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Homeless Taking Over Broadway's Pedestrian Plazas

By Jill Colvin | September 16, 2011 8:52am
Two men sleep slumped in chairs in the plaza space directly in front of Macy's Herald Square, Wed. Sept. 14.
Two men sleep slumped in chairs in the plaza space directly in front of Macy's Herald Square, Wed. Sept. 14.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MANHATTAN — Broadway’s new pedestrian plazas are being overrun by homeless people flocking there to sleep, driving some fearful residents to avoid the street.

“It gets filled with homeless people, the whole entire length,” said Scott Bowen, 48, an accountant who’s lived in the neighborhood for nearly 20 years and said the situation between 34th and 42nd streets has grown so bad he now avoids Broadway altogether at night.

“I no longer feel secure walking this route after dark,” he wrote in a letter to Midtown’s Community Board 5, urging them for help.

Broadway’s pedestrian plazas were intended to serve as peaceful oases along bustling Midtown streets, giving locals and tourists a place to sit down, people watch and relax.

But instead they’ve served as an oasis for the city’s growing homeless population, creating an eerie nighttime tableau of people sprawled on benches between pink flowers and giant potted plants.

On multiple visits to the plazas in the middle of the night this week, DNAinfo spotted dozens of men and women camped out, slumped in chairs, leaning against tables and sprawled out along the ground.

In the early morning hours Wednesday, 13 men and women were counted sleeping on the plaza in front of Macy’s Herald Square flagship store between 35th and 36th streets.

Some slept next to suitcases, others next to piles of belongings and shopping carts.

While homelessness has always been part of life in Midtown, locals say the number of people sleeping rough has spiked in recent weeks.

“It has increased dramatically,” said New Jersey’s Yolanda Jernigan, 30, who has worked in the neighborhood for seven years and said she was shocked when she passed by Macy’s earlier this week and saw what looked like a family huddled under blankets in front of the store.

“It struck me as very weird and unsettling, like wow – it’s getting bad,” she said.

After being alerted to the problem by DNAinfo, the Department of Homeless Services dispatched a street outreach team to the plazas Wednesday night.

The team, which regularly monitors the area, was shocked by what it found.

“Homeless Services will be putting forward an aggressive special initiative in the Herald Square area, with street outreach teams visiting the location every night in the foreseeable future to engage and place homeless individuals into temporary housing,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

She added that the problem appears to have developed recently, since teams didn't find a problem during inspections over the summer.

City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan was surprised by the growing number of homeless people using the plazas to sleep.

“I haven’t seen that,” she said, adding that, while the city installed the plazas, their maintenance and security is up to local business improvement districts, not the DOT.

Dan Biederman, President of the 34th Street Partnership, the BID which manages the plazas around Herald Square, said that he instituted a new policy Monday, instructing sanitation and security staff to begin packing up the chairs in their plazas at night, both to limit the number of people sleeping there and also to cut down on thefts.

“If it causes a concern to anybody in the neighborhood, it’s not a big deal to move the chairs,” he said, noting that the partnership has its own security team which patrols the area until 11 p.m.

The Fashion Center BID, which manages the plazas north of 36th Street, was still leaving its chairs outside as of Wednesday night.

Staff at the BID did not return repeated calls for comment about if it had received complaints or had taken any steps to address the problem, though Community Board 5 wrote in its response to Bowen that the BID had reached out to both police and the DOT.

In a statement, a BID spokesman said, "We are working with DOT, Community Board # 5 and local stakeholders to ensure that the neighborhood's public plazas are safe, accessible and continue to be a wonderful mid-town destination.”

While not everyone who sleeps in the plazas is homeless, the majority of those approached by DNAinfo said they were and that the plazas had become an attractive place to sleep, especially in the summer.

Michael Mattis, 39, who identified himself as homeless, defended his right to sleep in the plazas, which he described as a “beautiful place."

He argued that if other people can hang out in the plazas, he should be allowed to as well.

“There’s nothing to be scared about,” he said he wanted to tell passers-by. “We’re not thieves, we’re not rapists, we’re not murderers and we’re not doing anything that is wrong.”

He also said allowing people to sleep in the plazas serves as a safety mechanism, since there are always “eyes in the street.”

Some residents agreed, arguing that the men and women who sleep on the plazas were harmless and should be left alone, especially given the tough economic times.

“I can’t really complain, because it’s people like me who are living on the street. That could be me if I lost my job,” said Elise Simmons, 25, who's lived in 45th Street for the past four years and estimated she’d seen the homeless population in the neighborhood double in that time.

Peter George, 53, who passes through the plazas every night on his way home from work in Times Square, agreed, and said that homeless people have always slept in the area but are much more visible now.

“They’ve made this look so nice with the flowers and planters and then you have this," he said, gesturing to the three men asleep in chairs behind him.

“People are offended. You don’t want to be near them. But they’re harmless.”