KENSINGTON – The Kensington Plaza is a small, triangular space created by Church Avenue and Beverly Road meeting at an odd angle. A stretch of concrete sidewalk was turned into a Plaza in 2012 to serve as a green space for neighbors to hang out and relax in a neighborhood with little shared public space.
However, as homeless people have taken over the benches, neighbors have taken to the Kensington social media groups to complain about the problems in the Plaza, which they said also include a lot of trash on daily basis. We decided to check it out ourselves.
The Plaza is a busy spot surrounded by several businesses including a Walgreens, a Dunkin Donuts, and a bar. It’s also at a major transportation hub, with the Church Avenue F/G station at the corner and the B35 bus. As people switch modes of transportation, they walk by the Plaza, grab a coffee, and sometimes sit down when the weather is nice and there’s room.
At around 11:15 a.m. on Wednesday, August 28, there were about ten people hanging out in the Plaza. A few were standing around the massive rocks under the tree, some were sitting on the benches on the side of Walgreens, and Gary was sleeping.
Gary has been in Kensington for over a decade. He used to hang out by the Kensington Library branch on Ditmas Avenue, but when that closed and moved down to 18th Avenue in 2012, Gary moved north and eventually to the Plaza. Neighbors tell us Gary doesn’t bother anyone and just does his own thing.
Because it was about to rain, not as many people were at the Plaza as usual. There also wasn’t that much trash. There were two filled garbage bags waiting by the garbage can for pickup. And then, then there was a messy cart and some belongings on the ground near one of the benches in the middle of the Plaza. Two benches down from that bench sat Gary. Gary was sleeping when we went. He had on flipflops, jeans, and a green sweater.
At around 11:35 a.m., members from the NYC Department of Sanitation, the NYPD, NYC HOME-STAT (a street homelessness outreach effort), and Breaking Ground all stood at the Plaza ready to clean-up the location. Once the garbage truck came, a worker picked up the two garbage bags and threw them in the truck. Then, everyone went over to Gary, who at this point was wide awake.
They told Gary to remove his belongings, but he did not comply. After much back and forth as the rain started to pour, Gary picked up a few of his things from the ground and put them into his cart. Department of Sanitation workers then swept up under the bench and off they went. The others tried to explain to Gary to seek shelter, but Gary said no.
Neighbors tell us Gary does not want to go into a shelter. One neighbor said, “People need to understand that just because someone is homeless, it doesn’t mean they want to be in a shelter.”
“A shelter limits people. They aren’t allowed to drink and smoke, which is why many people stay away from that,” the neighbor said.
“This is his home,” Jole Carliner, one of the original group of people who brought the Kensington and Avenue C plaza’s to life, said about Gary.
According to Carliner, the main problem at the Plaza is that nobody is enforcing the rules. The rules state that there should be no smoking and no sleeping on the bench, among others. She said it has come to the point that she rarely goes by the Plaza anymore because of the amount of smoking people do.
“When the Plaza first opened, since we had no credibility and we had to prove our credibility, a group of us cleaned regularly,” she said of Kensington Stewards. “Everyone was an assigned a day and we would keep it clean.”
She said now, the Plaza is fairly clean except that one bench where Gary leaves his belongings.
“I mean we can go clean, rake through vegetation and tree pits and get the cigarette butts out of there; there are always things you can clean,” Carliner said. “But, you can spend an hour cleaning, and somebody would come to toss something on the ground while you were doing it.”
When the issues at the Plaza get overwhelming at times, it gives voice to the people who opposed the Plaza in the first place – Carliner said a woman has suggested removing the benches. “But, how could that help?” she asked. The one thing she does often think about is somehow getting Gary an apartment. Carliner said DHS has been at the Plaza often to speak to Gary, and he has made it obvious he doesn’t want to go to a shelter.
Carliner isn’t the only one who doesn’t have a big solution. Kevin Ryan is the owner of Denny’s, a bar on the corner of the Plaza, located at 106 Beverly Road.
“You can’t go sit there with your family,” he said. “The idea to make a plaza was a good idea but it started piling up with trash and homeless people. A bunch of people hang out and drink all day. Last summer, there were a lot of drug addicts, though not so much this year.”
He said finding a solution for the problem is a “slippery slope,” because everyone has their freedoms and rights. Denny’s has been in the location since 1975. Ryan took over in 1989 back when he lived just a few blocks away from the area. He said before the Plaza, nobody congregated in the area.
“This is such a nice place, but it has gotten worse,” Ryan said. “It usually calms down in the winter because of the cold, though.”
