At around 11 a.m. on Monday, an outreach team from the city’s Department of Homeless Services pulled up on Whitney Avenue in Elmhurst where a group of homeless men had set up camp.
Workers from the Sanitation Department, responding to weeks of neighborhood complaints, were slated to come the next day and remove the makeshift village that had been built in recent months on the sidewalk between a shopping mall parking lot and the Long Island Rail Road tracks. The two-person outreach team was there to tell them what was coming.
“We always do this so they can take whatever personal belongings they wanted before Sanitation comes,” said one of the team’s members. “Give them a heads up.”
Sanitation never came Tuesday, as Tropical Storm Isaias slammed the city.
The encampment is built around a backyard-type canopy that shades about 20 men, give or take, from the sun. The nylon shelter was donated by some charity workers who come by the site every few days and hand out food and money. No one in the neighborhood seems to know who the group is.
Shopping carts and broken chairs serve as furniture for the encampment. Flattened cardboard boxes are makeshift mattresses for those napping under the canopy.
The area at Whitney Avenue and Broadway has been a gathering place for the homeless for at least a year or two, said Pablo Restrepo, the pharmacist at Hallmark Pharmacy. But the numbers have been mushrooming since the coronavirus hit the city last March.
“It’s uncomfortable,” he said. “They drink and fall on the ground. They are urinating and defecating in the street.
“They keep mostly to themselves. But when they get in their moods, they can get violent and belligerent.”
“When it started, there were maybe five or six of them,” said Alex Boutch, who owns Alex’s Barber Shop. “Now there are 40 or 50 and more are coming every day.”
The residents of Elmhurst Gardens, a co-op apartment complex at Whitney Avenue and Macnish Street, have spread out in the neighborhood with petitions, asking stores to help gather signatures calling for city officials to remove the camp.
“Quality of life as well as general sense of wellness in the community is compromised,” the petition reads.
The barber traces the trouble back to last year, when nearby Clement Clarke Moore Homestead Park on Broadway was closed for renovations. “They are moved down to this corner and it’s been getting worse ever since,” he said.
“When they start to fight, I call the cops,” said Boutch. “They tell the men to move but, two hours later, they are back.”
The outreach workers said this was not their first time at the encampment.
“We’ve offered them services but they refused,” said the social worker.
Accepting help means going to a homeless shelter and being assigned a case worker, she explained. “They don’t want that,” she said. Legally, there is no way for the city to force the men to accept the assistance.
“I lost my job because of the COVID,” said one of the men in the encampment, who did not want to give his name. “So I had to move here.”
The man said he’d been a day laborer, shaping up for work early in the morning at various street corners in Jackson Heights and Corona.
Most of the others, he said, were occasional kitchen workers or day laborers like him.
“The cops don’t arrest anybody, so it’s not so bad,” he said.
The unemployment and dislocation caused by the COVID-19 crisis have been blamed for a spike in homelessness in the city and a sharp rise in the number of encampments.
Most of the makeshift villages have been in Manhattan and have presented Mayor de Blasio with embarrassing comparisons to the hobo camps of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In early May, he told 1010 WINS, the all-news radio station, “For decades, encampments were tolerated in New York City. People would see them in different places and, somehow, they were allowed to exist.
“I found it absolutely unacceptable, and I said to the NYPD, to Social Services, to the Sanitation Department ... if we see any encampment developed anywhere in New York City, we’re taking it down, period.”