BY JOSEPH DE LA CRUZ
Julissa Freire would be the first to tell you she’s as compassionate as a human can get. But Freire has been torn with the city’s plan to build a homeless shelter near their preschool in North Riverdale.
âI want to help the homeless, and I believe they should have a place to sleep and eat at night,â she said. “But I am concerned that the (shelter location) is so close to my business.”
That business is La Escuelita de Sofia, which is on the corner of Spencer and Mosholu Avenues – what Freire describes as the only dual-lingo school in the Bronx. It welcomes students between the ages of 2 and 8 who can expect to learn both English and Spanish through a variety of lessons and activities.
But that school could be threatened by plans to build shelter for 130 homeless men on 6661 Broadway, just south of the Yonkers city limits. And Freire is not alone in her opinion – something she and a number of people have spoken out about in at least one recent Community Board 8 committee meeting.
Freire is not necessarily against where the shelter is planned, but rather who should live in it. Unlike the family-oriented transitional facility at 5731 Broadway, two miles south, this particular facility will only cater for single men – a specific demographic that they think could make their business vulnerable.
“If this were family or domestic violence shelter, I’d be all for it,” Freire said. “But one single male shelter that houses people with potentially criminal backgrounds worries me.”
She also fears that 6661 Broadway may welcome registered sex offenders – something Erin Drinkwater – deputy commissioner at the city’s social services – didn’t necessarily disprove during a recent CB8 committee meeting. While New York has some laws that restrict how close certain registered sex offenders can live, Freire’s school is well outside that zone – but still only seven blocks away.
“You know, we have young children here to look after,” she said. “You are the one I worry about.”
But the proposed homeless shelter isn’t the only beef Freire has with the city. She recently applied for city funding to offer a free universal pre-kindergarten at her school, but was turned down.
“I’m disappointed that they couldn’t approve my (application) for the universal pre-K, but they’re more than willing to approve one for a men’s home,” she said.
But Freire isn’t just a North Riverdale business owner. She is also a resident.
âI’ve invested a lot here,â she says. “I’ve lived in the area for over 20 years.”
Freire and her husband moved into the ward in 1998 in the hope of providing their two daughters with a better life.
The shelter has been identified as a problem in North Riverdale, but the proposed location affects more than just that particular neighborhood – and even that particular town. It’s just a stone’s throw from the line that separates New York City from Westchester County and Yonkers. Some business owners there also sound about the placement.
Deena Diaz feels that she has more to lose than any of her neighbors.
Her Uptown Sports Complex is near the budding animal shelter, but she has almost no say in as this is a New York City problem, not a Yonkers problem.
Fortunately, Diaz is in a unique position with her family residing in North Riverdale, which gives her a stronger voice with town officials and the local council.
“Most of our customers are from the Bronx,” said Diaz. âWe don’t have many (members) from Yonkers, which is funny because we’re right on that limit. We mainly serve people from Riverdale. “
As with Freire, Diaz’s concerns are strong about what backgrounds the home’s residents might have and whether any of those backgrounds could pose a threat to the children who are common in her business.
The complex includes an exercise facility with fitness classes for children of all ages.
“We have a lot of little girls and little boys who go to the facility with their parents and then there are all these men,” said Diaz. âIt’s just really worrying. This is uncomfortable for the parents. It’s uncomfortable for the children. “
Drinkwater says no information about who might be living there will be available for some time, as 6661 Broadway is not expected to open until the end of 2023 and the selection of those who live there will be much, much closer to that opening.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, Diaz says she has already seen an influx of homeless people in the area. The men’s home would create even bigger problems.
“We are already dealing with this problem and I have a feeling it will definitely add more to it,” she said. “We don’t know if these men have a record or what their status is.”
Some men whom Diaz believes are homeless are already in a nearby bodega next to the planned location. She’s also seen some in Van Cortlandt Park, the northern tip that’s right across from the proposed 6661 Broadway site. Diaz fears that setting up a shelter for the homeless would only increase the number of people in the park.
Not just more traffic in Vannie, Freire said, but something that could make getting there riskier for her young clientele.
âWe always take our students with us on walks in nature in the park when the weather permits,â she said. “We would be concerned about their safety and would be less likely to do so if the situation felt unsafe.”
Diaz says she recently encountered a man at a gas station on West 251st Street that unsettled her.
“I and my daughter were actually followed by a homeless man at the gas station the other day,” said Diaz. âHe seemed completely insane. He pounded on our car window and didn’t want to get out in front of our car. I felt sorry for him, but I was afraid for my daughter’s safety. “
Diaz fears that her family will be forced to move if the problem persists.
“This is supposed to be a really nice, family-oriented neighborhood,” she said. “It’s only going to get worse.”
While some who are homeless suffer from various forms of mental illness, most who seek shelter do not, city officials said news last spring.
Still, it scares Freire the most – not a mental illness, but neighbors and customers who are moving out of the neighborhood.
“If they put this shelter there, not only will people stop sending their children to my school, but families will be leaving the area,” she said. “Our biggest concern is our babies, and that is what matters most to us.”