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Homeless Sleeping by 72nd Street Subway to be Swept Out in City Crackdown

By Emily Frost | October 30, 2014 7:45am
 DHS will begin an operation to clear Verdi Square of the homeless sleeping there in about three months. 
Verdi Square Homeless Encampment
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Homeless people sleeping in a public plaza near the 72nd Street subway station will be swept out under a city plan to break up populations using more than two dozen similar sites across the city.

The Department of Homeless Services plans to dismantle the "encampment" at Verdi Square within the next three months using Parks Enforcement Patrol Officers.

They will force homeless people to leave after the 1 a.m. official closing time, DHS Assistant Commissioner for Street Solutions Danielle Minelli-Pagnotta said at a meeting with Community Board 7 Wednesday.

While there are no tents or other semi-permanent shelter structures in the small public plaza and park, Minelli-Pagnotta said the agency knows of at least two individuals who place cardboard on the benches and sleep there at night. 

Local residents and businesses complained that some of the homeless have recently grown more aggressive, harassing park-goers and playing loud music. 

Outreach workers have already been canvassing the park, taking stock and interacting with the homeless there, Minelli-Pagnotta said. The workers offer any homeless people they encounter a bed in a small shelter, pathways to a job and an apartment, access to regular meals and counseling for mental health and substance abuse issues, she said.

The hope is that the workers will lure them away willingly ahead of the planned operation, which is expected to take place in the new year, said Minelli-Pagnotta. 

"Our outreach team will infuse services for a few weeks and then we’ll have a date where the enforcement will ramp up," she said. "We want to clean up the area and secure it."

On Wednesday morning, several men sat along the row of benches on the east side of Verdi Square, surrounded by a hodgepodge of belongings. One bench was overtaken with cardboard, books, boxes, a wagon and other items, but their owner did not appear to be nearby. 

Three Parks Enforcement Patrol officers stood around taking notes, but wouldn't comment about their presence there. An agency spokesman said the officers inspected the park Wednesday and hauled away debris that had been left there. He added that officers monitor Verdi Square Tuesday through Saturday.

For Bherat Modi, who owns a newsstand within the park toward the eastern side, co-existing with the homeless has become part of his job. Though the number fluctuates, homeless people are a constant presence in the park and typically they sleep there, he said. 

"They ask me for the microwave to heat their food...They want to call their family," said Modi, who noted that he lets them use his microwave and phone, as well as store their bags in his stand.

"I help them always," he said, adding that the requests were part of a daily routine.

But some can also irritate him, he said, especially when he's busy with customers.

"They trouble me a lot," Modi said. 

Community Board 7 members said they've heard an array of complaints from residents who see the homeless population in Verdi Square as increasingly aggressive.

There's been "a whole change in demeanor and tone, with people harassing people coming in, stuff all over the place, people playing loud music," said Penny Ryan, CB7's district manager.

Ryan encouraged DHS to look into this behavior more during the daytime, rather than just focus on the nighttime population.

DHS is working on the operation with nonprofit Goddard Riverside, the organization it employs for neighborhood homeless outreach.

As part of its daily protocol, a Goddard Riverside team already canvases Verdi Square three times every 24 hours, trying to encourage homeless people to leave the streets, explained Joe Hallmark, deputy director of Manhattan outreach for the nonprofit.

"There are a lot of individuals who used to stay in Verdi Square and are now permanently housed," said Hallmark, admitting that the people there now are proving tough to budge.

"We're not getting a lot of headway."

The operation, in which Parks officers will force the homeless to leave the park if necessary, is like using the "good cop-bad cop" strategy, Hallmark said.

"We’re the good cops" asking, "'Why don’t you accept a placement with us?'" he said.

When a homeless person sees they actually will be forced to leave and that they'll have to move their things, they're more likely to listen to what outreach officers have to offer, Hallmark said.

Minelli-Pagnotta said DHS' model for helping people off the street was "one of the best practices around the country" and that the city's "social safety net is vast, wide and deep."

Residents should call 311to help the agency track and respond to people living on the streets, she noted.

Within an hour of a 311 report, the Goddard Riverside team will respond to the scene of the sighting, Hallmark added.

"For folks we have to win over… we do have to build that relationship of trust," he said, noting that they're usually able to get them off the streets within 20 days.

With individuals who seem to live perpetually on the streets, "I don’t want the community to lose hope," Hallmark said.