WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — A public square in Washington Heights has become a camp for homeless men who use drugs and leave behind trash and human waste, officials and neighbors say.
Since early this year, after a community gardening group transformed Juan Pablo Duarte Square into a thriving green space, a growing number of men have moved in, the gardeners said.
The square, which separates Broadway from St. Nicholas Avenue near 170th Street, was once a concrete traffic island with granite benches that was popular with local skateboarders. In 2001, the Washington Heights Gardening Crew applied to have the area designated a Greenstreet and has helped to maintain the space ever since.
“I don’t even want to go into the park because it’s a hot mess,” said Dana Hockenbury, founder of the gardening crew who has lived in the area for 14 years.
“People spit. They urinate. They defecate. It was a beautiful place and it’s just deteriorating so fast.”
Hockenbury noted that volunteers frequently find used syringes in the park and said she has stopped bringing student groups from nearby P.S. 128 to the area.
“It’s not fair to ask them to risk their health for the health of the park,” she said.
Two recent visits to Juan Pablo Duarte revealed about 20 men congregating in the park, as well as multiple carts filled with belongings lining the side of the park bordering St. Nicholas Avenue.
At least two people in the park openly smoked marijuana and puddles of what appeared to be vomit and urine dotted the green space.
Mary Moran, a member of the gardening crew who moved to the area in 1996, said the park had become a popular place with residents and local employees but is now unusable for many people.
“It’s very disheartening to see a neighborhood that’s been coming up over the past few decades and this spot is turning into literally a shanty,” she said, estimating that between 15 and 30 homeless people gather in the park each day.
The city installed three planting beds and several trees in the square in 2001 at the gardening crew's request. Since then, the group has helped maintain the park by organizing fundraisers, putting in hundreds of hours to weed and prune the plants and creating a program to educate local elementary school students.
The group has also worked with local officials to secure almost $40,000 in city funds to install fencing around the planting beds and trees, raised money to pay for the annual holiday season tree lighting and gotten metal guards installed on the granite benches to prevent skateboarders from damaging them.
Hockenbury explained that while people from a nearby shelter for people with mental health issues have long frequented the park, those men are not the problem.
"The guys from the shelter have never been a problem because they go back at night to sleep and eat there," she said. "They do hang out in the park during the day, but they are often helpful with the park work we do."
The Corner Project, a nonprofit that provides services for intravenous drug users in Washington Heights, has done outreach work to provide housing and service referrals to people in the park and helped clean up some of the potentially hazardous materials.
"No one wants to kick people out," noted the organization's executive director, Taeko Frost. "But the gardening crew has put in a lot of work beautifying the neighborhood."
Frost said that some of the men also struggle with mental health problems, complicating the issue further.
"We're working on expediting the housing process," she said. "But there are many barriers to housing as well."
The gardening crew has sought help from local officials, including state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, whose office has reached out on the group's behalf to city agencies and nonprofits that provide services to people who are chronically homeless.
Members of the gardening group said they would like to see handrails installed on the benches to discourage people from sleeping in the park, as well as more sweeps by police to clear the space of people after its 1 a.m. closing.
Although there are signs that state the park hours, it cannot be physically closed due to the absence of a gate.
City agencies said they are taking steps to resolve the problem.
“Parks actively coordinates with the 33rd Precinct and the Department of Homeless Services and we have installed signage noting that the park closes at 1 a.m.,” Parks Department spokeswoman Tara Kiernan said.
“We also clean and maintain the park daily and, if necessary, deploy specially trained staff to remove any hazardous waste.”
The agency did not respond to a question about the possibility of installing handrails.
The Department of Homeless Services said that street outreach teams have also been deployed to the park many times to engage with clients and try to connect them with shelters and other services. However, clients often refuse these services, a spokesman for the agency said.
“DHS outreach teams have consistently engaged the clients at Duarte Square,” said DHS spokesman Christopher Miller. “We are working with the Parks Department and the NYPD on a longer-term, compassionate solution.”
A police source said that officers from the 33rd Precinct performed two sweeps over the summer, in part to enable crews from the Parks Department to do specialized cleanups. However, the source said daily sweeps are not the best use of police resources because people ultimately return to the park.
“The problem is really the social-services aspect,” the source said. "If you can tell me to take people, I'll guide them there, but otherwise, I can't take them out everyday. They'll just come back, and we end up running in circles."
Members of the gardening crew feel that a stronger police presence would go a long way toward solving the problem, particularly in terms of illegal activities such as drinking and drug use.
Hockenbury said her group is sensitive to the needs of the men using the park, but also wants it to be a space where the community feels comfortable.
“We're not doing this for the Washington Heights Gardening Crew, but for the community so that people who live and work here have a nice place to go,” she said. “Hopefully we can continue our work.”