Gurney's Inn
August 15, 2007

Homeless Campgrounds: Skip Cleans Up "Mess"

Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney surveys the scene as town highway department employees remove dumpsters full of garbage from the Hampton Bays woods. (click for larger version)
Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney moved swiftly to break up a Hampton Bays homeless camp after a series of break-ins at nearby homes were reported.

It was only one day after an article in The Independent last week outlined the supervisor's plan for tackling the issue of homeless individuals living in the Hampton Bays woods that Heaney was at the site before 8 a.m., supervising highway crew workers as they demolished campsites and removed dumpsters brimming with garbage and waste.

At the supervisor's direction, the highway department was at the scene behind the Hampton Bays Diner early Thursday morning for the demolition of an abandoned trailer and the cleanup of piles of debris littering the "campsites" and the woods.

Highway department vehicles pulled a trailer from its hiding spot amongst piles of debris and crushed it into shattered pieces. As blankets and bedding, pillows and other accoutrements of a nomadic life showered to the ground to be scooped up into dumpsters, a bystander murmured, "There goes the living room."

Highway crews continued throughout the morning, sweeping piles of beer cans and bottles, canned food containers, toilet paper and a seemingly endless stream of garbage bags from the woods.

Heaney was acting in direct response from residents who expressed fear and outrage after a number of Hampton Bays homes were apparently robbed by homeless individuals.

An investigation resulted in the arrest of seven suspects, immigration status unknown, who had been found to be living in a camp on LIPA property.

"People feel threatened, and I understand that," said Heaney on Thursday as he watched the trailer being destroyed. "I have to respond to the community at large."

After an article in The Independent chronicled the events, protestors took to the streets in Hampton Bays, demanding, "Skip, Clean Up This Mess."

But even as they picketed, the supervisor was already working to find a solution to the problem. Even before the protestors organized on Saturday Heaney had taken a solitary tour of the Hampton Bays woods the night before. Heading out at around approximately 6 p.m. on a Friday night, Heaney spent the next two hours walking the trails – and what he found was eye-opening.

Not only were there campsites, complete with open fires, bedding, and living-room type areas on both town-owned and LIPA property, but there was garbage. Piles and piles of garbage, much of it located in one area where the supervisor surmised homeless individuals heading out to work dumped their trash every day. "Not only did they have their own city – they had their own landfill," he said.

Initially, protestors were incensed by the comments made at the time by Heaney, who said that not all homeless individuals are criminals. And, he added, if an effort is made to "sweep" the homeless from where they are living in the woods, many will simply move, making it even more difficult for police and those reaching out to help them. The supervisor added that he didn't deem it appropriate to single out one segment of the mixed homeless population, such as Latinos.

But last week, after residents and protestors complained about the situation and expressed fears for public safety, Heaney took immediate action.

The supervisor said he had written to LIPA about the camp located on its property, asking them to address the problem. Meanwhile, LIPA had the court act on a trespass complaint and hired a contractor who brought in equipment and removed all remnants, "save for the occasional joint wrapper, from the property," said Heaney.

The supervisor then went on his own to the woods, walking through the area north and south of the tracks "to survey the extent of the homeless population."

He also stopped at a number of residences to speak with constituents directly about the problem but found no one at home.

Most disturbing, said Heaney, was finding a "huge pile of plastic bags filled with household-type waste on town property behind Friendly's, and a refuse-strewn old trailer on CPF property located east and south of the diner."

Heaney also intends to notify the New York State Department of Transportation that two white men, "possibly homeless, but possibly not," have set up camp on state land, probably without a camping permit. He will request the state to act to remove all possible violations.

The supervisor plans to inform the owner of the medical center property that a campsite with three tarp tents is located in an abandoned sand pit at the rear of the property. He said it should be removed for public safety reasons.

Once again walking the woods on Thursday morning, Heaney explained that behind Friendly's there is land that was conveyed to the town as part of the site plan approval process; the land was added to the town's park holdings. "Although it doesn't look like a park right now," he commented.

One encampment Heaney discovered was hidden from view in a deep, canyon-like hollow far into the woods. The campsite hosted a number of tents, some of which had bags hanging from trees – most likely to keep food away from animals – and sported open fire pits and a living room area built into the side of the soil embankment. "It's a subculture," said the supervisor. Examining the site, he added, "Note the American flag."

Other campsites on LIPA property, now removed, had been camouflaged from view, despite the fact that they were only feet from nearby homes.

Although Heaney had initially seen bicycles on his first tour of the area, their absence indicated that many living in the woods had gone out to seek work.

Heaney believes that many of those living in the woods, possibly Latinos, had no desire to assimilate into the culture. "They're here by choice," he said. "They set up on the cheap and live here in the woods."

Those individuals, he said, were most likely living in tents to save money that they would then send home to relatives. Check-cashing operations, he said, helped to facilitate that process, so that illegal immigrants can exist "under the radar."

Southampton Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi has also spoken out on the homeless who were recently arrested for robbery. The bigger picture, said Nuzzi, relates to the immigration status of those arrested, an issue he believes "the federal government should be dealing with. It's time we took a tough stance."

The councilman wants to be very clear: "It's our responsibility to deal with legal residents and their plights and problems. It's time that we impress upon our federal officials that if we come in contact with someone in this country illegally, even under unfortunate circumstances, we are going to notify immigration and custom enforcement."

Nuzzi added, "Those who are illegal and, in particular, dangerous, and have proven themselves to be criminals – deport them. Enough with everyone skirting the issue."

At the end of the morning, Lance Aldrich, Southampton Town's Deputy Superintendent of Highways, reported to the supervisor that already his crew had filled two 30-yard containers and removed 90-120 cubic yards of raw garbage; three campsites were ripped out as well. The crew planned to return on Friday to continue the process.

"I want to convey to the residents that we are not ignoring this," he said.

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