Just hours before police arrested 43-year-old homeless veteran Eric Cherry in the beating death of a Long Island City activist 15 blocks away, the Department of Homeless Services raided his former shelter mates at the Borden Avenue Veterans Residence.
At 9 p.m. on Sept. 3, numerous residents said, more than two dozen uniformed DHS agents entered the facility and rummaged through lockers and rooms. Residents complained the agents, apparently focused on illegal drug use, treated them roughly and violated their privacy.
At 10:30 p.m., Cherry allegedly attacked 65-year-old Nicholas Nowillo on Crescent Street while he was helping a neighbor from her car to her door, police said. Nowillo died from his injuries, and Cherry was arrested later that night, police said.
A DHS spokeswoman confirmed that agents performed a locker search at the shelter after receiving complaints of drug use.
"You couldn't even stay there while they searched your stuff," said Air Force veteran Samuel Nales, 48, of the raid. "They came here like everybody was a felon."
"They tore my room up, they took my bed," said Anthony Smith, 52, noting he had been banned from the shelter for a week. Smith claimed agents banned him after finding pain killers he kept for a sore shoulder.
"I just came from Puerto Rico," said 31-year-old Rafael Mediavilla, who was also banned for a week. "Where am I supposed to go?"
Navy veteran Previn Sanders, 38, a resident of the shelter for nine weeks, said agents came in and destroyed a $1,200 laptop he was using.
"No one should be treated the way we were treated," he said, although he noted that he had signed a statement acknowledging he would be subject to searches when he first signed into the shelter.
"When I got there, there were one or two guys who were using or selling drugs. They didn't go [specifically] into the troublemakers' cubes," he said, referring to the drug users.
Sanders believes the treatment of veterans at the shelter contributed to Cherry's behavior that night, though he said Cherry left the shelter several weeks before the raid.
"He was a very quiet, very well-behaved guy," Sanders said. "He just reached his breaking point, I guess."
Sanders and several other veterans took their grievances to last Thursday's Community Board 2 meeting, where members were shocked to learn of the raid.
"I've never heard anything like this," said Gert McDonald, who serves on Community Board 2's advisory council to the veterans residence. "They don't want us down there, and now I know why."
Responding to Sanders' implication that conditions at the shelter contributed to Cherry's alleged act of murder, Marvin Jeffcoat, chairman of CB 2's Veterans' Affairs Committee, reminded the veterans that mistreatment at the hands of a city agency was not an excuse to lash out.
"Remember the oath you took to this country," he said.
Jeffcoat said that since ICL has taken over day-to-day operations at the shelter, the company has proposed establishing a community advisory board selected by the company, effectively shutting out CB 2's advisory committee, which has operated for more than a decade.
"If they're not going to allow us to meet down at the shelter and serve in the oversight role we initially had, then we should request DHS void their contract or not renew it," Jeffcoat said.
The shelter has a long history of problems. U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) toured the facility in April 2007, finding little out of order during his surprise visit.
But the shelter closed in August 2007 after elected officials called on the city to investigate numerous allegations of violence, drugs and mistreatment of visitors to the shelter.
During the three-month renovation, DHS transformed it from a 410-bed, all-male shelter to a 243-bed, co-ed facility with private rooms.
Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jwalsh@tim
©2008 Community News Group
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