July 25, 2007
Out Of The Woods And Into Their Homes
Suffolk Road in Hampton Bays is a pretty street. The lawns are kept trimmed, carefully tended flowerbeds splash vivid colors against the greenery. Modest ranch houses are well maintained and clean.
If Suffolk Road is a classic example of the American Dream, less than a half mile away, in the woods abutting the railroad tracks, one finds the American nightmare. Insects buzz around a bucket that looks to be filled with human waste, testament to humans existing at the barest level. Piles and piles of garbage – tin cans and a multitude of beer bottles – litter the forest floor. A man lies sleeping in a tent set in the middle of a small trash-filled clearing. In another, two men eat sitting on the ground, smoke from their fire twisting up from debris that surrounds a lean-to tarp. Several hundred feet away, cement is used to make another outdoor cooking area. Nearby, still another filthy site harbors a decrepit popup trailer, its contents, and more trash spilling out and around it.
In all, The Independent found five separate campsites in an area of the woods behind just four Montauk Highway properties at the end of Route 24. According to Lieutenant John James of the Southampton Town Police, those sites are but a section of an "entire city" that runs along the tracks from West Tiana Road to Ponquogue Avenue.
As The Independent reported in its Homeless in the Hamptons series in 2005, the woods have served as a shelter to a hidden segment of society for several years. On Sunday Officer Mike Burns said the department has traditionally received few complaints about the inhabitants of the woods. Incidents most often involve woods dwellers filing complaints about other campers.
In fact, a resident of the Woodbridge community which is just over the railroad tracks from several encampments was unaware of the lives that lived under the trees. "I see deer, but no people," she said, adding, "I've never had any problem here. I feel sorry for them."
Although the homeless population has long been known to reside in the Hampton Bays woods, this year, say many, the problem has grown. Tents are larger and more visible than in years past. And the problems of the squatters camping on land owned by the Long Island Power Authority and areas adjacent to the train tracks are starting to spill into neighboring residential communities.
Last week bold crimes on Suffolk Road resulted in the arrest of seven immigrants found living in the woods. According to Burns, squatters walk along the tracks to get to Springville Road and downtown Hampton Bays. On the morning of July 17, one walked right into Joanne Hanges' fenced property.
An avid gardener, she'd gone out into her Cora Court backyard to water her tomatoes early that morning. Checking a fig tree for fruit, she noticed what looked like worms in the grass. Closer inspection revealed noodles and empty cup-o-soup containers. "I thought someone was throwing garbage in my yard
. . . and then I saw his feet." A man curled in the fetal position was sleeping in a tiny space between hedges and a tall fence.
Hanges sprinted to the house to call the police and a neighbor. As she stood at her window, she saw the intruder move toward the house and try to get into her basement. She shrieked at him and he bolted over the fence into Gene Majagnoli's yard.
A houseguest in the Majagnoli house was having coffee at the dining room table when she heard a rustling at the other end of the house. She called out and heard a door slam. "When I got home I saw the screen was down and I thought my wife had taken it down. Then I saw it was cut," Majagnoli said.
As the investigation progressed, police learned that two more houses on Suffolk Road had been targeted. Clothing, jewelry and a digital camera were among the proceeds. The burglars apparently had a penchant for panties. A lacy thong was found in one yard and a random bra was left in Majagnoli's house. It belongs to neither his wife nor daughter. It appears the thief or thieves stopped to pop corn in another abode and may have broken a pool filter cap.
By the end of the day, cops had seven homeless immigrants in custody. They found them in a camp on the LIPA property along the tracks. Charges ran the gamut from felony burglary and criminal possession of stolen property to false personation and trespassing on LIPA property. Jorge Canal, 24, was charged with three counts of burglary, plus felony criminal possession of stolen property. Cops say he fought with officers trying to make the arrest earning counts of resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration.
Mario Casare, 31, was also charged with felony possession and resisting arrest. He, too, garnered a resisting arrest charge. Isreal Amaya faces a count of felony possession of stolen property. Four other suspects face minor violations of trespass and littering.
Lt. James explained that some of the suspects were charged criminally "because we don't know who they are." Referrals were made to federal officials in an effort to determine the suspects' immigration status.
On Suffolk Road Sunday, one resident said she's lived in the quiet neighborhood 40 years. She's seen a change recently, with more foreign pedestrians and now, the crime spree. "I don't want to scare people unnecessarily, but there's something to be feared here," she said. Asking to remain anonymous, she continued, "Last night I was awakened at 3:30 in the morning by voices," she said. Peering out the window she saw a group of men walking down the middle of the street, conversing loudly in Spanish. The group wasn't rowdy, just loud, she emphasized.
Majagnoli's neighbor was lucky to lose only several hours' sleep. He hasn't slept since the break-in. Neither has Hanges. She's afraid to be alone at night and has asked a male neighbor to bunk at her house. She's thinking of installing a home security system.
So is Majagnoli. Enraged, the year-round resident called the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. He's thinking about beginning a petition drive to demand that authorities "take more action against these animals."
This week local authorities appeared disinclined to take further action. Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney recalled a front-page story in another local weekly about the homeless campers that led to a public outcry urging officials to roust the squatters and remove the camps. Police are pragmatic about the situation, Heaney said. Moved from one site, the population will simply find another area in the woods to roost, making it more difficult for police and advocacy groups to keep track of the population. The supervisor doesn't feel it's appropriate to single out one segment of the mixed homeless population, such as Latinos.
Councilman Chris Nuzzi, however, spoke to the immigration status of the arrestees. It's time government took a tough stance on illegal immigration, he said. If the homeless are legal residents of the United States, there are countywide programs, as well as assistance from charitable and not-for-profit organizations available.
Southampton Town Chief Fire Marshal and Public Safety Administrator Cheryl Kraft said it's important to distinguish between those who are committing crimes and those who are "just down on their luck and still working," but unable to afford housing. Those individuals can suffer from a sweep if they are "forced to leave a place where they felt safe." Many people, said Kraft, have preconceived notions about the homeless, believing all are criminals. "Are they perceptions or are they reality?" she asked rhetorically. "There is no easy answer."
Beyond preconceived notions about the homeless, residents of Suffolk Road are also grappling with preconceived notions about Hampton Bays' burgeoning Latino population.
Since the break-in, when Majagnoli sees Latino men walking on his street, he said, he wants to stop them and demand identification. But, he noted that some Latino families have purchased homes on Suffolk Road, too. Majagnoli acknowledged it could be his own neighbors he sees walking, not squatters from the woods with nefarious intent.
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