A crackdown on the drug K2 has cleaned up 125th Street in East Harlem, but some worry it has put undue pressure on the homeless there.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
By Nicholas Casey & Al Baker
About a week ago, 125th Street in East Harlem had been the site of a sprawling homeless population that converged between Park and Lexington Avenues to pass the afternoons, often deep in the haze of cheap drugs.
But in recent days, many of the street’s homeless people are nowhere to be seen. Blankets are gone, and the trash is cleared. K2, synthetic marijuana that once went for $1 per joint in nearby bodegas, has nearly vanished from the streets.
The New York City police said they had joined an effort with other agencies to clean up 125th Street, addressing a host of so-called quality of life issues, such as drug use and violent crime. On Tuesday, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said that he would soon form a 38-officer unit to focus on the area, particularly its homeless population, mirroring a similar group formed last month that now patrols Times Square.
But some homeless people still on the street say they are being pushed out by the city as policing increases. Richard Thomas, 54, one of the men who was on the street on Wednesday, said officers approached him around 5 a.m. and told him he could no longer be there.
“The police came and woke all of us up,” Mr. Thomas said. “They said we needed to get out.”
The changes on 125th Street underscore the sudden spotlight on the one-block stretch in East Harlem, and the urgency city officials feel to address its problems. Until recently, as many as 100 homeless people, mainly men, gathered on the sidewalk, attracted by methadone treatment centers and buses that dropped off homeless people from a shelter on Randalls Island.
K2 had become ubiquitous on the streets, prompting complaints from business owners and a visit from Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker. Officials spent much of the year complaining they had few legal tools to block K2 use, leaving police officers watching as the drug was openly sold and used.
That suddenly changed last week when federal prosecutors announced charges against a 10-person ring accused of selling K2 following a sting operation that included manufacturers, distributors and a retailer operating in New York City. Of the 90 bodegas that were found selling the drug in the raids, at least six of them were on 125th Street.
Mr. Bratton went to Harlem and spoke to reporters from the street that afternoon. The following day, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a citywide crackdown against the drug, saying, “K2 is a poison and selling it will be no longer be tolerated in New York City.”
The whirlwind of activity was felt on the sidewalks on 125th Street, where synthetic marijuana joints could no longer be found on Wednesday.
“There’s no more K2 here,” said Yomar Portalabin, who occasionally uses the drug and spends his days on 125th Street. He said no bodega has been willing to sell K2 since the raid.
But he said the cleanup by the authorities had a positive effect on him: Now off drugs and under pressure to leave, he has decided to move into an apartment offered to him by the Center for Urban Community Services, a nonprofit organization that contracts with the city. The group said it had placed eight people from the area into transitional housing.
Nina DeMartini-Day, a member of the board of the New Harlem East Merchants Association, pushes for improvements to the street, like trash collection and public events. But she said she had mixed feelings about the city’s efforts to clean up the area.
“There’s times where the sidewalks have looked emptier than they have in months,” she said.
Ms. DeMartini-Day said she worried the city was putting too much pressure on homeless people on 125th Street and simply moving the problem to other areas. But she said she appreciated the crackdown against bodegas selling K2.
Mr. Bratton has not yet said when his new unit will begin to patrol Harlem, but on Tuesday he said that Mr. de Blasio asked him this week to make it a priority. Officials said they planned to borrow from the same playbook used to patrol Times Square, including a network of surveillance cameras and medical assistance.
“We’re very comfortable that we’ll be able to get much more control over the area,” said Mr. Bratton, citing a “myriad of issues in that location” that included “encampment issues that we’ve talked about, that we’re breaking up.”
Such words were not welcome for Kent, 50, a homeless man who has lived on the streets of Harlem for 15 years and declined to give his surname. “We’re all scattered out now,” he said. “People are sleeping in parks, in different areas. But people don’t sleep on 125th anymore.” Kent said he would now live down the road, on 127th Street and Lexington.