NEW YORK — St. Francis of Assisi Church is the place where FDNY chaplain Mychal Judge preached. He left the Franciscan Friary on West 31st Street on a fire truck, before he became the first, official casualty of the 9/11 terror attacks — killed in the collapse of the Twin Towers.
It's the same place where the late NYPD Detective, Steven McDonald, used to hold "Walks of Remembrance" for Father Judge.
Now the friars — and local businesses — are upset about what they claim is going on outside.
A property manager from West 31st Street e-mailed PIX11 to complain about a man and woman who live under a scaffold across from the church, alleging they sell "sticks" of synthetic pot rolled with tobacco to the homeless and mentally ill. The product is commonly known as K2. Many of the indigent people are traveling through West 31 Street, off 7th Avenue, to get fed at the friary's soup kitchen.
One church employee who didn't want to be identified said of the couple — a male and female — "They're here 24 hours; they don't move from that spot."
The employee said the woman carried a handbag with the "sticks" inside, and we watched a number of men approach the couple during the time we spent on West 31st Street during lunch hour Tuesday. When the man and woman noticed our camera, they confronted us.
"We're homeless, we can't help that, leave us alone," the woman yelled at yours truly and my colleague. When I asked the couple if they sold K2, the man said "No" and the woman answered indignantly, "Would I be sleeping on a damn sidewalk if I was selling something?"
"Why don't you do something about the homeless," she yelled, "instead of talking s--t all the time?"
A second church employee pointed out that Bellevue Hospital, Methadone clinics, and Penn Station are all close by, places where the homeless or mentally ill often go for services — or to sleep. An alleged K2 dealer was arrested near Penn Station last August with 180 "sticks" in his possession. Seven other people were rushed to hospitals in August 2016, after smoking K2 in the area.
PIX11 observed a man with a yellow hood approach the couple and then walk a few feet to a wall, where he lit something and started puffing. He was later seen begging outside a Dunkin' Donuts just yards away.
The second church employee said this kind of behavior is routine.
"Most people are the homeless people. They beg for money on the side of the street and then after that, they take the money and go buy the stuff over there."
K2 became more difficult to buy after October 2015, when Mayor DeBlasio signed several laws banning the sale of K2 products in delis and bodegas. Visits to emergency rooms were spiking, and police joined forces with the feds to raid K2 storage facilities and delis.
There was also concern millions in profits from K2 sales were going to the Middle East and Africa to finance acts of terror.
It seems that K2 dealers adapted by doing street sales of "sticks" for $3 a piece.
We met one homeless man smoking a rolled cigarette on 7th Avenue, after noticing him near the scaffolding on West 31st Street minutes before.
The man said his name was Castrina, and he denied he had bought the rolled cigarette under the scaffold. He called the product "Tops" — claiming it was tobacco.
We asked the man why he liked smoking the sticks, which he paid $3.50 a piece for.
"It keeps me warm," he said, as the smoke came wafting out of his mouth.
We asked him a second time if he got high from the stick.
He paused a long time and then smiled, "Maybe a little."
When we contacted the NYPD, a department spokesperson told us she had called the Midtown South Precinct, which has a homeless unit that keeps track of the area around Penn Station. The police spokesperson said, "They haven't received any complaints. They will be on the lookout for this."