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Flushing Meadows homeless battle hunger together

On a recent Friday Catholic Charities counselor John Waterman stepped out of his van and into the rain on Avery Avenue, the graffiti- covered corridor leading to an entrance of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

By Alexander Dworkowitz

Fifth in a series

On a recent Friday Catholic Charities counselor John Waterman stepped out of his van and into the rain on Avery Avenue, the graffiti- covered corridor leading to an entrance of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

Waterman approached recycling machines underneath an overhang of the Western Beef market, a gathering place for homeless who live in the area, and slung a bag of bagels onto hidden pieces of cardboard piled on top of the machines.

“They really don’t want anything from anyone,” said Waterman, a member of Catholic Charities Homeless Outreach Team. “They make a decision to withdraw from society.”

Waterman left the bagels for a homeless man who sleeps above the machines. The man was one of more than 500 people to whom Waterman and his colleagues bring food every week in Queens. A large portion of those people live in Flushing Meadows, a population which has grown since Sept. 11 as a result of an influx of Latin American immigrants.

In recent years, tensions have grown between the Latin American immigrants and the homeless who have lived in the park for a longer period of time, most of whom are not Hispanic, an observer familiar with the park’s homeless said.

Last week five Latin American men living in the park were arraigned on charges of raping, kidnapping and threatening to kill a 42-year-old woman, who was assaulted on the ramp between the Long Island Railroad Shea Stadium stop and the No. 7 subway stop in Flushing Meadows with a male friend.

Following the attack, city Parks Department workers and police officers cleared a shantytown in the park just north of the Long Island Rail Road tracks where authorities said the gang rape occurred.

Faced with periodic sweeps by law enforcement officials, the homeless who live in the park have learned how to make their shelters almost invisible.

At the bottom of one footbridge, a makeshift shelter of wooden boards is tucked in between the metal beams. The boards are painted green, camouflaged into the bottom of the bridge, and can only be seen up close.

Although situated a short walk from the LIRR trains thundering by, the shack in which last week’s rape occurred was so well hidden that it took police hours to find it.

Several years ago, Waterman opened a grating imbedded in one of the bridges of the Van Wyck Expressway, which runs on the park’s eastern edge, only to find nearly 50 people living inside.

The makeshift shelters also help to protect the homeless during the winter.

“It gets cold,” said Joseph Hervey, one of the homeless men who live in the park, “but you get used to it.”

Born and raised in Maspeth, Hervey moved to Flushing in 1970 when he got married. He lived near Flushing Meadows on Franklin Avenue. When times got tough, Hervey said, he moved into the park eight years ago.

Hervey is one of dozens of the park’s homeless who receive food from the Catholic Charities workers, operating under the name Builders for the Family and Youth and funded by the Diocese of Brooklyn.

Catholic Charities, however, does not distribute sandwiches, noodles and clothing to the homeless simply to help their hunger and keep them warm.

“We’re establishing a rapport,” Waterman said.

Waterman explained that he and other counselors have earned the trust of many of the homeless. The group uses that trust to try and persuade them to seek help.

The homeless also approach the group directly, walking into Catholic Charities Jamaica office for assistance.

Every year the counselors get dozens of Queens homeless off the streets, Waterman said.

“It happens all the time when they want it to happen,” Waterman said. “If you want help, you can get it.”

But many others do not turn to the group.

“You have the type that accept our services and you have the type that hide from us,” Waterman said. “And there are more that hide from us.”

How many people live in Flushing Meadows depends on the season. One Parks Department worker who is stationed in Flushing Meadows estimated nearly 100 men and women live in the park in the summer.

“Every year it’s bigger and bigger, more and more,” the worker said.

Albert Niedzwieski, who lives in an apartment on Fowler Avenue and spends time with the homeless, said about 30 people currently make Flushing Meadows their home, but Waterman put that number closer to 60.

The homeless of Flushing Meadows survive by keeping an eye out for one another.

“They struggle, but they help each other,” Niedzwieski said.

Niedzwieski said, however, he was worried about a homeless friend of his, whom he usually sees on a daily basis.

“I haven’t seen him in a couple of days,” Niedzwieski said. “I don’t know what happened to him.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.

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