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Homeless Advocates Protest Treatment by Police

By Jill Colvin | July 26, 2011 6:58am

MIDTOWN — Homeless advocates claim aggressive police action is robbing them of their right to sleep.

While complaints about panhandlers increase in Midtown, members of the group Picture the Homeless gathered at Penn Station Monday to say the people they represent are the ones facing harassment.

And they claim they should be left to sleep in public spaces because of the appalling conditions of shelters in the city.

“Homelessness is not a crime,” said member Michael Gonzalez, 49, who’s lived on the street since 2005 and has slept all over Midtown, including in Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station.

He said that homeless men and women trying to sleep in public are repeatedly interrupted by police, who often use force beyond what he deems necessary including startling sleepers on subway trains by slapping their batons against metal poles.

“We have the police coming up to a person who is sleeping in these public places and telling them they have to move,” Gonzalez said. “If it’s a public place, why are people being harassed?”

While he’s currently living in a homeless shelter on Manhattan’s Wards Island, Gonzalez said the rough conditions make him much prefer sleeping on the street.

“You have to sleep with one eye open and one eye closed,” he said.

Pastor Michael-Vincent Crea, 56, who describes himself as "home-lost,” agreed police should allow the homeless to sleep in peace .

Crea, who has spent many nights protesting outside of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s home, said he’s been without a place to live for 152 days and now spends his nights on the number 2 train because Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder prevents him from sleeping in a shelter.

Crea said he’s also had numerous incidents with police, including one night in mid-February when  he said he fell asleep on the 1 train at South Ferry after five days without rest.

“[I] awoke at 96th Street with four cops on me telling me to get up and leave the train,” he said. A day later, he said he was asleep in Penn Station when “a cop came and used a night stick and violently woke me,” he said, accusing the cop of hitting his foot.

Advocates said the interruptions amount to sleep deprivation at the hands of police.

"They literally have no place to sleep," said Andy Forrest, an organizer for Picture the Homeless.

Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.