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Shelter Success Behind Surge in Tompkins Sq. Park Panhandling: Advocates

By Allegra Hobbs | August 3, 2016 5:13pm
 Street homelessness is down, but panhandling is up in Tompkins Square Park.
Street homelessness is down, but panhandling is up in Tompkins Square Park.
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DNAinfo/Allegra Hobbs

EAST VILLAGE — Homeless activity and panhandling has spiked in and around Tompkins Square Park — and some advocates are saying the change is a sign of success in moving the city's street homelessness population into neighboring shelters.

Over the past two years, outreach organizers working directly with the city’s Department of Homeless Services have seen a noticeable increase in homeless activity in the park, along with more instances of aggressive panhandling, according to a director of local outreach.

But the director said the rise is actually an indication of more effective homeless outreach, as more people have been successfully placed in surrounding shelters.

“It’s a fair assessment that the amount of activity and aggressive panhandling has been increasing, and I do really feel that it’s because the shelter system is on the rise and this is a place for folks to hang out in the day,” said Joe Hallmark, associate director of the Goddard Riverside Community Center, which works in partnership with DHS to provide services to the homeless.

The East Village and Lower East Side are saturated with homeless shelters, Hallmark said. There are two Nazareth Housing shelters on either side of the park, with one on Fourth Street and one on 11th Street, while the Third Street Men’s Shelter and two Bowery Mission facilities are also nearby.

Earlier this year, the annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate found a 12 percent decrease in people living on the streets citywide in 2016 than in 2015. A similar effect has been seen in the East Village, Hallmark said, with more homeless individuals both in and out of the neighborhood taking to shelters. And during the daytime, those living in shelters are likely flocking to the park, said Hallmark.

Hallmark’s findings line up with observations from longtime locals, who have noticed a recent surge in homeless hangouts and panhandling in and around Tompkins Square Park.

“In the past year and a half, two years, it has gotten markedly worse,” said Neil Magnuson, an actor and bartender who has lived in the area for 21 years. “I’m thick-skinned and I’m a man, so I rarely get aggressively harassed, but it’s uncomfortable for people who are just trying to go to work."

A representative for Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh confirmed the politician’s office has been receiving calls from constituents who complain of being hassled near the park — in response, reps for Kavanagh have joined other officials, city agencies and law enforcement to develop a joint approach to the problem.

The NYPD’s 9th Precinct on July 26 hosted a meeting with Community Board 3, DHS, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and elected officials in an effort to coordinate efforts and work towards a comprehensive, interagency response, said CB3’s district manager Susan Stetzer.

“I think coordination is really key, because you don’t want to just duplicate efforts — you want to have a plan,” said Stetzer.

And Hallmark said the interagency approach is working — lately, his organization has more regularly been communicating with other agencies and working alongside police officers while canvassing Tompkins Square Park. Having police on hand means more effectively surpassing certain behavior, such as panhandling and sleeping on park benches, noted Hallmark, while efficient communication with city agencies means quickly providing the health and housing services people need.

Hallmark also noted that many aggressive panhandlers in the neighborhood are not staying in shelters, but are temporarily homeless people Local who usually camp out in the summer before clearing out — outreach teams still offer them services, he said.

A DHS rep said outreach teams canvas Tompkins Square Park roughly three to four times per week, and have placed 13 individuals previously living in the park in shelters within the last three to four months.

But the park is just a microcosm of larger issue, said Stetzer — the number of people living on the street may have fallen, she noted, but homelessness is still very much a problem that must be addressed citywide.

“We have a crisis in homelessness that needs to be resolved — this is the larger issue, and this is reflected in the park,” she said.