Consternation in Harlem

By Camilo Vargas (@Caava)

Homeless Buses - Harlem

The New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority once again batted down appeals by residents and business owners to remove the M35 bus stop from 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. The bus serves Randall’s Island, including the four homeless shelters for men there. Opponents of the stop argue that many M35 riders remain at the intersection, loitering, sleeping, and sometimes even shoplifting or panhandling in their shops.

At a public meeting organized by the New York City Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Authority on September 19th, local businesses, tenant associations and community organizations pleaded for the relocation of the bus stop – a plea they have made for the last 10 years.

“Dropping all shelter residents off in this spot is too hard a burden on any neighborhood,” said Nina Demartini-Day, a developer who owns the office building in front of the M35 stop and has lobbied for the stop to be moved. “How long would residents at 86 Street and Lexington take this?”

Some owners are outraged, saying the homeless men hurt their businesses. “It’s bad for customers,” says Corey Lawrence, the owner operator of the IHOP in front of the bus stop. “They walk into the store, use the restroom, they go to the tables and ask the customers for money.”

Other businesses have few complaints. The manager of the Subway on Lexington says he has only sporadically encountered these problems.

And others, like the manager of the McDonald’s on the northeastern corner, and the owner of the African shop next to it on Lexington, have no complaints at all. “They come and just use the bathroom,” says Ana Martinez, the McDonald’s manager.

Despite appeals like these, the agency maintains no change is in the offing.

“The purpose of the meeting was to share ideas on making traffic run more smoothly along 125th Street for all users, including MTA New York City Transit,” an MTA spokesperson said afterward.  “If out of this process there is an opportunity for the New York City Department of Transportation to reconfigure the traffic patterns and create new bus stop areas in the future, we will be happy to participate. As of now, there are no plans to move the M35 bus stop.”

Transit authorities have long insisted that the M35 stop must remain there so bus users can easily reach the subway. According to the MTA, controlling loitering and overcrowding is the responsibility of law enforcement officials, not transport agencies.

The meeting follows an intense letter writing campaign in June, when more than 100 residents and businesses wrote to the community board requesting that Homeless Services and transit authorities re-route the bus lines. In addition to the M35, another bus — a private charter run by the city Department of Homeless Services — drops off homeless people at the 125th Street intersection. The board passed on residents’ concerns, and the Department of Homeless Services has already agreed to find a new stop for its charter bus.

On the other hand, Homeless Services and homeless issues activists argue that it’s inaccurate and unjustified to blame their clients for the all the public disturbances near the 125th Street intersection. The area is also home to many methadone clinics and drug recovery facilities, making it a hotspot for loitering, drug-selling and drug-use.

“Our clients are not waiting around for the bus frivolously,” said the spokesperson for Homeless Services. “They are traveling to full-time jobs or scheduled appointments, such as job searches, medical appointments, and social services appointments.”

In response to the high drug-related and petty crime rates around 125th Street since the 90s, the District Attorney’s Community Affairs Office has led a community task-force of clinics, law-enforcement officers, community leaders and businesses to curb criminal activities around 125th Street. Each month, the DA’s office sends clinics in the task force a list of people who have been arrested for drug-related activities on 125th Street. The clinics then terminate services for these patients. But nothing requires those former patients to leave the area.

The District Attorney’s Office has been working since last month with the Community Board to organize a public meeting with the Department of Transportation, Homeless Services, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, New York City Police, and health organizations around 125th Street to discuss all the issues that trouble the community, including the bus stop. The meeting is expected to be held at the end of October.

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