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Plan to House Formerly-Incarcerated Inches Forward in the East Bronx

A plan to house seriously ill people leaving jail cleared one of its final procedural hurdles Wednesday night, at a heated public hearing on the Northeast Bronx Jacobi Medical Center campus where locals repeatedly testified that they feared for their safety.

The meeting had initially been scheduled for mid-November, but Health + Hospital Corporation (HHC) postponed it in the leadup to last month’s citywide general election, City Limits previously reported. City Hall and The Fortune Society, the criminal justice nonprofit selected to operate the apartments, had hoped to make the controversial project less of an election issue.

Fortune Society’s incoming CEO Stanley Richards, formerly incarcerated himself, urged residents of the surrounding neighborhoods of Indian Village, Pelham Gardens and Van Nest to think of the alternative for prospective Just Home tenants, who might otherwise remain in city jail infirmaries—or, upon exiting jail, end up homeless.

“Who in this room would want to see a loved one out on the street, in trouble, cycling through a system of despair and hopelessness?” he said.

But most of the attendees rebuffed his appeal, instead condemning the project and predicting that future tenants could commit a range of crimes in their community, between criticisms of HHC for scheduling the hearing at 4 p.m., during work hours.

“Whether they turn over a new leaf and make something good of themselves, which I pray that they do, or whether they go out and rape and rob and assault people, they [Fortune Society] are getting paid,” said Roy Mandina of Indian Village.

Mandina also drew a spattering of applause for an extreme analogy involving Adolf Hitler, accusing Fortune Society of using “smoke and mirrors” to try to make the crowd “forget about all of the atrocities” likely to occur.

“He fought for his country, he received the iron cross, he wrote a best-seller book, he was an animal lover, he became an artist… his name was Adolf Hitler,” he said. “Okay? You like him living next to you?”

In a September FAQ, HHC emphasized that most people detained on Rikers Island, the city jail complex where the project’s tenants would be coming from, are awaiting trials and have not been convicted of any crime.

Just Home would include 58 supportive apartments in a currently-vacant building on the Jacobi campus, with on-site services for Geriatric & Complex Care Service patients —either with completed sentences or awaiting court dates—most of whom have a diagnosis such as cancer, lung disease or diabetes.

Another 24 studio apartments would not be set aside for that population, but would serve low-income tenants earning up to 60 percent of the area median income, or $59,340 for a single person, according to Fortune.

A 2023 study by Columbia University researchers and the Corporation for Supportive Housing checked in on more than 60 New Yorkers with frequent jail and shelter stays a decade after they were placed in supportive housing, and found that most saw no incarceration or shelter time aside from limited shelter stays in the first months.

Yet such apartments can be hard to come by. Ryan Acquaotta, a Northwest Bronx resident and court advocate, attended Wednesday’s hearing having become frustrated with the shortage of options available to men leaving Rikers. In his work, he helps these men search for housing, including two recent clients who use wheelchairs.

“I’m just thinking of these guys, where are they going to be able to live, where they can get the care that they need,” he told City Limits. “When I heard this project was happening I was like, hell yeah. Easily you could fill that.”

The Jacobi Medical Center is located in Council District 13, which produced among the fewest city-financed affordable housing units in the city between 2014 and 2022, according to the New York Housing Conference, ranking 47 out of 51 districts.

“Creating the safe, affordable homes New Yorkers need requires an all-of-government approach, and every community must do its part,” said Jeanette Merrill, assistant vice president of communications and external affairs for HHC’s Correctional Health Services, in a statement Wednesday.

Many Just Home critics, including incoming Council Member Kristy Marmarato, have said that they would prefer to see housing for seniors or veterans on the site. Marmarato, a Republican, unseated Democrat Marjorie Velázquez last month. Both candidates opposed Just Home.

“Let’s be clear that this opposition, to this specific Just Home initiative, is not a blanket objection to housing or affordable housing,” testified April Cardenas on behalf of Marmorato, who was home with COVID-19. “This is a plea for a more thoughtful and beneficial approach to helping other populations in need of housing.”

In response, one project supporter said there could be room for all three. Bronx resident Bonnie Massey told City Limits that she grew up on nearby Seminole Avenue in Indian Village, and was “enraged” at some of the comments from community members. Her family still owns the house, though she now lives elsewhere in the Bronx.

“No one is saying that we shouldn’t support veterans or that we shouldn’t support other vulnerable populations, but supporting one doesn’t mean taking away from another,” she testified. “It really doesn’t. What we should be doing is demanding that we get funding for all of the vulnerable people.”

But the evening’s dominant mood was one of skepticism that people with criminal justice backgrounds can be good neighbors.

“I wish that you all could have some empathy for how it feels to work so hard to maintain a home, to love your children and your family, to do all that you can to contribute to your society, and to have that threatened,” said Sharlene Jackson Mendez of Van Nest.

George Havranek, one of Marmarato’s opponents in this year’s Republican primary, addressed Richards of Fortune Society directly, describing him as exceptional and implying that most people who have been incarcerated don’t lead successful lives.

“You sir, are an exception to the rule,” he said. “You are basically a lottery winner.”

After the hearing, Richards reflected on these comments. “Some of the things that were said hurt,” he told City Limits.

He added that his life circumstances are not unique. “There are thousands of people who came through the criminal justice system and built a life for themselves, and so that’s the message we’re going to continue to communicate to this community,” he said.

Just Home is expected to go to the full HHC Board of Directors for a vote next month. It must then pass through the City Council. The Council vote, expected for early 2024, could cue up a test of the member deference practice, by which members typically vote in step with their local colleague on development matters.

“We hope that they listen to the incoming council member and do the right thing,” said project opponent and Pelham Gardens resident Phyllis Nastasio. “Councilmember deference needs to be upheld.”

Read more at City Limits Back

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