NYC homeless, students & elderly share mixed-income housing FWD

Tom Boland (
Thu, 19 Feb 1998 21:01:36 -0800 (PST)

FWD Feb 17, 1998 By Joe Mathews - Special to the Baltimore Sun


NEW YORK -- It is the most Manhattan of shows, and here comes the cast,
walking down marble staircases and onto the lobby's terrazzo floor, their
faces lighted by the gilt ceiling and original chandeliers: the flight
attendant looking for a taxi to Kennedy, the recovering homeless crack head
headed for a counseling job, the struggling actress late for the rehearsal
of her own one-woman play about Emma Goldman, the New York City anarchist.

But will it play in Charm City? This is the Times Square Hotel, the model
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has in mind for a downtown housing complex for
homeless people, the elderly and students.

Despite its name and reputation, this is not a hotel, a flophouse or a
homeless shelter. It is a unique apartment building with a management that
carefully courts a spicy mix of characters who would not seem out of place
on the stages of Broadway.

Of the more than 650 people here, half are stable, low-income working
people who make less than $27,000 a year. The other half consists of the
formerly homeless, including 50 people with full-blown AIDS and 200 who are
mentally ill.

Social workers, a medical clinic and a psychiatrist are available to
formerly homeless residents, but there is nothing temporary about the
place. A homeless person can live out her life at the Times Square, if she
keeps paying the rent on time.

"This place is a `Seinfeld' episode: Half the people are nuts, and the rest
of us are nutty enough to live among them," says Garry Rissman, 43, a
graphics designer active in the tenant association. "But the mix does a lot
of good."

Each floor is integrated, with the artist with AIDS living next to the
Vietnam vet battling post-traumatic stress living next to two flight
attendants, who often split the rent and sleep in shifts. But much of the
mixing happens not in the hallways, but in the library, the computer room
or at the weekly film showing, an event unself-consciously called "Monday
Movie Madness."

The lobby is haunted mainly by the formerly homeless residents, who read
the Wall Street Journal (everyone is in the market these days, one man
explains) or discuss art with visitors who come by to see an exhibition by
local painters.

"You see the positive effect it has on the people who were homeless to be
in this beautiful lobby, with working people," says Juanita Bell, 43, a
street cleaner who has lived in the Times Square for three years. "They
want to rise to the occasion."

In fact, the complex is considered a success by residents, homeless
advocates and especially the building's once-skeptical neighbors: the
renters, businesses and theater owners of Times Square. But interviews with
these groups also demonstrate how idiosyncratic the foundations of the
building's success are, and how difficult it will be to re-create that mix
in Baltimore.

Area revival

In particular, the Times Square has leaned on New York's inexhaustible
supply of open-minded aspiring actors, who give hardly a second thought to
living down the hall from the mentally ill or AIDS patients. And the
6-year-old experiment at the building has had the good fortune to coincide
with a remarkable revival of the Times Square area around it.

"Rents are so high in the city now, and so many working people are willing
to live here with the homeless to be near all the theaters and
restaurants," says Gloria E. Senger, 64, a building resident. "How could
they afford to be on West 43rd Street otherwise?"

When Senger and her late husband, Gerd, first moved here in 1959, their
one-bedroom with the black marble bathtub was the only full-time apartment
in the building.

Garbage in the halls

The rest of the Times Square, which opened in 1923, was a tourist hotel so
striking that it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

But tourism suffered as crime rose, and by the late 1980s the Times Square
had become the most notorious welfare hotel in America. When New York City
took it over in 1990, garbage piles sat in the hall, discarded furniture
blocked fire exits, and mildew stained historic ceilings.

City officials wanted to turn the building back into an economy-class
tourist hotel, but a not-for-profit group called Common Ground talked them
out of it.

With $29 million from a city loan program, Common Ground purchased and
renovated the building, reducing the number of units from 735 to 652 so
that all residents would have private bathrooms. And the group found public
funds and corporate money to support job-training programs, a medical
clinic and a staff of full-time social workers.

Tenants pay 30 percent of their income -- whether salary or entitlements --
as rent, which covers the building's operating expenses.

At first, the nonprofit group's idea, which some residents jokingly call
"mixed nuts," unnerved the neighbors. "There was a visceral reaction: A lot
of businesses thought it would bring more problems into the area," says
Lola Finkelstein, chairwoman of the local community board. "It's the kind
of project that can be very dangerous if the management is not smart, tough
and dedicated. But in Times Square, we were lucky."

The first year was not easy. Fire alarms were a constant problem. "We
underestimated the needs at times. We never thought to say, `Don't take a
shower while you're frying chicken,' " says Andrea White, a longtime social
worker there.

Visitors escorted

But the building staff responded by further tightening its standards.
Security guards greet every resident at the door, video cameras are on
every floor, and visitors are walked to their destination. Prospective
residents typically pass two rounds of interviews, and no substance abusers
or acutely mentally ill people are allowed.

"We used to wait a couple of months if you didn't pay the rent," White
says. "Now we move to evict immediately."

Despite precautions, tenants occasionally witness uncomfortable incidents
of acting out by the mentally ill.

Several remember a woman who would yell that Mussolini was her husband.
"Some new men I date don't deal with it well," says Claudia Traub, 36, the
actress starring in the Emma Goldman show. "But the security is great. This
is the safest place I've ever lived in New York."

Traub came to the Times Square two years ago because she could no longer
afford her East Village apartment on pay from extra work on the television
show "Law & Order." Here, $475 a month -- less than half her old rent --
buys a studio apartment with 24-hour maintenance in a building with a free
gym rehearsal studio, darkroom, and a spectacular 15th-floor catering hall
and roof deck, which the public can rent for weddings.

Impressed by amenities

When six nonprofit and government officials from Baltimore toured the
building last week, it was the amenities that most impressed them. "You
really feel the self-esteem rise when you enter the building," says Rob
Hess, executive director of Calvert Street's Action for the Homeless. "We
need a special building in the right location."

In Times Square, residents have become a community presence, putting on art
shows and helping neighbors successfully fight to remove the sex shops on
43rd Street. As part of the Common Ground job-training program, tenants
staff a new Ben & Jerry's that has opened on the hotel's Eighth Avenue side.

Turnover for hotel tenants is less than 5 percent a year. Linda Parrish,
41, plans on never leaving. She was a homeless Brooklyn drug addict for
seven years before she entered a homeless shelter and got clean. At the
Times Square, she is among the most popular residents, cooking
Southern-style meals for neighbors and social workers, who comfort her when
she feels depressed about her children, who have not forgiven her for
turning to drugs.

"They have high expectations here, and I met them: I got a job," says
Parrish, who now works at a center for the homeless. "You feel like part of
a community. You have something to live up to."


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