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Pedestrian Plazas Remain Magnet for Homeless at Night, Despite Outreach

By Jill Colvin | September 21, 2011 7:32am | Updated on September 21, 2011 7:38am
A homeless man asleep in plaza in front of Macy's Herald Square just before midnight on Sunday, Sept. 18.
A homeless man asleep in plaza in front of Macy's Herald Square just before midnight on Sunday, Sept. 18.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MIDTOWN — Broadway’s pedestrian plazas continue to be a magnet for the homeless, despite ramped-up efforts by the city to deal with residents' complaints.

Last week, DNAinfo reported that that the plazas, which run from Herald Square to Times Square, were being overrun by homeless people, with dozens of men and women camped out overnight in chairs, slumped against tables and sprawled on the ground.

The situation had grown so bad that some long-time residents said they were now avoiding the stretch altogether because they no longer felt safe at night.

After being alerted to the situation, the Department of Homeless Services announced it would be instituting “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.

Augustin Gonzalez, 51, is among the many who sleep on the plazas.
Augustin Gonzalez, 51, is among the many who sleep on the plazas.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

Ever since then, the outreach teams have been visiting the plaza and surrounding area three to four times a day, trying to engage with the men and women camping out on the plazas, DHS officials said.

But so far this week, there appears to be little evidence of change. The same men and women are still lining the streets, curling up with their belongings and sleeping in the plazas.

Adam Chalif, 41, of Queens, who walks by the stretch every night on his way home from work, said he hasn’t noticed a dip in the population, which has grown substantially since last year, "at all."

And while he said he’s never had a problem with those sleeping on the streets, he knows others who feel otherwise.

“You see some people purposely cross to the other side of the street. Some people, they do try to steer clear,” he said.

But homeless advocates say that convincing someone who’s homeless to choose to leave the street is an extremely challenging process that takes time.

“Healthy relationships don’t happen overnight,” said Muzzy Rosenblatt, executive director of BRC, one of the city’s leading providers of homeless services, which runs its own outreach efforts across the city.

Rosenblatt said that workers can spend weeks or even months trying to build the trust it takes to convince someone living on the streets to accept help. During that time workers must also determine exactly what kinds of long-term services individuals need to turn their lives around.

“Our goal is not to get somebody off the street. Our goal is to get them moving forward in their lives,” said Rosenblatt, who said that the city as well as the Port Authority, local business improvement districts and police have made an unprecedented focus on outreach efforts.

“There’s probably more being put into this than has ever been done,” he said.

Neil Donovan, a spokesman for the National Coalition for the Homeless and a former outreach worker in the city, said that part of the problem is that there simply isn’t enough affordable housing to go around.

He also argued homeless people must jump through too many hoops to get the help they need.

“The whole process of asking someone whether or not they want to stay outside is very complicated,” he said. “Are you willing to engage in extraordinary exercises? Are you willing to engage in a journey that by all likelihood is going to fail?”

He said that if outreach workers could simply direct homeless people to open apartments, with no strings attached, “the likelihood and the percentage [of those accepting housing] would skyrocket.”

But for now, at least some of the men and and women sleeping in the plazas say they have every intention of staying put.

Agustin Gonzalez, 52,  said he’s spent about seven months living on the streets and began sleeping regularly in the plazas about four months ago. He said that every attempt he’s made to find a permanent place to live has failed, and that the plazas provide the best option, as long as it stays warm.

“When you go to the church [shelters] people try to rob you. Here, they see you. Here they know me and they’re watching me,” he said, pointing to the shop keepers and building security guards who patrol the stretch 24-hours a day.

While he said he's never been approached by outreach workers, he said he would defend his right to spend time on the plazas, like anyone else.

“Sometimes the police come and say, ‘You can’t sleep in a park.’ I say, ‘This isn’t a park. This is Broadway,’” he said.

Soberas Martinez, 62, who once worked in fashion and now spends her nights sleeping in the plazas, agreed that all she wants is to be left alone.

"It's very difficult," she said of the situation. "I don't want to bother anybody. I just want to live my life."