By Jill Colvin
MIDTOWN — At the Gardenia Deli near Penn Station, fighting off the riff-raff has become a war.
Each night, staff stand guard, trying to fend off drunks who barge in,
screaming at and harassing customers, and gangs of kids who try to
make off with anything they can grab.
"It’s bad," said Karina Cuellar, 21, who works as a cashier at the Eighth Avenue deli, between 30th and 31st streets.
"It’s really bad. It doesn’t matter if it’s night or day."
Earlier this month, two men were arrested for robbing the deli, leaving a worker with a bloody nose.
"It’s really scary," Cuellar said, standing alone behind the register Thursday, minutes after yet another incident when a man came in yelling and demanding cash.
It’s no secret that homelessness is a problem in New York, and Penn Station has always been a place where the homeless gather.
But businesses near the station say the problem is getting worse.
A study published last week declared "a homeless crisis" in the city, with the shelter population now larger than at any time since record-keeping began. In 2010, 113,553 homeless people slept in city shelters, up 37 percent from 2002, it said.
Business owners near Gardenia say that aggressive panhandlers are terrorizing their staff and patrons, and are begging police for help.
"Our customers are getting terrified. What do we do? They’re hurting our business," Andrew Impagliazzio, 50, the long-time owner of the Blarney Stone bar, told police at a Midtown South Precinct Community Council meeting Thursday night.
He and fellow bar owners complained of men aggressively begging, blocking the entrance and fighting. They asked police to step up patrols, warning that as the weather improves, the situation will only get worse.
Sometimes the beggars stare menacingly at customers through the glass for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. One especially aggressive beggar, they said, alternates between crutches and a wheelchair and wears an oxygen mask — except it isn’t plugged in.
"There’s going to be a problem out there," said Molly Wee Pub owner Paddy O’Reilly. He has tried to ask the men to leave, but they’re extremely aggressive, lobbing profanities and refusing to move.
Soo Song, 31, who teaches English at a school on the block, said she and her students are also constantly harassed by the beggars asking them for cigarettes. While she grew up in Times Square during the '80s and early '90s, she said she’s never seen anything as bad as this.
"It’s this one street, this one specific block," she said. "I’ve never seen it this severe."
Some blamed the increase on the nearby Antonio G. Olivieri drop-in center, which recently began accepting men, a staffer confirmed. Others said enforcement was lax.
Police officers at the meeting acknowledged the problem and said they’re stepping up patrols in the area.
But "Lo," 42, a homeless woman who frequents the stretch, said the business owners are over-reacting and that the homeless also shop on the block — mostly frequenting a large liquor store just north of the Blarney Stone.
"We bring them most of their money and then they want to complain," she protested.
She said that while fights may happen, they are between the homeless who live in Penn Station, and that passers-by have nothing to fear.
But that doesn’t make Cuellar feel better, as she has to put up with men harassing her, begging her customers for money and trying to steal.
Earlier this month, two men were arrested for robbery after trying to swipe a carton of milk and can of Red Bull from the store, court records show.
When her co-worker tried to stop them, he was repeatedly kicked and punched in the face, and left with a bloody nose.
"It's gotten worse," said store owner Hassan Alborati, 48, who said, after 28 years in business, he doesn't hold hope that it will improve.