Even without internet, homeless camps still a concern in Gramercy

A LinkNYC tower is used on Third Avenue (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

A LinkNYC tower is used on Third Avenue (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Sabina Mollot

Last Wednesday, the city yanked the internet from its new wi-fi stations following community outrage and news reports about the kiosks being monopolized by the homeless. As Town & Village recently reported, in Gramercy they’d be used for hours or even days at a time by homeless people who in some cases set up camps and according to one Post report, a Murray Hill resident was even treated to the sight of a man masturbating near her home while using a kiosk to watch porn.

However, even with internet access now scrubbed, some Gramercy residents are saying the kiosks are still hangouts for homeless people who in some cases drink at the sites and remain there for days on end. Their concerns were raised on Tuesday night at a meeting of the 13th Precinct Community Council, where the precinct’s commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Brendan Timoney assured neighbors police were responding to such complaints, and increasing homeless outreach efforts.

One woman, Julie Block, complained that homeless people are a round-the-clock presence at 16th Street and Third Avenue. In response, Timoney said those individuals have actually since moved a block north to 17th Street. However, he also said there would be more efforts to get those people into shelters, in coordination with the organizations Breaking Ground and Urban Pathways. “We’ll have to go out there again,” Timoney said.

Another neighbor, Jim Collins, brought up concerns about homeless people who were sex offenders or violent offenders. On this, Timoney said cops have been patrolling playgrounds to make sure there were no adults not accompanied by children.

But, he mentioned at a few points during the meeting, that if vagrants aren’t obstructing pedestrian traffic or breaking any law, cops can’t force them to move. He also said he’s felt sorry for some of the homeless people he’s been encountering lately.

He briefly spoke about one who was an Iraq veteran. “I started to talk to him; he wasn’t a bad guy,” said Timoney. “His wife left him for his best friend. He had a dog — someone wanted to buy it from him for $500 but it was the only thing he had left, so we found a shelter that accepts animals.”

Complaining of aggressive behavior by homeless people was Matt Viggiano, a representative of Council Member Rosie Mendez, who said women have been getting frightened by men harassing them at a couple of locations. One was a building on East 26th Street, and another spot was Second Avenue by a Duane Reade, where a man “lunges at women.” Viggiano also mentioned a building on East 30th Street where a homeless couple has been known to retaliate against building managers who complain about them. On these incidents, Timoney said he’d follow up.

The deputy inspector also pointed out that despite some outreach efforts, many homeless people refuse help from officers. Katrin Roberts, a representative who of the District Attorney’s office, who was also at the meeting, pointed out that cops are also limited in what they can do since some of the people they arrest can’t be prosecuted if they’re found to be mentally ill.

“They’re doing their jobs,” Roberts said of cops. “Even prosecutors are having a tough time with it.”

Another woman brought up homeless people who were charging their phones at a Third Avenue kiosk but also using the area to sleep and to pee in the street. Timoney responded to say that there were officers doing direct patrolling of where the kiosks, 22 in total, were installed along the avenue. He also said the majority of complaints he was getting were from the kiosks at 18th and 19th Streets.

Responding to some neighbor concerns was Ruth Fasoldt, who works for LinkNYC, which owns the kiosks. She referred to the removal of web access as one of the things that was done based on community feedback.

“They were never intended to be a longterm user experience,” said Fasoldt, adding that volume limits at night was another recent change.

When asked how the spots for the wi-fi stations were chosen, she answered that it was where previously there had been payphones. This prompted a few people to say at once that there were never as many phones as there are the new wi-fi hubs.

When one woman also complained that the sidewalk was torn up to install the kiosks and then replaced with different materials, Fasoldt recommended that she alert the DOITT (Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications). This prompted the woman to shoot back, “We’re alerting you.”

In other news, Timoney said crime was down for the month in all the major categories. A major incident had included a gunpoint robbery at a Fifth Avenue ATM.

Timoney warned neighbors to be mindful at ATMs before going into the bank vestibules to withdraw cash.

“If you see something weird, go to the next ATM machine,” he said. If you see panhandlers out front call 911.”

There were two bank robberies he mentioned, with the suspect having been arrested in Pennsylvania on Saturday who may be behind a total of seven or eight heists. The last one, he said, netted a total of $7,200.

Motorcycle thefts are also on the rise and Timoney advised anyone who has one to park it a garage at night. He mentioned having seen video of thieves who’ve been working in pairs to pick up motorcycles and throw them into the back of a van.

As for the ongoing issue of scofflaw cyclists, when a Stuyvesant Town woman said she’s become terrorized by delivery men on bikes who speed through the Loop Roads at night, Timoney said police have been stepping up enforcement. Within the last month, he said, 60 bike summonses had been issued. “Vision Zero is a top priority in the 13th Precinct,” he said.

Earlier in the meeting, Police Officers Giro Maceroni and Jared Garesh won Cop of the Month for August and September. Maceroni was recognized for collaring a man believed to be behind robberies of taxi cabs in the 13th and midtown south precincts. Maceroni spotted the suspect during one of the Summer Streets events and apprehended him.

Garesh, meanwhile, made an arrest of a man police believed to have burglarized office buildings 14 times in the Chelsea area. Timoney noted “there was something unique about this guy.” Specifically, the suspect had a custom of wearing a beach hat, making him easy to spot.

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