Saturday, December 26, 2009

NY shelter for homeless disabled people shaken when one wheelchair user murders another there

From The New York Times:

The night after the deadly stabbing in their East Village homeless shelter, a group of residents gathered in the same dining room where, early that morning, fighting words had bounced off the lemon yellow walls.

There were 15 or 20 people, sitting in wheelchairs or walking with canes. A few played cards, and one man was the D.J. while others sang along. It had the look of a party, but it was something else — an attempt to scrub away a stain of violence, by a group of people who need a haven.

“It was like, let’s celebrate,” said a resident named Troy (pictured). “We’re all alive.”

For about 25 years, the shelter, operated by the group Barrier Free Living, has claimed a special place in the sometimes perilous world of the city’s homeless: it is the only one designated to serve the disabled.

Some have been injured in car accidents or born with spina bifida, others hobbled by shootings or illnesses. The shelter provides them with home attendants and doctors, and handrails to help them walk. For a group of people who have difficulty moving freely, the shelter and the sidewalks surrounding it can be all they see of the world.

Located on a stretch of Second Street still marked by poverty, it is hardly luxurious. Residents live four to a room, their beds separated by hospital screens. Some cope with mental illness or addiction in addition to homelessness and their physical disabilities. And, like in other shelters, those pressures can lead to conflict.

Last Saturday, a simmering dispute between two men turned violent after an argument, according to the police and residents. When it was over, one of them, Ronal Garcia, 24, was dead after being stabbed repeatedly with a folding knife. The police arrested the other man, Felipe Rivera-Cruz, 51, and charged him with second-degree murder. Both of the men were in wheelchairs and had told other residents that they had been shot.

It was not the first violence at the shelter. A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeless Services said that apart from the stabbing, the police had been called there twice in the last year to break up fights and had arrested one person.

Earlier this year, according to several residents, a woman living in the shelter beat another with a cane. But several residents, comparing their experience at the Barrier Free Living center to other shelters, said violence was not the way of the place. The Department of Homeless Service refused a reporter’s request to visit the shelter, citing the confidentiality of the residents.

Outside the building, which also faces Houston Street, many of the residents spoke freely about their experiences. Some said they were homebodies; others work as vendors. Rafael Espinosa, 64, who walks with a cane, stood outside the building, cheerfully greeting passers-by. One woman often travels to Union Square, where she collects money from people who watch her do a “crutch dance,” according to another resident.

From 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., the residents have to be inside. Some watch movies on DVD in the dining room or smoke in a courtyard. There are two computers for residents’ use. Twenty-four men live on the second floor and 24 women on the floor above. There is a fair amount of in-house dating, residents said.

Troy, who is 42 and asked that his last name not be published, is among the shelter’s wanderers.

He served in the military during the gulf war and spent almost 10 years in prison afterward on felony charges. He said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and degenerative joint disease, for which he uses a wheelchair. “I fought this whole wheelchair thing for years,” he said. His muscles have atrophied, and he has put on almost 100 pounds, he said.

Life in the shelter amounted to a second chance, he said: “I was an idiot. They gave me a chance to prove I was different.” Now in his second stay at Barrier Free Living, there is “a genuine sense of camaraderie,” he said.

“I’m used to being in people’s way; I’m used to being an inconvenience.” In the shelter, he said, “the playing field is leveled.”

Not that he spends that much time there. In his electric wheelchair, he discovered the neighborhood — Katz’s Deli and Veniero’s pastry shop — and beyond. With his best friend, Rafael Figueroa, a fellow shelter resident, he has traveled across the Williamsburg Bridge, towing Mr. Figueroa’s human-powered wheelchair behind him.

Mr. Figueroa, 37, who was born with spina bifida, ended up at the shelter after years struggling with alcoholism. He said he had been clean for almost a year and a half, having traded alcohol for a Pepsi habit and a pack of cigarettes a day.

He spent time at another shelter, on Wards Island, where, he said, thefts were common and his disability set him apart. Mr. Figueroa said he could not get his pharmacy to make deliveries there.

Now one of his biggest concerns is finding a companion, a woman “willing to accept me for who I am.” He has not dated anyone at the shelter, but would not rule it out, he said.

“It’s easier to date someone who understands how you live,” he said.