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Activist will camp out, call for N.Y.U. to house homeless

John Penley being arrested in North Carolina at Occupy Asheville last February. He had previously helped start Occupy Wall Street’s encampment at Zuccotti Park.
John Penley being arrested last year at a demonstration against war and in support of helping homeless veterans at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  | New York University is constantly being accused as being a major force of gentrification in the Downtown area. Now, a longtime local activist is calling on the university to do just the opposite — by constructing a large building, or renovating an existing one, to be used expressly for housing the homeless and low-income individuals.

To call attention to his plea, John Penley will be staging a campout on Washington Square South, starting Fri., March 1, at 4 p.m. Nights, he hopes to sleep on the Judson Church steps in a sleeping bag. During the day, he plans to be in front of N.Y.U.’s Bobst Library, where he’ll attempt to educate students about the issues of housing and homelessness.

A former news and community photographer, Penley also plans to take activists inside Bobst to show them the Tamiment Library, which houses his photo archives, which he donated to Tamiment a few years ago.

“It’s not going to look good if N.Y.U. arrests me,” he warned, “because they have my photo archives in there.”

“The statistics show homelessness is on the rise in New York City,” Penley said. “And Bloomberg is putting people out onto the streets even when it’s Cold Blue, when they’re supposed to be taking people in off the streets.”

Penley himself is homeless and a Navy veteran.

“One out of four homeless people in America are veterans,” he noted.

He said N.Y.U. should provide “a fairly large building” for this cause “just to give a balance to the neighborhood — because there’s so much market-rate housing being built.”

“Gregg Singer’s trying to do something with his building,” he said, referring to the former public school at 605 E. Ninth St., the onetime CHARAS/El Bohio community center. “Maybe they can work out a deal with Gregg Singer to do something for homeless and low-income people. I think N.Y.U. would actually go for it.”

Penley said the university’s students could use the building as a “training center,” particularly dental and medical students, as well as aspiring social workers.

“They could set up a daycare over there” manned by N.Y.U. students, he added.

So far, 131 people have posted on Penley’s Facebook page saying they’ll join him at the protest, while 96 others say they may possibly come.

“People from the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space say they’ll come over and hang out and bring me coffee,” he added.

He hopes to maintain the campout for a month, but recently aggravated a back injury when his car was rear-ended while he was driving in North Carolina, so doesn’t know if he’ll be able to last that long. Rumor has it he may also go on a hunger strike.

Asked for a response to Penley’s protest plan, Philip Lentz, a university spokesperson, said, “N.Y.U. students, faculty and staff provide thousands of hours of community service every year to those in need in New York City. In addition, the N.Y.U. Community Fund, which is funded by donations from N.Y.U. employees, annually supports numerous organizations that assist the homeless, including — to name a few — the Bowery Residents’ Committee, Nazareth Housing and the Village Temple Soup Kitchen.

“Finally, last summer N.Y.U. signed an in-perpetuity lease to provide very affordable housing on its property at 505 LaGuardia Place.”

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