The Young and the Helpless

New York City evicts a social service center, and leaves a hole in the heart of the South Bronx

Altogether eight multi-service centers serve New York City, falling under the auspices of the Human Resources Administration. They exist to support New York's poorest communities, but after more than two decades of dedicated service to the Hunts Point and Morrisania regions of the Bronx—which have the lowest income in all the five boroughs, and one of the most affected with domestic violence, AIDS, unemployment, and substance abuse—the Morrisania center is the only one being forced to close its doors by the city agency, which did not extend their contract in 2005. The city instead chose to return the building to the Department of Education, which operated it more than two decades ago. The school system previously owned and used three other buildings now serving as multi-service centers, two in Harlem and one in Brooklyn, but at this time has not chosen to replace them with schools.

Biarani Burke is the former manager of the Morrisania building and president of 163rd. He doesn't like to speak much about himself. "No fluff," he says. He wants to stick to the court case, to each organization's potential loss of place. But he arouses many questions, especially with his daily dress—always a black suit, a little black rose made of ribbon pinned to his lapel, and the kufi hat gifted to him by his honorary adoptive father, a Nigerian tribal chieftain. He's been volunteering for 163rd since the '70s, before the organization even had a permanent home, and has been an official employee for four. He doesn't want to talk about where he's from or how he got interested in finding housing for the poor; every verbalization he utters he wants used to meet his goal: to stay at 1180 Rev. James A. Polite Avenue. He feels unjustly targeted. He believes the handover was sparked by complaints made by the organizations about two large rent increases within two years. "It was vindictive," he says. "These are organizations with fixed budgets. If rent increases that means there will be no pay raises for that year." Left abandoned by their protector, the HRA, and facing eviction by the city, the organizations are refusing to leave and are trying to go with the flow, as usual.

Biarani Burke, manager of the Morrisania Multi-Service Center until its recent eviction
photo: David Yellen
Biarani Burke, manager of the Morrisania Multi-Service Center until its recent eviction


But the flow isn't normal. Carol McLoughlin, the principal of BOLD preschool, tries to relate what has happened during the past 22-month struggle to remain in the building, but keeps being interrupted. The nonprofit organization has enough staff to keep running, but only if everyone is constantly busy. Details like talking to a plumber about a leaky sink, handing out a MetroCard so a poor parent can return home, making sure an aunt has permission to pick up her niece, continue to get in McLoughlin's way.

Finally a break of silence occurs and she divulges one of the more disturbing moments of the past months. She remembers going to work on February 13 of this year and seeing something unfamiliar. "There were six white men in suits with a bunch of cops," she says, screwing up her face. "What did they think, we'd beat them up?" She saw the men break the locks on the building and replace them with new ones. The keys went to a new custodial staff hired by the school system; the center was forced to fire its own staff of five janitors. Now all six organizations housed in the building must depend on the school staff to open the doors each morning. The community no longer can use the building as a meeting place or have evening classes or weekend recreation because they have to adhere to designated hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. through 6 p.m. The brown doors have even been painted over; now they're electric blue, the color found on recycling bins throughout the city. One caseworker who works in the building has a theory about the reason. "They're laying their scent," he says . . . like a dog marking its territory?

Little by little, the organizations are being supplanted by the mini–high school in their backyard. As nap time approaches for the preschoolers upstairs, dozens of teen agers burst through the doors, their voices echoing throughout the halls. They use the basement cafeteria for lunch and the top-floor gym for physical education. The situation is uncomfortable for the slumbering toddlers, but also for the high school students, who can't call the space their own. One boy, as he exited into the backyard, where his mobile classroom sits, tried to turn his and his classmates' feelings into words. "It's weird," he says, tilting his head. "Yeah, weird."

Out into the cold goes the teenager and in stream the Allens—Warren and Karen. Wrinkles are etched into their dark faces, probably more aged by their former style of living than from the actual weathering of years.

Warren wears rosy wire-rimmed glasses. The lenses are foggy, as his mind was for the three years he and his wife lived as vagrants, moving from hotel to hotel, doing anything and everything just to maintain a heroin high. Warren picked up HIV along the way, and soon after, they both picked up the desire to become sober. The Scattered Sites program at the center has helped them. The Allens are in a methadone program. They also get counseling and an apartment with the program's help. But their favorite part about the organization is recreation day. "We've got to stay busy so we don't relapse," says Warren. Karen nods her head, agreeing with no doubt.

Deborah West runs the recreation department for the Scattered Sites program. In the time it takes to walk up the building's three flights of stairs and back down, Deborah can walk to her home from the front door. She's lived in the neighborhood all her life—51 years—near Prospect Avenue. She has volunteered at the center since it began, almost a quarter-century ago, and says that many of her family members have been placed in housing through programs there. The building used to be a school, P.S. 99, but after the Bronx burned in the '70s, not enough children were left living in the area to fill all the seats. The building remained empty until 1982, when the Morrisania Multi-Service Center moved in. "There was nothing around," recalls West. "There was garbage everywhere, abandoned buildings and empty lots."
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