The death of a homeless man there on a cold night 10 days ago has further highlighted the situation.
While most local officials agree that it can be dangerous for anyone to sleep outside when temperatures drop, they are reluctant to force the 50 or more homeless people who live near the 14th Street Viaduct to leave, as some have chronic issues such as mental illness or substance abuse that make them unwilling to seek other shelter.
A week ago Friday, a homeless man died in one of the wooden shacks behind the Doric Apartments in Union City. The body of Pedro Sierra, 63, was found in the morning by other homeless men, who contacted the Union City Police Department.
Sierra, whose last official address was at 11th Street in Union City, was found in a sleeping position with two empty liquor bottles "in close proximity" to his body, said Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio last week.
Officials were able to identify the body thanks to an older hospital bracelet worn by Sierra. According to DeFazio, the bracelet provided tentative identification but was only confirmed when compared with Sierra's fingerprints, which were on file.
DeFazio said that although his fingerprints were on file, Sierra did not have outstanding warrants or recent activity.
Anyone with knowledge of Sierra's next of kin is encouraged to call Detective Jeffrey or Wilder at Hudson County Prosecutor's Office Homicide Squad at (201) 915-1345.
Murder on the hills
According to DeFazio, Sierra's death was a "natural" one, although tests are pending by the state's Regional Medical Examiner's Office.
But in 2002, another death on the hill was not so natural. In that case, a 44-year-old homeless woman allegedly stabbed and killed an unidentified homeless man, after she was allegedly assaulted.
However, DeFazio said that deaths near the hill are not so common.
Union City Police Chief Charles Everett said there have been three deaths there in the last five years.
After that death in 2002, Union City Mayor Brian Stack told the Reporter he would start knocking down the shacks on the hill, and encouraging the residents to get into approved shelters, like the PERC homeless shelter in Union City.
At the time, PERC director Thomas Harrigan said that his shelter was already overbooked by 10 to 12 men.
However, when a homeless person goes to one of the county's three shelters and cannot get a bed, he can call the county's homeless hotline, 1-800-624-0287, to get emergency help.
In the end, Stack did not knock down any of the shacks. In a recent interview, Stack said that he "didn't have the heart" to do so.
Instead, in order to fully assess the situation, Union City officials formed an "in-house" committee for the purposes of studying the homeless problem and finding a solution for it. The committee included Harrigan from PERC and Union City building official Martin Martinetti.
Last week, Martinetti said the committee had met six times and enforced some action.
"The times we met, we decided to send police there to clear the homes and send some of the people to the mayor's office [to get help via Stack's civic association] and shelters," said Martinetti.
Chief Everett noted past methods of controlling the population.
"We tried fencing the area to no success," said Everett, "Old tactics are not going to get us to end the problem but only allows us to control problem - it's not effective for the long term."
Coincidentally, when asked about a possible future resolution, Martinetti and Harrigan both shared an idealist point of view.
"After they're vacated they just return. It's a day-to-day battle there. You would have to basically put a 24-hour guard there," said Martinetti.
"It's the symptom of a bigger problem," said Harrigan.
Harrigan said, "They have their own system down there. They have segregated areas: the drug addicts are in one area and the alcoholics in the other. They setup communities and those suffering from mental health flow back and forth between the two."
Many homeless people avoid regular shelters for a few reasons: Some do not want to be in close proximity to people with worse problems; others do not want to have to put their belongings in storage, or follow shelter rules. As Brian Poffel, director of development at PERC describes, some clients come in for warmth and a meal, and then leave.
"[Homelessness] has been a chronic issue in that [cliffs] area," said DeFazio, "but when you have wind chills at zero, it presents a very dangerous situation for persons living in these makeshift shelters."
Still at it
Chief Everett noted that police officers, even as recently as last Wednesday, routinely patrol the area and remove some of the homemade structures. They also encourage the disadvantaged to visit a shelter and seek help.
During an interview, Carol Lisk, counseling supervisor of the substance abuse program at North Hudson Community Action Corp of West New York (NHCAC), enthusiastically described the substance abuse services provided by the organization. But she quickly adapted a fatalistic tone when asked about homeless people's participation in the program.
"Trying to encourage someone to stay sober who's living in the streets is difficult," she said. "If they're homeless, that issue has to be addressed first or else there's no incentive [to seek help]. They're going to be walking out of here and sleeping outside. They have nothing else to lose; there's an absolute futility."
For more information, call PERC at (201) 348-8150, or the Hoboken Homeless Shelter at (201) 656-5069.
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