A somber crowd that included local homeless people packed a small plaza in Chinatown on Monday to remember four men who were beaten to death while they were sleeping on the streets over the weekend.
Randy Santos, 24, was caught on surveillance video using a “long metal object” to bludgeon the men to death between 1:30 and 1:50 a.m. on Saturday, prosecutors said. Police said Santos was also homeless. Prosecutors said he had confessed to the killings.
On Monday morning, a memorial grew in Kimlau Square as mourners placed candles, flowers, fruit, beer bottles and cans, coins and pizza boxes on a flower bed in honor of the victims. All of the men who died — and a fifth man who was critically injured — were asleep on sidewalks around the plaza when they were attacked, according to prosecutors.
Omar Muhammad, 50, a homeless man who said he has been sleeping in the vicinity for the past two months, said he’d met two of the victims at Collect Pond Park, between Lafayette and Centre streets, where advocacy organization Coalition for the Homeless gives out soup in the evenings. On occasion, he’d shared a drink with them at Kimlau Square, he said.
Santos would also eat soup at the park but was often “hostile” to those around him, Muhammad said.
“I’m in the streets, and I see a lot of fighting — there’s a lot of violence out here,” Muhammad said. “But after hearing this … No one deserves to die like that.”
Another man at the memorial, Alex Flores, said he’d met the men doing kitchen work in various Chinatown restaurants. The men often spent time drinking at Kimlau Square, he said.
“The park is supposed to be a place of recreation, to relax,” Flores said. “And then this is what happened to them.”
“They were jolly old men living in misery. That’s the best way to describe them,” Muhammad added. “They had issues in life, [but] everybody’s got problems to deal with.”
While those three victims haven’t yet been identified, police identified the fourth victim as Cheun Kok, 83. Kok had been a fixture in Chinatown for more than a decade, Community Board 3 member Karlin Chan said.
“Everybody in the community walks by, they bring him a little food, a little something to drink, coffee or something,” said Chan, who brought white carnations to pass out. “This is just really disturbing.”
Chinatown resident Manni Lee said she used to go to the same church as Kok. She and other residents had often offered him support and help accessing resources, she recalled.
“At some point, he was very clear [that] that was going to be his spot, and we can always find him there,” Lee said of the location where Kok was killed. “I read the paper early in the morning [on Saturday], and I knew it was him.”
“He’s always been a really kind person,” she added.
Also at the vigil were politicians including Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn), whose district includes Chinatown, and Comptroller Scott Stringer, both of whom denounced the lack of affordable housing in New York City.
Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday said the city would send mental health outreach teams to the area where the attacks happened, in addition to stepping up police presence.
The city’s Homeless Outreach & Mobile Engagement Street Action Teams, meanwhile, will bolster their outreach efforts in the neighborhood, he said.
“What happened over the weekend shakes the conscience of who we are as New Yorkers,” de Blasio said in a statement. “We are sending experts to the neighborhood to provide support during this difficult time, and will continue to assess how to prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future.”
Attendee Jean Rice, an original board member of Picture the Homeless — an advocacy organization led by homeless people — maintained Saturday’s tragedy was “the result of the administration’s emphasis on building a shelter-industrial complex instead of permanent housing.”
“When you have so many homeless people frustrated about their homeless dilemma on the streets of New York at the same time,” he said, “the frustrations diminish the sanctity of human life.”