Mohammed Alamgir has lived in Kensington for about 12 years. He complained about the trash at the Plaza and said it wasn’t really a safe place to hang out in.
“I’ve seen a lot of people just sitting here and drinking, especially during the nighttime,” he said. “And you can’t say anything to them because what if they throw their bottles?”
Homelessness isn’t just a Kensington issue, which is why one neighbor said removing Gary, or any of the homeless people, isn’t going to solve the problem.
“Gary doesn’t cause any problems. He doesn’t do anything wrong, besides sleep there and smell. OK, he doesn’t have a home. But, there are thousands of people who are just like him,” a neighbor outside Walgreens said. “If we tell Gary to leave from here without offering him anything, he’d just go to another location. How is that solving the problem? The problem is bigger than Kensington.”
The issue of homelessness affects the whole city. According to the Bowery Mission, over 4,000 people sleep on the streets, subways, or parks every night in NYC. And over 63,000 of them sleep in shelters. Over the last decade, the situation has just gotten worse – the number of people in shelters has almost doubled:
The following day, we went back to the Plaza to speak to Gary. At around noon, the Plaza was bustling as usual. The weather was particularly nice, people were passing by, and a few homeless people were on the benches and the chairs. But there was no Gary. His bench was cleared out and his cart was gone. Maybe he had gone for a walk?
A worker from the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless (ACE) was standing under the tree taking a cigarette break. She said she did not know where Gary was. She said, “A few other people asked me this morning about him. I didn’t see him this morning.”
She said it was “weird because Gary is always here. They tried to remove him yesterday, did you know?”
A few minutes later, a man wearing a hoodie and blue pants walked over with his cane and sat down on a chair under the tree. Uddin, like Gary, is homeless. He has been in Brooklyn since 2010. He could speak good English but switched to Bangla for a little bit. When he realized we could not understand, he smiled and spoke in Urdu.
“I was in shelters before. But, I don’t like it,” he said in Urdu. “There’s too much fighting. So, now I live here and there.”
Uddin’s parents and sisters are both dead. He had his brother with him in America, but his brother and he separated for not so good reasons, it seems. When asked where his brother was, he got a bit upset and said he didn’t want to talk about it.
Uddin says he spends his days under the shade at the Plaza. He tells people to pick up their trash and sometimes picks it up himself when people don’t listen. He sleeps all over the place. On most days, he says heads on over to the benches on Ocean Parkway to shut his eyes after a long day. When it rains, he stands under the shade or walks inside the stores. Once he left his stuff outside and someone stole everything.
“I don’t ask for help. I don’t beg for money,” he said. Then his eyes, which had yellowish coloring on the sclera, let out tears. He looked away and shook his head. “My life, I don’t like it. It’s not easy. The immigrant life is no good.”
When asked if people are mostly nice to him, he shook his head – no. As we were talking, a man wearing a suit passed by and they both said “Hi”. “He goes by every day,” Uddin smiled.
Uddin doesn’t ask for much. He has a light beard and said all he wants is a shave. He laughed and said, “But I have no money, no razor, no shaving cream, no mirror.”
In between telling his story, Uddin was also wondering where his friend Gary was. He hadn’t seen him since late last night.
“Gary is such a good guy. I like Gary,” he said a few times. “In 2016 I fell over there and broke my ankle and Gary helped me. We have no relatives here. But we have each other.”
Are there any solutions?
“Our office continues to work hard to make sure Kensington Plaza is a safe and clean public space in the Kensington neighborhood where everyone’s rights are respected, including homeless community members,” Brad Lander told us this week.
Though there is no encampment at the Plaza, resolving the issues is “far more complex than having sanitation or ACE do a sweep. ACE workers are out there daily, and daily there is new debris,” Shahana Hanif, Director of Organizing & Community Engagement at Council Member Brad Lander’s office said.
As of now, Hanif says, the City is planning the following:
- Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless—ACE has a two-member crew on the ground daily providing cleanup, and Lander’s office will be requesting they spend more time in Kensington.
- Four new, high-end litter baskets on all corners of the McDonald and Church intersection (tagged with “Let’s work together to keep Brooklyn clean”) have also been added recently.
- Breaking Ground, a DHS partner, “will continue to monitor the Plaza and provide necessary measures for homeless community members to accept services. The NCOs are in routine communication with the Department of Sanitation to address sanitation violations.”
- Working with Kensington-based cultural organizations to “activate the Plaza” by regular, positive programming, much like what has been happening at Avenue C Plaza.