NYTimes.coom/ Conflicts in New York City Parks as Homeless Population Rises

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SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) In Harlem River Park in Manhattan, homeless men can be seen sleeping on benches around the basketball courts and sprawled out on a soccer field by day, then hunkering under an overpass at night.

In Brooklyn, dog owners in Fort Greene Park have had ugly confrontations with homeless people after their dogs woke them up in the early morning when they are allowed off-leash. And in the Bronx, there are so many homeless people in one small park, Devanney Triangle, that the community board and parks department are discussing the removal of all benches.

After a decade in which the number of homeless people on New York City’s streets had fallen by almost 25 percent, this year has seen an uptick in their number: On a single day in January, the population of the so-called street homeless was 3,357, representing an increase of 6 percent from the year before.

A result has been a growing number of homeless encampments in the city’s parks, traffic squares and plazas. The attendant behavior — like public urination, sleeping on benches and violating the blanket 1 a.m. parks curfew — has led to tensions with neighboring communities.

Over all, the city’s homeless population is at a record high, with 57,676 people living in shelters as of early November, in addition to the growing numbers on the streets. In the past month, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office has convened an interagency task force to address the issue. As part of that effort, the city has identified 25 sites where the street homeless are congregating in large numbers. The sites include parks, private buildings, vacant lots and bridges, which have become priorities for the outreach teams who fan out across the city’s five boroughs daily to engage people living on the streets.

“We go out and talk to the homeless and ask them what they wanted because we assumed that if they were avoiding the shelter system then that wasn’t an attractive option,” said Jody Rudin, the deputy commissioner for adult services for the Department of Homeless Services.

In the past year, about a dozen parks seem to have become magnets for homeless people. Sometimes, it is because of their proximity to refuges that suddenly became off-limits, as was the case when the George Washington Bridge Bus Station in Upper Manhattan closed in August for renovations.

Suddenly, neighborhood residents noticed an influx of homeless men and women into Juan Pablo Duarte Square, a sliver of green several blocks south of the station. People chained their shopping carts to the wrought-iron fencing in the square and slept in cardboard boxes there.

“There were typically 15 to 20 homeless people there 24/7, using the square as an encampment,” said Dana K. Hockenbury, president of the Washington Heights Gardening Crew, a group that has adopted the square in the past decade.

“They were urinating and defecating and doing drugs in the open,” Ms. Hockenbury said. “The people from the community couldn’t use it any longer as a place to sit and relax. It was totally taken over.”

In late October, Ms. Hockenbury’s group requested a meeting with local elected officials, the Police Department, parks officials and advocates for the homeless. Since then, the homeless presence in the square has dropped sharply, following stepped-up enforcement by the police. There is a new sign prominently displayed that alerts visitors to the 1 a.m. curfew.

Other areas are still grappling with large clusters of homeless people, which can sometimes lead to clashes. One morning this fall, Cheryl Pientka was walking her cairn terrier, Sasha, in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. While she almost never lets her dog off the leash, on this day she did, near a group of homeless people who had taken to sleeping under the trees between the tennis courts and DeKalb Avenue.

“She went over and started sniffing a man who was lying on the ground, and he jumped up and started swearing,” said Ms. Pientka, a literary agent, who recalled that the man threatened sexual assault. “He was over six feet tall and 200 pounds. It was totally unacceptable.”

Still, Ms. Pientka said, she feels compassion for homeless people.

“I wish there was a budget to help people get skills and get on their way,” she said, “or at least make the shelter system a place that they want to go,” she said.

In the Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx, a large group of street homeless people regularly occupies Devanney Triangle, a square that measures only a tenth of an acre, off the Grand Concourse. The group has grown so large that residents of the neighborhood have stopped using the park.

 

“It’s green and we’re a community with very little open space, but unfortunately people are becoming more and more frustrated because they feel that they cannot just sit there because of all the homeless folks,” said Xavier Rodriguez, the district manager of Community Board 5.

 

Mr. Rodriguez said a representative of the parks department had suggested taking out all of the seating to discourage homeless people from lingering there.

Liam Kavanagh, the first deputy commissioner of the department, said in an interview that he was unaware of the proposal, but called such a move “a last resort.”

“We’re not there yet on our side,” Mr. Rodgriguez said. “We don’t think that’s good policy. It would basically make it unusable by anyone.”

Some parks that have long attracted homeless people have evolved into centers of support services. In Tompkins Square Park, in the East Village, social service agencies hand out free lunches during the week, and on Sundays in the winter, a church dispatches its Soul Food Truck to give away meals of chicken and collard greens.

But for some homeless people, the attraction of a park is just its peace and quiet.

Mr. Cephus, who said he had served 21 years in prison for second-degree murder, is now living in a shelter on Wards Island and trying to put his plumbing skills to use. Earlier in the day, he had taken a nap on a bench in Marcus Garvey Park, also in Harlem. “No one bothers me in the parks,” he said.

While the number of homeless people in parks is sometimes met with irritation or fear, Alice Campbell, a 63-year-old hospital administrator, said she felt sorrow. “It’s very disheartening what the country is coming to,” she said outside her apartment building opposite Harlem River Park. “The homeless have to sleep somewhere, and they resort to any place they can go.”

 

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