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For homeless of Flushing Meadows, cold weather brings crime

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As the winter drags on, long nights mean the continual search for blankets, food and clothing for the homeless of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

But in recent years, cold weather has also forced the dozens of homeless who inhabit the park to live with violence.

To those familiar with the park, Flushing Meadows becomes a significantly more dangerous place during times of colder weather.

"It's a winter thing," said John Waterman, an employee of Catholic Charities, who counsels the homeless who live in the park. "As weather conditions worsen, unless people frequent the park and leave their bottles and cans, the homeless are left fighting over nickles."

Crime in Flushing Meadows has recently become a hot topic. Both Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-Corona) have called for a stronger police presence in the park.

The recent push for security in the park following the brutal rape of a 42-year-old woman in December.

The woman and her male friend were assaulted on a ramp leading from the park to the No. 7 subway stop at about 9 p.m., according to authorities. She was then dragged to a shantytown by the Long Island Rail Road tracks and repeatedly raped before being rescued by police, authorities said.

Luis Carmona, 20; Victor Cruz, 22; Jose Hernandez, 18; Carlos Rodriguez, 22, and Aramando Juvenal, 20, have been charged with rape, sodomy, kidnapping, robbery in connection with the attack and are awaiting trial.

The attack was not the first violent incident to involve the area's homeless.

In December 2001, Jose Rojas, a homeless man was severely beaten with a baseball bat just west of the park, only to die three days later. Another homeless man, Ricardo Rivera, pleaded guilty to the crime and is serving a manslaughter sentence of 13 years.

While the New York Police Department releases figures on crime rates in the 110th Precinct, which encompasses Flushing Meadows, the USTA National Tennis Center and Shea Stadium, police statistics on trends in the park itself were not readily available.

Kathleen Newhook, who lived in Flushing Meadows for eight years, said the violence centered around desperate conditions in the park during the winter.

Many of the park's homeless receive welfare and food stamps, which they use to help survive. But over the 1990s, the population of illegal immigrants who live in the park has grown.

The immigrants recycle cans and eat leftover food from Shea Stadium during the warmer months to get by, said Newhook, who is currently recovering from a broken ankle in the hospital. But in the winter, the park is empty and cans are hard to come by, she said.

"I said something was about to happen. I was right," Newhook said. "When winter comes, the cans are scarce and people go crazy."

All of the rape suspects except Carmona entered the country illegally, according to the Queens district attorney. In the December 2001 murder, Rivera not only illegally entered the country from Mexico but had actually been deported twice before beating Rojas to death, the district attorney said.

Newhook said she thought the park had grown more dangerous in recent years.

While he was hesitant to say Flushing Meadows becomes more treacherous in the winter, Monserrate said patrols of the park are less frequent during the colder months.

"There's much more activity in the summer," he said. "There's more patrols in the summer. That might have an impact."

Monserrate said he has been lobbying for a full-fledged precinct, not just a substation, for Flushing Meadows since June.

"It's huge park, and this park needs permanently assigned personnel," he said. "Central Park has its own precinct, and so should we."

Part of the problem with patrolling the park is that it falls under several different jurisdictions, Monserrate said. The park itself is within the Corona-based 110th Precinct. But many of the homeless live underneath the Van Wyck Expressway at the western edge of the park, the border of the Flushing-based 109th Precinct.

While officers with the Parks Enforcement Patrol, run by the city Parks Department, monitor Flushing Meadows itself, the agency does not enter the area by the railroad tracks, which is run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Officers with the 109th and 110th precincts could not be reached for comment.

While the recent rape has made headlines, most crimes in and around the park involve thefts and burglaries, Waterman said.

"You can see cars with busted windows all around the outside of the park," he said.

Very often, however, the homeless are not the perpetrators of crimes. Many living in the park are targeted by thieves, who look to steal what little they have, Waterman said.

"I am not saying they are perfect," Waterman said. "But more often than not the homeless are victims of crimes."

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718 229-0300 Ext. 141.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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