By Amanda Woods
Even next-door neighbors are at odds about Susan (not her real name), a homeless woman on the Upper East Side known for her constant screaming, coughing and spitting on passersby. While some consider her a threat to the neighborhood, others feel sorry for her and say she can’t control her actions.
As Our Town reported last week, some residents want Susan off the streets or at least treated for her supposed mental illness and cough, which a few locals attribute to tuberculosis or whooping cough.
But there is no easy way to handle this situation. Police can only pick Susan up if they spot her committing a crime, according to Nick Viest, the president of the 19th Precinct Community Council. Spitting is classified as a violation, added Officer Jepsen of the 19th Precinct, and police can only issue her a summons if they see her spitting on someone. She cannot be forcibly admitted into a mental hospital unless she is clearly a “danger to herself or others,” and no one can force her to stay in a homeless shelter if she chooses not to go, said Mary Lee Gupta, a social worker and program director for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of New York City Metro.
Representatives at both the Manhattan Outreach Consortium at the Goddard Riverside Community Center and the Department of Homeless Services said homeless outreach teams have met with Susan.
But Gina Rotundo, who co-owns Alloro Restaurant on East 77th Street between First and Second avenues, doesn’t think Susan is worth this level of concern.
“While her outbursts have been disturbing, they’ve never, ever felt threatening,” Rotundo said. “I don’t think she is terrorizing the Upper East Side at all.”
Some locals believe that Susan maliciously, intentionally spits on those in her path, but Rotundo argues that Susan can’t help her outbursts. She pointed out that she has seen Susan walking over to a garbage can when she has to spit, so that she doesn’t end up spitting on people. When Rotundo was on the train taking her daughter to a class downtown, she realized that Susan tries to avoid confrontation, she said.
“Stupid teenagers were making fun of her and I could see that she was trying to say, ‘Cut it out, cut it out,’” Rotundo said. “She tried to spit out of the train.”
One of Rotundo’s employees, Nick, who declined to give his last name, said that Susan isn’t always wildly hacking and spitting.
“I’ve seen her when she’s not like that—when she’s completely normal,” Nick said. “Everyone has different outlets, and that’s how she expresses when she’s upset.”
Audi Brahimi, a doorman on East 77th Street, who works across the street from Alloro, said he has seen Susan but has never found her disturbing.
“She doesn’t bother me, but I’ve heard other people complain,” Brahimi said. “She didn’t do anything to me. She never comes in front of the building. She just walks down the street—walks down and walks back. That’s it.”
Another doorman on East 77th Street between Second and Third avenues agrees.
“I don’t think she’d ever do anything to anybody,” he said. “I don’t see her doing funny things like jumping on people.”
Next door to Alloro Restaurant, though, at Aaron Emanuel Salon, employees see a completely different side of Susan.
“What she does is she abusively spits on people,” said Alessandro Neira, a hairdresser at the salon. “I was passing by and she spit on me. She can control it and it’s clear that it’s on purpose.”
Unlike Nick, who believes that Susan’s occasional calm moments prove she is not a threat, Neira said he thinks this indicates that Susan intentionally decides when to act up.
Another employee, Elena Burbu, said she is afraid to pass by the woman.
“When she’s on this side of the street, I try to go to the other side,” Burbu said. “I try to avoid her illness.”
Jessica, an employee at Hot and Crusty Bakery on the corner of Lexington and East 77th Street who did not give her last name, said she and her co-worker were walking down the street when Susan spit on them.
“She’s doing it on purpose,” she said. “She’s crazy for sure.”
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