Veterans in Harlem Home Cite Violence and Vermin

Oct 17, 2004

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America's Veterans

The brick six-story home for veterans on East 119th Street in Harlem looks clean and sturdy from the outside.

Step inside, however, and you find yourself in a dim, dispiriting flophouse that its occupants say is a disgrace to men who have served their country.

"We've got a problem going on in there," said Ron Allen, 52, a hulking former Army clerk who has lived in the home since 1992. "Everything is breaking down."

Residents say elevators shut down once a month. They say the hot plates in the kitchen do not work. They say there are roaches, critters in their beds and rats that run loudly through walls and ceilings.

The police are investigating the August killing of Gilberto de la Cruz, a tenant who residents say was beaten to death in his room.

In a time of war, the country and its political candidates have praised veterans. America's servicemen and women have been congratulated for their courage and courted for their vote.

In Harlem, however, as many as 180 veterans are living in a building where some say you cannot sleep at night for fear of violence and vermin.

It is a particularly galling situation, the tenants say, since most are black and the building was taken over this summer by the Black Veterans for Social Justice, a social service agency based in Brooklyn. The group operates also operates a shelter a Brooklyn. The city's Department of Homeless Services had no record of complaints against the group.

"Black Vets for Social Justice?" Mr. Allen asked rhetorically. "They may be black, but there's no social justice."

Mr. Allen was sitting in the third-floor cafeteria of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building on West 125th Street. With him were a half-dozen other tenants of the veterans home - men who had served on aircraft carriers or with infantry platoons.

These men had arranged a meeting with a reporter to discuss the troubles at their building, but they wanted to meet in private, concerned that their complaints would cause them problems at home.

Their complaints were large and small. The washing machines and dryers never seem to work, they said. The front door stays open, they said, well into the night.

The social workers who are supposed to help them with their résumés and welfare cases did not seem to care, they said. And security was lax. They said that there are nonresidents living as guests in rooms in violation of the home's rules.

Then there was the rampant drug use.

"You name it, and it's done there," said David White, 64, who was a military policeman in Europe from 1962 to 1965.

When this reporter visited the home last week, the security staff would not let him inside. But in interviews outside the home, more than a dozen residents complained about conditions within.

"We expected something better from these guys," said Erwin Williams, 49, a former Navy seaman.

The Black Veterans for Social Justice took over the veterans home from the Salvation Army on July 1.

Ayana Ajanaku, the vice president of program development for Black Veterans for Social Justice, said in a telephone interview on Friday: "We just got the program. Whatever problems there are, we inherited. We are trying to correct them." But Ms. Ajanaku offered no details.

Five minutes later, she called back to say: "We've done, I think, a tremendous job. The building is in better condition then it was in July. We can't overcome all the barriers, but we are making tremendous efforts because veterans are our concern. I think we're coming to a meaningful understanding with the residents, and we're not going to let them live at substandard levels."

The home is a single-room occupancy building overseen by the city's Department of Homeless Services and is not affiliated with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Tenants pay a minimum of $215 a month for a room and use of a shared kitchen and hallway bath.

James Anderson, a spokesman for the city department, said officials inspected the home on Sept. 8 and found that it was dirty, some of its kitchen and lounge furniture needed to be replaced, and that there were no service contracts for the boiler or the elevators. Mr. Anderson also said the residents had complained of roaches and rodents.

The department has asked the Black Veterans group to fix these problems, he said, giving it until Oct. 19 to comply.

In the meantime, men like Jerome Dennis, a 65-year-old former machine-gunner in the Army, wait for conditions to improve.

"You could say we had our hopes up,'' he said, "but this administration hasn't shown me nothing."