WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — After the owner of an Uptown restaurant was allegedly assaulted by a resident of a nearby homeless shelter last month, locals have grown concerned about what they say is increasingly aggressive behavior from some of the men staying at the facility.
The Fort Washington Men’s Shelter on West 168th Street currently houses 200 men with mental health issues, including the one accused of attacking Coogan’s Restaurant owner Peter Walsh on July 23. Walsh said the man pushed and punched him after he refused the man’s demand for money.
While residents were upset by the incident, many said it did not come as a surprise after months of what they described as threatening behavior by a handful of shelter residents.
The situation has not been lost on local police, who confirmed that complaints about the shelter have been growing in recent months.
Still, the number of men staying at the shelter has not risen since last year, and no changes have been made to its method of operation, a Department of Homeless Services spokeswoman said.
“It’s very bad,” said Ramon Rosario, who has owned Reme Restaurant on Broadway and 169th Street for 40 years.
Rosario said that for the past few months, a handful of shelter residents have regularly come into his café to ask customers for money and food.
“Today I kicked three guys out of here,” he said. “Sometimes they even take food from the customer’s plate. I’ve never seen that before.”
The owner of another longtime local business, who did not want to give his name, echoed Rosario’s sentiments.
“There have always been people who panhandle, but they stood farther away,” he said. “Now they stand right in the door and ask for money.”
The owner said that some of the men become verbally abusive when rebuffed.
“They curse at you. They’ve threatened to break my windows,” he said. “Every morning I come in and think I’ll find things broken.”
The owner said that twice this summer, the same men have stolen a tip cup from his store’s counter, though he did not report the incidents to the police.
It’s not only business owners who have noticed an escalation.
Allison Clayton, an Uptown resident who has worked at the nearby New York-Presbyterian Hospital for six years, said there has been a shift in tone over the past few months.
“It does seem like it’s worse this summer,” she said. “In the past, it was like, ‘Can you spare some change?’ Now it’s, ‘Buy me coffee’ as a demand."
When Clayton recently declined one man’s insistence that she buy him coffee, he swore at her, she said.
“I haven’t exactly felt threatened by it, but it is uncomfortable,” she said, noting that she avoids walking on the side of the street where the shelter entrance is located, because of comments that are sometimes directed at women by men who congregate outside of the facility.
Data from the NYPD show there were 16 crimes reported from within the shelter from January 1 through June 30 this year. The crimes were primarily assaults and grand larcenies, with one burglary also recorded this year, records show. In comparison, 28 crimes were committed at the shelter for all of 2014, according to the data.
While information on crimes committed by shelter residents outside of the facility was not available, a police source said that the local precinct has logged more complaints related to the shelter over the past few months.
Coogan's owner Walsh said that the shelter, which is in the vicinity of the hospital, an elementary school and two youth programs, is a thorny issue for the neighborhood.
“My father used to say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ and I believe that,” he said. “But I also think that safety has to be the first concern.”
Walsh questioned why so many of the residents seemed to spend their time wandering the streets rather than in shelter programs.
“They have no programs for these people,” he said. “Their idea of a program is to turn people loose on the neighborhood. It’s not fair to the homeless and it’s not fair to us.”
The Department of Homeless Services spokeswoman said the shelter does offer programs for residents, including wellness, occupational therapy, relapse prevention and money management.
There are 10 security guards on staff around the clock who patrol the facility and the block around the shelter, she said. Residents also have a 10 p.m. curfew.
The city has come under fire recently over its handling of the homeless population.
On Thursday, Mayor de Blasio announced a $22 million initiative aimed at helping mentally ill people with a history of violence, including those who are homeless.
Under the plan, shelters like Fort Washington will receive more security officers and clinical staff, and the Department of Homeless Services will increase its collaboration with the NYPD.
Plans are already in place to install more peace officers at the Fort Washington Shelter, the DHS spokeswoman said.
“Supporting our clients who are experiencing mental health challenges is one of our top priorities at DHS,” she said. “We are committed to working closely with the administration and strive to partner with other City agencies to ensure all New Yorkers, including our clients, are safe.”