HARLEM — For more than a decade, neighbors have complained about the hundreds of homeless people who gather at a bus stop at Lexington Avenue and 125th Street to commute to shelters on Ward's Island, blaming them for contributing to the garbage overflowing from the trash cans.
Now a Harlem business improvement district is hoping to employ some of the 700 to 900 homeless people who ride the M35 bus to help clean up the mess, recruiting local property owners to contribute to a fund to pay them to keep the area clean.
Kwanza Smith, executive director of the New East Harlem Merchants Association, has reached out to the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless to develop a program to hire homeless men to clean the area. When she brought the executive director of ACE New York to the corner he said it was one of the filthiest he had ever seen, Smith said.
"We are sensitive to the fact that these men are homeless. We want a plan for them," Smith said.
The goal is to raise $75,000 to employ eight people to clean the area between Fifth and Second avenues, between 124th and 126th streets, five days a week.
So far, the association has raised almost $16,000 with an online fundraiser and by reaching out to local businesses, asking them to donate $3,000 a piece.
Property owners such as Artimus, 125th Street Gateway Ventures — for whom Smith works — Wild Olive Market, Blumenfeld Development Group and the Northern Manhattan Nursing Home have contributed to the fund.
Despite tremendous development in the area, including a Pathmark and co-ops, cleanliness has not kept pace with the improvements. A recent cleanup effort by 60 volunteers collected 50 bags of garbage filled with food containers, paper and cigarette butts.
"This has been going on for years. People who walk up this street feel like the neighborhood is one big trash can," Smith as she stood next to one of the overflowing trash cans. "We've had all this development over the past 10 years so this area shouldn't look like this."
At 3:30 p.m. on a recent afternoon the four trash cans at the corners of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street were all filled to the brim. Smith warned that by the time sanitation trucks arrived the next day, the trash would be blowing around the streets.
"Today isn't even that bad," Smith said.
The merchants association is also trying to get more frequent trash pick-ups and larger trash cans.
The neighboring BID, the 125th Street Business Improvement District, has street cleaners, but its boundary ends at Fifth Avenue. The group is in the planning phases of a river-to-river expansion, said President and CEO Barbara Askins.
Askins said having a cleaning crew has made a big difference further west on 125th Street.
"This is a step in the right direction because businesses want to see an organized effort to address the problem," Askins said. "People are not willing to invest in an area that is dirty."
When a pizzeria at the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street closed recently, Smith said a conversation with the owner revealed that the trash and general environment of the area contributed to their departure.
"It's hard to maintain a business on this end of 125th Street," she said.