The forgotten New Yorkers: Looking for hope among a homeless haven in this Lower East Side park

They have nowhere else to go, so they come to Sara D. Roosevelt Park.

For local residents visiting the Lower East Side greenspace, the park has become emblematic of the time in New York City, rife with homelessness and drug use.

From Chrystie and Houston Streets between Forsyth and Canal Streets, the forgotten New Yorkers — many shoeless and draped in rags — can be seen sprawled on benches and even on the recreation courts. Garbage has mounted up as a result, requiring park staff to carefully scoop up the trash from around unconscious bodies. 

A man with tattered shoes walks through Sara D. Roosevelt Park. Photo by Dean Moses

Roosevelt Park has become the latest homeless haven in Manhattan — and plenty of Lower East Siders are concerned about the situation.

Jean Phillipe visits the park to enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet while he smokes, but for the past several months he noticed that these serene moments have become fleeting, especially at night. 

“It’s a quiet place for everyone to enjoy. I’m not trying to judge, but sometimes the park can have a lot of junkies walking in and out,” Phillipe said.

Park benches become makeshift beds. Photo by Dean Moses
Jackets are used as blankets. Photo by Dean Moses

However, for others, the situation is not so black and white.

Dubbed the guardian angel of Sara D. Roosevelt Park, Brian Bennett watches over the area’s have-nots, knowing all too well what it is like to be living on the streets himself. Spending four years rough sleeping by the Spring Street train station, Bennett would often travel to Sara D. Roosevelt Park where he admits there is a large drug scene as well as savvy individuals who knew where to get free food, clothing, and other necessities.

However, Bennett noted that there are many kindhearted people there who are simply struggling to survive, especially after being thrown back onto the streets following months in vacant hotels.

NYC Parks Department staff pick up piles of trash. Photo by Dean Moses

“It breaks your heart because I was on the streets like that,” Bennett said, describing some of his friends who are still caught in the difficulties of homelessness.

“It makes you want to cry that is why I still hangout and workout in these parks here. I say ‘Hi’ and if I have a couple dollars, I’ll give it to them because I was there,” he added. “That’s just how we survive.” 

Brian Bennett watches over the area. Photo by Dean Moses

Bennett worked hard to overcome his situation — battling one obstacle after another after spending 12 years behind bars. He panhandled for funds to purchase a $10 gym membership; he would use the facilities to train and shower, telling amNewYork Metro that he didn’t want anyone to know he was homeless.

Now he is off the streets, working two jobs as a server and e-bike delivery person. Still, despite the plight he has overcome, he travels back to the park often to help those he still considers friends.

“It’s a part of my identity, it’s who I am. I may not be in that position physically but emotionally and spiritually I’m still there with them. I don’t think I would ever leave. It’s depressing, you are just so low, and you just don’t know what to do. So, I just thought there is no way to go but up. How much lower can you go? For me it was a matter of saying, ‘Enough is enough. I’ve had it. Let me just get up off my butt and do what I have to do,’” Bennett said.

An intoxicated man rests on a ledge. Photo by Dean Moses
Unstable, he falls to the ground. Photo by Dean Moses

Bennett also recalled the stares shot his way while living on the streets, saying that while some New Yorkers were empathetic, the judgement of others was unavoidable. He only hopes others can help find their way out of their difficult situations.

“This city has a lot of resources so it’s not like the city didn’t help me. It was just me who didn’t use the resources. It’s not like people aren’t getting the help. It’s just people who are … I don’t know, just not putting the leg work to get themselves out of that situation,” Bennett said.

Many parkgoers cite the difficulties of the last several years as cause for the increased homeless activity in the park. While some residents sayd they don’t wish to judge too harshly, they nonetheless worry for their safety, especially after nightfall.

Santos Ribes joined local senior Innocencia Barlbello for a friendly get together where they noted the influx of those displaced.

Some say the congregation of unhoused is at its worst at night. Photo by Dean Moses

“There are not a lot of homeless people here during the day but it’s a bad situation as it becomes darker,” Santos said.

Barlbello agreed, stating that while things have grown worse it has also been an issue dating back before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The neighborhood has had this problem for some time, a lot of drugs and homeless people, especially at night,” Barlbello said, sharing that she mostly stays at home now.

In response to the state of the park, the Parks Department reiterated that being homeless is not a crime, and that it is working closely with the Department of Homeless Services on providing outreach assistance to unhoused individuals. As long as no park rules are broken, homeless individuals are allowed in the area, according to a spokesperson.

amNewYork Metro contacted DSS-DHS and is awaiting a response.

Sara D. Roosevelt Park has become a home for many unhoused individuals. Photo by Dean Moses
Asleep on the ground of Sara D. Roosevelt Park. Photo by Dean Moses