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Felony Assaults at Wards Island Homeless Shelters on the Rise

By Jeff Mays | March 7, 2014 10:41am
 More peace officers are being dispatched to patrol the shelters on Wards Island after an 80 pecent jump in assaults.
More peace officers are being dispatched to patrol the shelters on Wards Island after an 80 pecent jump in assaults.
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HARLEM — The city is adding 10 more peace officers to patrol the homeless shelters on Wards Island after felony assaults there increased by 80 percent in 2013.

According to statistics from the NYPD, felony assaults among residents at the four shelters on Wards Island increased to 27 in 2013 from 15 the year before. The island's shelters hold approximately 1,000 men, and currently use 459 peace officer security guards.

"We do realize there has been an increase," said Lisa Black, assistant commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services.

Black believes the rise in assaults may be due to better reporting of incidents by staff following increased training after a 2012 law passed by the state Legislature made attacking a social services worker or prison guard performing their duties a felony assault, similar to assaulting a police officer.

Second-degree felony assault is punishable by up to seven years in prison.

"I'm happy that it's being reported because we've been criticized before for low levels of reporting for things going on there," said Black. "We want safe environments."

William Burnett, a board member of Picture the Homeless, an advocacy group, said he had to call 911 three times after he had been assaulted in a city shelter several years ago because staff kept telling police there was no problem.

"When I was there there were a lot of assaults that would go unreported. Police would come and the staff would turn them away," said Burnett, who added the experience is demoralizing. "So my initial reaction to this news is: 'It's about damn time.'"

Given the history of underreporting, Burnett said he wouldn't be surprised if the number of actual assaults was higher.

Wards Island is a part of the 25th Precinct in East Harlem and Community Board 11. Felony assaults in the entire precinct remained the same for 2012 and 2013, with 286 each year.

Among the 27 felony assaults at Wards Island in 2013, five were against DHS officers.

So far this year, felony assaults in all of the 25th Precinct are up 62 percent, with 42 compared to 26 by this time last year.

Felony assaults at Wards Island remain approximately the same with five so far this year, versus four for the same period in 2013.

East Harlem residents have often complained about the Wards Island residents who use the M35 bus daily at Lexington Avenue and 125th Street to travel to the shelters.

Complaints have ranged from loitering to littering and illegal activities. CB 11 has rallied to have the bus stop moved to a less busy location.

Community board member Brodie Enoch said the population that uses the Wards Island bus need help from social service agencies.

"It's a systemic problem that people are being dumped in a community and being blamed for being dumped," Enoch said.

Burnett said the way to reduce the number of felony assaults is to find more permanent housing for the homeless.

"It's difficult to manage when you have shelters that large," said Burnett. "Take the money and direct it into low-income and affordable housing and you won't have hundreds of men having to sleep together in large shelters."