“You can make all the money in the world and still not have a decent mind…”

A tour of Van Dyke Houses with Lisa Kenner

Lisa Kenner, the resident association president of Van Dyke I Houses in Brownsville, Brooklyn, has been called the “guardian of a Brooklyn housing project” by the New York Times. Born in 1958, she’s lived all her life in the New York City Housing Authority’s Van Dyke Houses campus. She’s a former district leader, and dedicated to maintaining Brownsville residents’ living standards and dignity. Brownsville has the highest concentration of public housing in the nation, and the area that Ms. Kenner calls home has a median income of about $14,000, as compared to the citywide median income of roughly $61,000.

I was very excited to speak to Ms. Kenner, especially because Letitia Rodriguez, a character in my book, is also a long-time resident and advocate for this area in Brownsville. 

On Tuesday August 11, I accompanied Ms. Kenner on some of her local errands around the grounds. She needed to make copies of a flier promoting a group discussion on “Back to School Anxiety” to be held by the New York Psychotherapy and Counseling Center, and also deliver a pack of masks to a resident who hadn’t left her apartment in months. When we came upon a group of workers who were mowing the lawn in the hot sun, she returned to her office, then came back to distribute bottles of water. Along the way, she stopped nearly every person passing on the streets of the complex.

“Hey T_, where are you going? Close your pocketbook!” 

“How you feeling? Where you been, I haven’t seen you? Where your mask at?”

I asked her if she’d always been this way—a mother to everyone in the neighborhood, even when she herself was a young woman. In her matter-of-fact way, she responded that she’d always tried to set an “example” for others. Her parents came from the South and emphasized education. We spoke about the pressures of urban life, and Ms. Kenner noted that she has never been an easy victim of peer pressure. “I didn’t go to hookie parties or nothing growing up.” 

Since the pandemic began, Ms. Kenner has become known as a dispenser of masks — and some people, recognizing her from a distance, hurriedly donned theirs as she approached. She’s also paying a stipend to a couple people to make deliveries for seniors and disabled residents. The virus is still a concern to her; Van Dyke Houses lost at least 14 residents to the virus this spring, she told me.

Some of the other issues on her mind included:

  1. Van Dyke’s maintenance issues. A week after a tropical storm knocked down trees across the city, there were still a chunk of tree lying across one lawn, and a pile of dead leaves on another. As she walked along the sidewalk, Ms. Kenner picked up stray branches, as well as scattered items of trash. Ms. Kenner acknowledges that NYCHA faces a gigantic budget deficit and she calls out residents when they don’t clean up after themselves. Still, she believes NYCHA itself could do a better job keeping up the property, and says there’s insufficient oversight of contractors’ work. Ms. Kenner also noted a lack of working door intercoms, which can contribute to security issues. Asked to respond to Kenner’s maintenance concerns, a NYCHA spokesperson said that NYCHA is “extremely proud of the maintenance work conducted by our groundskeeping staff throughout New York City during Tropical Storm Isaias, including at Van Dyke I Houses, where fallen branches were promptly gathered and sealed with caution tape to protect the safety of residents. We are aware of intercom issues at the development and are working with a telecom vendor to resolve them.” They promised that fallen tree branches were slated to be removed the following week, though according to Ms. Kenner, the branches had still not been fully removed by August 21.
  2. The need for open space—and jobs. An influx of affordable housing development projects in Brownsville is changing the landscape of the neighborhood, and Kenner worries that it’s confining residents to less and less space. While wary of this added density, Kenner also described her efforts to ensure development projects result in resources and jobs for the community. She says she meets regularly with Trinity Financial, who are building a low-income housing development on the Van Dyke campus, and says she’s already helped to ensure dozens of residents have gained jobs at the site. Yet Kenner says that what Brownsville really needs is a trade school. “You can go in to be the electrician— instead of the electrician’s helper,” she said, describing the potential benefits.
Fallen tree branches in the Van Dyke I Houses Courtyard. Ms. Kenner and I sent pictures to NYCCHA, after which NYCHA said were slated to be removed Monday August 18.

3. The recent conversion of a local facility into an emergency homeless shelter. Ms. Kenner’s concern was that some of the shelter residents had mental health issues that could pose dangers for neighborhood youth and seniors. She hadn’t forgotten, she said, the time a man who was homeless and mentally ill stabbed two Brownsville children in 2014. She also feared the shelter residents might have had sexual offense records. (The Department of Social Services (DSS) did not provide information me with any information about the shelters residents’ mental health and sexual offense records, and said they couldn’t identify the location of shelters due to privacy laws protecting the shelter residents.)

Ms. Kenner was also concerned about the level of services and programs the shelter residents were receiving. And while Ms. Kenner acknowledged that people without homes needed some place to stay during the pandemic, she said her main frustration was that she hadn’t received any notification of the shelter’s opening. Although Ms. Kenner said DSS told her they had informed neighborhood representatives like the local community board, the community board chairperson Genese Morgan told me in an e-mail that the board also hadn’t received any notice of the shelter near Van Dyke. Morgan also said that the board “is taking action to address the health and safety concerns expressed by our local residents with DSS and Salvation Army Management.” 

In recent months, it’s not just been Ms. Kenner in Brownsville worrying about the presence of new emergency shelters and angered by the lack of notice—residents of wealthy neighborhoods like the Upper West Side have made similar complaints. To protect the health of homeless New Yorkers during the COVID-19 outbreak, the city moved roughly 10,000 people from congregate shelters to hotels across the city. The Department of Social Services told me in an e-mail that they were not able to give the usual 30-day notification while opening up emergency shelters, but that they do work with communities to resolve issues when they arise.

“Since the outset of this crisis we’ve followed the science and the health experts, temporarily relocating thousands of vulnerable New Yorkers citywide for their safety—and the data shows these decisive strategies over the past five months have worked, saving lives and stopping the spread of a deadly virus, with more than 98 percent of all the cases we have experienced since March now resolved/recovered,” a spokesperson for the agency wrote me in a statement. “Our whole City is navigating this unprecedented situation together, and our emergency use of commercial hotels ensures New Yorkers experiencing homelessness continue to receive the same protections from the pandemic as New Yorkers fortunate enough to distance at home right now.”

Personally, I feel quite strongly that we need to welcome residents who are houseless into our communities during this time of crisis, even at little or no notice. Certainly not all people without homes suffer from mental illnesses or addictions. Yet I also understand that Brownsville already has some of the city’s highest rates of violence, and I can understand Ms.Kenner’s fears about having an inadequate plan in place if some shelter residents suffer from mental illnesses.

My quick google search of existing research on the impacts of shelters on neighborhood crime rates did not yield much insight: This study concluded there was no link between crime rates and the presence of homeless encampments in Portland and Seattle; this Vancouver study found higher rates of property crime around shelters. A 2015 report by City Limits noted a lack of studies about crime rates and shelters. It found that when it comes to long-term, supportive housing facilities for the homeless, “concerns about the impact of residential facilities for the homeless on surrounding neighborhoods often prove untrue .” City Limits, did, however, find evidence of inequities in the way the city government was siting homeless shelters—making poor neighborhoods absorb a far higher number. It is unclear how the pandemic has temporarily changed the distribution of where the city is housing homeless residents.

Ms. Kenner and I also spoke about her own trajectory and plans. She said she had the opportunity to run for councilmember once, but wasn’t interested in a political path. “I really try to keep a low profile,” she said. These days, as she approaches her mid-sixties, Kenner is feeling ready for someone else to step up and hold down the fort at Van Dyke.

“I really want to sit down, but I can’t sit down, because if I sit down, everything will fall down.”

I believe that by the end of my book, the character Letitia Rodriguez is similarly ready to rest her feet, and unsure how she will ever find the time: like Ms. Kenner, she is a round-the-clock advocate barely paid for what she does (Ms. Kenner receives a $100 stipend a month for her position).

Letitia Rodriguez is a former Young Lords member with political convictions likely more radical than Ms. Kenner’s. But I do believe Letitia would share much of Ms. Kenner’s impulse to pick up those tree branches on the sidewalk.

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