EAST HARLEM — Ten years ago, while living in Philadelphia, Darick Kennedy got drunk walked into a bookstore and tried to steal a book.
The stunt ended with him in handcuffs and three years probation. It was the start of a long journey filled with more run-ins with police and stints at halfway houses, he said.
“Throughout the next ten years I was in and out of trouble with the law,” he said. “When I finally was released from the halfway house in December 2014, I just ran wild. I got high for about two weeks.”
Today Kennedy, 41, is sober and living in East Harlem. He is one of 65 men who recently moved to a transitional living center on 315 East 115th St. He found a job as a janitor and is studying to go to HVAC school to start a new career.
The center is part of the Bowery Mission’s privately funded $12.8 million expansion into Harlem, East Harlem and the Bronx. Opening three facilities has effectively doubled their capacity, former CEO Ed Morgan said during a ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday.
“This is a very important occasion for us,” he said. “You are standing in front of the largest of the three.”
Half of the first floor of the building is the Hope Center, where any East Harlem resident can walk in and get free legal help, access to social services, and — in the coming months — vocational training.
The center is the Bowery Mission’s way of giving back to the community, Morgan said.
Still, some in the neighborhood are uneasy about the opening.
In May, the Harlem Neighborhood Block Association, called for a moratorium on new service providers coming to East Harlem because the neighborhood is overburdened by them.
"We are not against people getting treatment," said Derrick Taitt, a member of the group. "We are against the concentration of services in our neighborhood."
While the opening of the Bowery Mission's new center continues the trend, Taitt was pleased that is was an organization with a strong record that is committed to helping local residents as well as their patients, he said.
"I know Bowery Mission, they run a good operation," he said. "I hope it works out."
The Bowery Mission keeps a close watch on the 65 men living in their center, before they even step foot in East Harlem.
The men are referred to them from shelters and churches around the city. To be able to live in East Harlem, they must go through a 60-day intake process that involves a screening, detox and counseling, said program director Norman Robinson.
Once inside, they receive vocational training, tutoring, healthcare, and other services. They have the freedom to leave the building, but they must sign out and say where they are going.
Those with jobs have to be back before 10 p.m. curfew. Those without have to return before 8 p.m., Robinson said.
The men are divided into five "houses," to encourage them to support each other and make everyone accountable.
“They look out for each other,” Robinson said. “If someone doesn’t comeback before curfew they’ll all call him.”
Kennedy has embraced the center and life in the neighborhood. He recently joined the Impact Church of Harlem and started volunteering at local senior centers.
He credits his sobriety to support from the Bowery Mission and God.
“Since I’ve been here the biggest thing I’ve been able to do is reconnect with God,” he said. “For me that’s a very important thing because that’s the foundation I’m building my life on.”