Outrage as homeless man’s camp is trashed

A sanitation worker got ready to toss Katsuyuki’s possessions into a garbage truck’s trash compactor on Feb. 11.
A sanitation worker got ready to toss Katsuyuki’s possessions into a garbage truck’s trash compactor on Feb. 11.

BY ZACH WILLIAMS |  About 10 concerned neighbors confronted police officers on Feb. 11 after the latter came to the corner of Greenwich and Barrow Sts. to remove the possessions of a homeless man who camps there.

The septuagenarian Japanese man known only by his first name, Katsuyuki, had left several grocery carts filled with possessions unattended near the intersection sometime before 1 p.m. that day. Meanwhile, as was his habit, he had gone to search for recyclables in the surrounding neighborhood, as temperatures plunged down into the teens. Police arrived soon afterward in response to a complaint from an unknown individual.

Neighbors told the group of police officers about Katsuyuki’s situation and offered to stay to watch the possessions until he returned, according to a resident named Diane who asked that her last name not be published due to fears of future harassment from police. But the officers were not deterred by the group’s efforts, she added.

A Department of Sanitation of New York garbage truck soon pulled up at the scene. The police and sanitation workers then began tossing Katsuyuki’s possessions into the truck’s trash compacter.

“I tried to save some of his things and the police grabbed them out of my hands in a very aggressive manner…. . I was only able to take a yoga mat and a coat he had in a bag,” Diane said.

According to a D.S.N.Y. spokesperson, sanitation workers did respond to a police request that day to remove shopping carts filled with bottles and cans from a location near the intersection of Barrow and Greenwich Sts. But no individuals nor personal belongings were present, the spokesperson added.

Diane provided The Villager with photos of the incident she witnessed. In one photo, a rolled mat conspicuously sits atop bags filled with unknown contents. Another photo appears to show a blanket inside a cart as well as an umbrella protruding from a bag.

Katsuyuki has been a regular presence in the area for about 10 years, according to residents. For many years he made his home closer to the intersection of Hudson and Barrow Sts., until the placement of several large planters and a Citi Bike station there. Police took some of his possessions about a year ago in a similar incident, according to residents.

Just who made the complaint resulting in the seizure of Katsuyuki’s carts on Feb. 11 remains a mystery. A spokesperson for the Church of St. Luke of the Fields — whose property is adjacent to the site — denied any involvement with the most recent incident.

D.S.N.Y. policy mandates that sanitation workers investigate a complaint, report their observations and take photos in response to such requests for cleanups, according to the spokesperson. The department contacts the city’s Department of Homeless Services in situations involving homeless people, and provides D.H.S. with its findings, the spokesperson added.

D.H.S. then reviews the case and attempts to contact the homeless individuals, in an effort to offer counseling or shelter placement, according to D.S.N.Y. After completing outreach efforts, D.H.S. then contacts D.S.N.Y and gives the O.K. for cleanup, the spokesperson said.

About six such cleanups occur each month, a number that has remained relatively steady in recent years, the D.S.N.Y. spokesperson said.

Despite his current setbacks, Katsuyuki has no plans to move into an apartment, despite offers to connect him with social services, according to the neighbor with whom he is currently staying until it gets warmer.

“Clearly, he likes the freedom, independence and challenge of camping outdoors,” the resident said in a Feb. 18 e-mail to Diane provided to The Villager.

Katsuyuki displays no visible symptoms of mental illness, according to neighborhood residents who have interacted with him over the years. He reportedly came to the U.S. in 1976, some say via Brazil, and may once have worked in a restaurant. His lack of English language skills beyond simple pleasantries further adds to his mystique.

Resident Gen Nishino said that he has enjoyed a cordial relationship with Katsuyuki over the years, and like other neighbors has offered him food and other comforts, for which the homeless man has been grateful.

“He’s a great guy, very sweet, gentle, a survivor,” Nishino said. “He’s part of the neighborhood, always smiling, always cleaning, taking care of the sidewalk.”

Katsuyuki is one of about 3,300 people who avoid the shelter system by living on city streets, according to the most recent city statistics. Many of these individuals suffer from some form of mental illness, with men and military veterans disproportionately represented. During winter months, many homeless take to the subway system to escape freezing temperatures.

The New Jersey-based Bridges Outreach is just one organization that distributes necessities like food and clothing to homeless people in Lower Manhattan.

Homeless people “stick out like a sore thumb” in the increasingly swanky West Village, according to Dan RosenHanst, the group’s outreach manager.

The organization serves about 30 to 50 homeless people at a distribution site on W. 34th St. and as many as 70 people near the South Ferry subway station, he said.

Losing one’s possessions to the police is one hazard of living on the streets, he added.

“We’ve heard that before,” he said. “It is something that happens. I don’t know how common it is. People on the streets have to worry about their stuff being taken from all types of people.”

In October 2004, in a similar story, The Villager reported how police and D.S.N.Y. had one day abruptly carted away the copious piles of possessions of Leroy Lessane, a homeless man who lived outside Tompkins Square Park.

The Ninth Precinct’s Tompkins Square lieutenant at the time told The Villager that Lessane was a major pack rat. On top of quality-of-life concerns caused by the piles of belongings, he said, at a certain point, police have to nip things in the bud or another Tent City could quickly take root in the park, as it did in the 1980s.

Constituent complaints regarding homeless people are fairly common, according to a spokesperson for Councilmember Corey Johnson, who represents the West Village. Police told his office that the complaint about Katsuyuki resulted from vermin living near his camping site, according to the spokesperson.

“With temperatures at record lows, the homeless need our help now more than ever,” Johnson said in a statement. “We’ve got to help them while balancing their needs with the needs of local residents and merchants.”