Westchester Square reels over vagrancy

Westchester Square reels over vagrancy
A person takes a nap on a bench at Owen Dolen Park in Westchester Square on Friday, July 28. Businesses and residents have been contending with patients from Bronx Psychiatric Center and homeless hanging out at the park.
Community News Group/Bob Guiliano

While Bronxites prepared to take a ‘bite out of crime’ at the annual August 1 Night Out Against Crime, one crook turned that around and took a bite out of a local merchant who tried to interrupt his thievery.

A.M.A.F. Fashion business owner Abdul Sol felt more than an impact to his quality of life on the morning of Sunday, July 9, when a shoplifter tried to leave his store with a bag of clothing and Sol suffered a severe bite on his left forearm and a dislocated right shoulder during a confrontation with the man.

At his 25 Westchester Square store, Sol recalled how the shoplifter had on previous occasions been a paying customer.

“He spent money here, it’s not like I never saw him before,” Sol said. “He came around two or three months ago and bought a pair of shoes.”

But the Sunday of the assault, the suspect asked for a shopping bag, grabbed stuff, and tried to leave, according to Sol.

“I told him, ‘No, you can’t take my stuff.’”

A fight ensued and Sol said he “went to the ground with him. I hurt my shoulder. He took a big bite in my arm. I was at the hospital until 6 o’clock. I still have pain in my shoulder. I still can’t lift my left arm.”

Sol said he had seen the shoplifter associate with patients from the Bronx Psychiatric Center, so he figured he was a client.

As Bronx Psychiatric Center, on Waters Place, continues to release its patients on the street during the day, they interact with homeless people who converge on Westchester Square, affecting businesses’ and residents’ quality of life, merchants say.

Despite the latest incident, Sol said he’ll try to keep his nine-year-old business open.

For Councilman James Vacca and John Bonizio, chairman of the Westchester Square Business Improvement District, these are issues they continue to try to resolve.

“For six weeks now, I’ve been in touch with Bronx Psychiatric Center. They are working with a nonprofit organization to try to reach out to the homeless there to get them assistance, to get them into services,” Vacca said.

In the past five years, the Westchester Square BID and its stakeholders have invested more than $2 million into programs and services to revitalize the area, according to Bonizio.

“Their efforts were met with great success, but government policy, ignorance and ineffectiveness has torn that apart,” Bonizio said.

The activist merchant, who co-owns the popular Metro Optics Eyecare, said that the police department “has been handcuffed with handling homeless issues. You have emotionally disturbed homeless people who have found their way to this area.”

The psychiatric patients who mill about the Square “are on medication and some are not,” Bonizio said. “They hang out, panhandle all day long, go into the park, urinate and defecate on the street. I’ve actually witnessed this. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

The Westchester Square BID recently set aside resources to hire private security to encourage the troubled people to seek help, Bonizio said.

“Basically, there’s very little the police department can do other than offer services,” said Bob Beider, 45th Precinct Community Council president. “If they don’t want to take advantage of them, there’s nothing we can do with homeless people.”

Beider explained that lawsuits by civil liberties groups years ago stripped loitering laws from the books.

“So unless there’s legislation that says you can do more, it’s never going to happen,” he said.

The 45th Precinct has a police officer assigned to the Square, Tuesday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In the past, the police officer was reassigned to the Orchard Beach detail during the summer months, but the 45th’s Captain Carlos Ghonz changed that policy and now mans the Westchester Square post the entire year.

Anita Daniels, acting executive director of the Bronx Psychiatric Center, did not return a call for comment by deadline for this story.

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