Chaos ensues as CB11 Just Home public hearing leaves little room for disagreement

people in the audience of a community board 11 public heariing
Local residents cheered on those who spoke against the Just Home proposal on Sept. 29, but shouted or left when people spoke in support of the project.
Photo Aliya Schneider

Community District 11 residents against the proposed Just Home project don’t want to hear from anyone who supports it, whether they live in the district or not.

The proposed project would permanently house approximately 50 units for formerly incarcerated homeless people with complex medical needs providing supportive services in a vacant building inside the Jacobi Medical Center campus, as well as about 20 low-income apartments that would prioritize local residents. The Morris Park building would be operated by the nonprofit Fortune Society, which operates a building similar to Just Home in West Harlem called Castle Gardens and services a senior housing building in the Bronx  in Morrisania.

“Thanks for your lack of respect,” said Roxanne Delgado, a district resident who was met with shouts and boos from fellow residents when she tried to speak in support of the proposal at a Community Board 11 public hearing about the project last Thursday night on the Jacobi campus.

Residents fearful of and angry over the proposal typically show contempt for people speaking in support of the project who don’t live in the area, just as with the proposed Bruckner Boulevard rezoning in the neighboring Community District 10. But Delgado herself has been an outspoken critic voice of other unpopular proposals in the community, like homeless shelters. Meeting attendees didn’t care — she supported the project, and that was enough to know they didn’t want to hear her.

After another district resident, Diana Finch, tried to explain why she believes in the project but was met with angry shouts, two people paraded a “Don’t tread on me” flag around the room.

By the time Rue Parkin, executive director of social justice nonprofit helpNYC, spoke about supportive housing saving his life, the audience had already shrunk. But when Parkin said “I am white and I have privilege,” the remaining crowd roared with a sea of expletives.

On the other hand, residents who spoke about not wanting their neighborhood to be destroyed or dangerous, who called the Fortune Society fraudulent or spoke about their City Council district being treated unfairly by the city with the proposed Bruckner rezoning and migrant tents at Orchard Beach (those are now being moved due to flooding) were met with an ocean of applause.

Like Lisa DiTomasso, who declared: “You are dropping these criminals at our front lawn,” and “If by lack of diversity you mean like of criminals, then I guess yeah, we lack diversity.” The crowd was further validated when Roderick Compass confronted Stanley Richards, deputy CEO of the Fortune Society about claims that the organization’s tenants wrecked his property when he was a landlord, as reported by the Real Deal.

Thursday’s hearing came after a virtually unmoderated July meeting about Just Home hosted by the Morris Park Community Association that set the stage for silencing those who aren’t adamantly against the project. The president of that community association, Albert D’Angelo, is also the vice chair of Community Board 11 and sits on the advisory board at Jacobi Medical Center. Yet on Thursday D’Angleo called upon elected officials to pull all funding from NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation (the city’s public health system) if the project goes through.

“The crime rate in the Bronx is the highest than any other borough,” D’Angelo said. “We are the poorest and the least educated. What causes crime? Lack of education and poverty. So what do we do? Let’s put more people with low intelligence or low education system and people with low income back into the Bronx so the Bronx will never achieve the status of the other boroughs if you keep dumping on the Bronx.”

But the remarks were largely unheard by public officials on Thursday, with just eight out of 40 members of the community board present and virtually no elected officials. A representative from Velázquez’s staff was present, but the councilmember, who does not support the project, herself was not. Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez, who said in July she is also against the project, spoke early on in the meeting, reminding the crowd that the project is not in her jurisdiction as a state official, but said she had to leave due to a scheduling conflict. She was heckled and screamed at.

The person who was screamed at the most was likely Michael Kaess, a district resident who has shown support for both the council district’s Bruckner rezoning and Just Home proposals and was harassed Thursday over his choice to record various public meetings. His videos, however, shine a light on the behavior enraged residents have toward people open to unpopular proposals, as well as intimate moments of residents threatening him and hurling expletives at him. Many people recorded the public hearing from their phones, as they, like Kaess, are allowed to.

One man particularly riled up about Kaess’ video camera walked up to him and put a piece of paper over the lens, which prompted a police officer to come over — the NYPD was on site and the hospital police were also called in.

The man, however, continued to scream and point at Kaess. He was not removed from the venue, nor was anyone else throughout the meeting.

After the meeting, Gene DeFrancis, a former Republican candidate for the 80th Assembly District, is on video calling Kaess an “Antifa low-life” after talking about someone being allowed to punch “him” in the face as long as he isn’t bleeding. (Kaess in December 2020 documented DeFrancis allegedly punching him, causing him to bleed.)

Phyllis Nastasio, a current 80th Assembly District Republican candidate and community board member, is also recorded Thursdayputting her hand over Kaess’ camera lens.

Kaess’ videos on Twitter attracted attention from Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, who said her office will “follow-up on the matter.” Gibson’s office is responsible for training community board members.

CB11 member Bernadette Ferrara, along with various other residents against the project, referred to the prospective Just Home residents as “inmates” throughout the hearing. But those living at the residence would no longer be under the city Department of Corrections’ jurisdiction, meaning they would have been released by the court. According to JoAnne Page, president and CEO of the Fortune Society, residents would fall into three categories: People with city-imposed sentences of a year or less and either finished their sentence or were released early; people who were in pre-trial detention and took a plea so their cases are settled upon release; and people who are fighting their case, but a judge allowed them to be released pre-trial to live in Just Home.

Fortune Society expects most residents would fall into the first two categories, and those in the third category would likely skew toward less serious charges or weaker cases, Page told the Bronx Times. Residents would be screened by Correctional Health Services and the Fortune Society for not posing a current risk of violence and being a suitable fit for the program.

three people sitting in the public hearing audience
From left, Jeanette Merrill, dierctor of communications and intergovernmental affairs for Correctional Health Services, Fortune Society deputy CEO Stanley Richards, and Fortune Society vice president of programs Ronald Day listen to residents at the Community Board 11 public hearing on Sept. 29. Photo Aliya Schneider

Richards, the Fortune Society deputy CEO, told the Bronx Times that while the organization has faced pushback before, what he has seen from this community is something else, comparing rhetoric he has been hearing to the Civil Rights Movement.

Richards, who has been incarcerated himself, said he heard more comments calling the potential Just Home residents “animals,” as he walked out of Thursday’s meeting, language that was also used at the community association meeting. When someone spoke in support of the project, Richards said he heard people behind him say, “We should choke him.”

“It was opposition that was filled with a level of ugliness that I hadn’t seen,” he said. ” … What we are experiencing here is NIMBY on a whole nother level. … It was shameful, and for me, reminiscent of a very dark time in our country where that kind of hatred and that kind of opposition was the way this country operated.”

More information about Just Home can be found at NYC Health + Hospital’s most recently released FAQ.

Leading up to community board hearing, supporters of Jacobi’s Just Home call on Velázquez to back the project

Reach Aliya Schneider at [email protected] or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes