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Mean Streets

Roving gangs of kids target Albany’s most vulnerable citizens

Joe Putrock

For 12 years, Dean has been as much a part of Lark Street’s landscape as the broken Key Bank clock on the corner of Lark and Central Avenue.

For anyone who’s lived in Albany’s Center Square or Hudson Park neighborhoods, he’s instantly recognizable. He’s the scruffy guy with the goatee beard, who looks something like a middle-aged sailor retired to the streets of Albany. He’s as likely to greet you with a theatrical bow as he is to stride past you with a glower. Some people may call him a “bum” or “homeless,” though right now he does have an apartment in the Hudson Park neighborhood. But to most people, he’s just Dean. He goes about his business, and the other residents of the neighborhood go about theirs. But it seems that lately, Dean’s routine has been interrupted—not by neighborhood do-gooders or business people trying to move him along, but by groups of young boys who have pegged him as an easy target.

“I’m not safe on Lark Street anymore,” Dean told Metroland this week, when he showed up at the paper’s reception desk with a swollen eye and a red bruise on his cheek. He said that just an hour and a half earlier—sometime between noon and 1 PM on Monday—he was assaulted by a couple of young boys who told him they’d be back to get him again later.

“They said, ‘Are you Dean?’ Then he puts his hand out like this, like he’s my friend,” Dean said, and gestured as if to shake hands. “Then he punches me.”

Dean said police arrived on the scene shortly afterward, but that they didn’t take his complaint seriously and refused to take a report.

“They talked to him for less than a minute,” said Dean’s friend Luke Janusz, who witnessed the attack. “Then they left. Two young black men, 11 to 13 years old, shake his hand, then punch him in the face. Then threaten to snuff him.”

Last week, Dean said, a group of teenagers followed him down the street throwing rocks at him; two weeks ago, two Metroland employees watched as Dean was chased down the street by a group of young men throwing batteries at him and threatening him. Dean says that not long ago, he was beaten on Lark Street, right down the hill from Central Avenue. He said he’s been trying to get help from the police, but that he’s not being taken seriously because of his reputation as an alcoholic and a street person.

Albany Police Department spokesman Detective Jim Miller was not aware of any specific complaints made by Dean, and he said it might be difficult to track down exactly what happened to Dean on Monday. However, he said, the APD does take all complaints seriously.

“If there was any visual mark or anything . . . that gave the idea that he had been beaten up or assaulted, the officers would have, I’m sure, taken a report or looked into it,” he said.

But Dean and Janusz say that the streets have not been particularly kind lately, and they are genuinely worried—for themselves and for their friends. “It’s not just me,” Dean insisted. “A lot of my friends get assaulted too. Not just bums, either.”

Janusz said he was attacked by a group of young black men on Philip Street in the Mansion neighborhood recently, and when the police finally arrived, they “blew it off. They didn’t even ask the questions they would normally ask.” In his case, Janusz said, the officers implied that he was an alcoholic and therefore brought his problems on himself.

“So what if it’s just an alcoholic?” Janusz demanded. “They’re OK to be assaulted? Just because they suffer from a chronic disease? . . . If people are suffering from their disease, why should the police come and say, ‘You did this to yourself?’ ”

According to Donna DeMaria, director of Albany’s Homeless Action Committee—which operates an outreach van and a 30-unit, single-room-occupancy shelter on Pearl Street—alcoholics and the homeless are easy targets for harassment and assault. Last June, she said, one of HAC’s residents was so badly beaten by a group of kids that he was hospitalized in critical condition at Albany Medical Center.

Albany police also investigated several other beatings of alcoholics and homeless men last summer, including one that took place on Broadway near the Palace Theatre, where a homeless man was badly beaten with rocks by four young men. In a separate incident investigated by police, two young men ganged up on a homeless man on Madison Avenue near Washington Park.

“You just have to look at incidents around the country, with homeless people being set on fire and dying—people just lighting a match to them while they’re sleeping,” DeMaria said. “This kind of thing should be taken seriously. As far as somebody like Dean, who lives out on the street some of the time and has a drinking problem and doesn’t want to get help, what can you do? You can’t make somebody get help if they don’t want it. But it doesn’t mean people have the right to beat people up. That doesn’t mean the police and people shouldn’t take it seriously.”

She said that HAC outreach workers recently witnessed an incident in which Dean was chased down Lark Street by two dozen kids. “I think it was on Friday,” she said. “They saw about 25 kids that Dean was, like, hiding from in one of the stores on Lark Street, and . . . I think the store owner locked the door so the kids
couldn’t get in. The kids were yelling to get him to open up the door.”

The police came, she said, and talked with the “ringleader” of the kids, but
“didn’t do much else.” She said that the outreach workers took Dean with them in the HAC van because “the outreach worker felt that if they didn’t move Dean from that area, he could have been seriously hurt.”

On Wednesday morning, Dean was strolling down Washington Avenue near the corner of Lark. He looked like he had bounced back from Monday’s attack, as he greeted the occasional friendly passerby with good-humored, “Hi, BooBoo.” When told his story was going to appear on Thursday in Metroland, however, he seemed a little concerned: “Are the police gonna be pissed at me now?”

—Erin Sullivan

Have It Our Way

UAlbany students demand more say in decisions to alter student meal plans

Will Waldron

A number of University at Albany students have shown fierce opposition to a proposed change in their meal plans that would close all four dining halls in the residential dorms on Friday and Saturday nights, limiting students’ on-
campus dinner options to the university’s Campus Center.

The University Auxiliary Services, a nonprofit corporation that has a contract with the university to provide services for students, was to vote on this proposal two weeks ago, but the meeting was interrupted by a group of angry, protesting students.

“We are upset because they don’t communicate well with us,” said Dan Fingerman, a sophomore. “No one found out about this until is was on the front page of the ASP [the Albany Student Press]. We, the students, have very little input in these decisions that affect our lives, and we want to be heard.”

As a result of the protest, UAS decided to hold off on its vote until it received more input from students. In an open meeting on Tuesday night, close to 50 students showed up to voice their concerns about the new plan and express their anger that they were not informed of the decision to change things sooner. Representatives of UAS and Chartwells, the organization that provides food services on campus, explained to the students its “Upscale Campus Dining Program” and opened the floor for comments.

“We have proposed this plan based on the feedback we have received from a number of students,” said Julia Filippone, executive director of UAS. “If we find out that this is something that you do not want, then we will not go forth with it. That is why we are all here tonight.”

Filippone said that the university feeds up to 3,000 students in its four dining halls during the weekdays, but that number drops down to 1,400 on the weekends.

“We simply don’t need that number of cafeterias open to feed that number of people,” said Filippone.

If the new dining plan is approved, students could use their meal plan at vendors in the Campus Center, which include Pizza Hut, Burger King and Campbell’s soup. It would also provide an all-you-can-eat buffet, and there is a possibility that the campus will contract with local restaurants to come into the Campus Center.

A number of students raised concerns about the already-long lines in the Campus Center, as well as the walk to the center from the dorms in the winter. Not all students were against the new plan, however. Jonathon Hojnacki, a sophomore, said that he is tired of the same, old selection of food offered in the dining halls. The new plan, he said, would provide some welcome variety, especially if the university contracts with new outside vendors.

But for many who attended Tuesday’s meeting, the real issue had little to do with where they will eat dinner on the weekends; rather it was with wanting to have more of say in how these types of decisions get made.

“We need to show them that the decisions they make affect the students and that the students’ voices will not be silenced,” said sophomore Maryam Amid. “If we stand together and demand what we want, they can’t continue the closed-door policy to their meetings. They will be forced to work with us.”

For two years, students have been requesting that the UAS board meetings be open to the public. In fact, Tony Gray, a senior at the university, filed a lawsuit against UAS for violating the New York state Open Meetings Law. The case is still pending.

As it stands now, the UAS board comprises eight students, six administrators, five faculty members and one alumna, all of whom have an equal vote.

Filippone said that UAS is not a state agency, therefore it is not required to have open board meetings.

“We have a good representation of students on the board,” said Filippone, “Eight out of 20 are students, and they are student-government leaders. I think they have a responsibility to get information to their constituents and bring that information back to the board.”

But many students disagree.

“If they have nothing to hide, then why such opposition to opening up the meeting?” asked Fingerman. “If the students are all for this new meal plan, then fine. Personally, I am not, but I just want the students to have an input in UAS decisions, and that is really all that we are advocating for.”

The UAS board will vote tomorrow (Friday) on the new meal plan.

—Nancy Guerin

All Cleaned Out

Only two weeks to go before New York state’s Superfund program is officially bankrupt

An alarming internal memo from the state Department of Environmental Conservation dated Dec. 7, 2001, confirmed what many environmental advocates have feared for quite some time: If it’s not refinanced, the New York state Superfund program will cease to exist by April 1.

Kathy Curtis, outreach director of Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, said that the memo shows how the bankruptcy of the Superfund—the state program that facilitates the cleanup of toxic-waste sites—is crippling the DEC’s ability to act on toxic-dump cleanups, investigate new Superfund sites, and even protect people’s drinking water.

Refinancing of the state Superfund has been stalled for years, with Gov. George Pataki and the state Assembly in sharp disagreement over the funding formula and attempts by Pataki to make Superfund more business-friendly. The governor has proposed shifting more of the funding burden off polluters and onto the backs of taxpayers, and also lowering the site cleanup standards, ideas that have met with resistance from many legislators and environmentalists.

Curtis said that the state Superfund has been bankrupt since March 31, 2001, when $1.2 billion set aside in 1986 for cleanups was fully spent, leaving 864 sites statewide in need of environmental testing, cleanup or monitoring. The fund had enough money this past year to continue with projects that had already begun, but no money to spend on new sites.

“There was no new casting or cleanup going on last year,” said Curtis. “They were just limping along last year, and now it is about to completely die out.”

The DEC memo was drafted by Michael O’Toole, director of the Division of Environmental Remediation, and addressed to deputy commissioner Susan Taluto. The memo states that by the beginning of the coming fiscal year, the Superfund program will not have the funding needed by the DEC to support staff for Superfund projects or ongoing projects that prevent toxic material from contaminating public land and water supplies.

“Some of these sites the DEC cannot investigate or clean up,” the memo warns, “pose a significant threat to public health.”

“We knew that the Superfund was going to be bankrupt as of last March,” said Jennifer Meicht, spokeswoman for the DEC. “The governor has been proactive on that issue by proposing legislation—comprehensive legislation—which would refinance and make common-sense reforms to the programs,” said Meicht.

Meicht said that Pataki’s proposed budget bill would refinance the Superfund on an annual basis for a period of 20 years.

“The annual appropriations would be $138 million dollars,” said Meicht. “Half coming from the General Fund, which comes from tax revenues, and the other half of the $138 million would be from fees placed on industries responsible for the pollution.”

Many legislators and environmentalists are rallying behind a Superfund bill in the Assembly sponsored by Assemblyman Alexander Grannis (D-Manhattan) and a similar bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Suffolk), which would require the standards for cleanup to remain the same as they are now. The bill would also increase the fees charged to the industries responsible for pollution, which would generate $2.5 billion over a 10-year span.

“This issue has gone from being a crisis to it being on life support,” said Grannis. “I think it is incumbent upon us as public officials, and most particularly on the governor, to not let these programs die while the discussion continues about what, if any, changes in the programs are wanted or needed.”

Legislators, environmentalists and business leaders have disagreed for years over Superfund cleanup standards, liability releases and how much money taxpayers and companies should contribute to the fund. Environmentalists are wary of Pataki’s proposal because they fear it weakens the current cleanup policy already in place; in addition, they say, it prioritizes reforming the program over refinancing it.

Curtis said that, currently, state standards for Superfund sites require a complete cleanup of the land. Sites are required to be restored, as closely as possible, to the condition they were in before they were polluted.

The governor’s proposal, Curtis said, would change the definition of what constitutes a “clean” site. It would require that land be cleaned up only to meet the standards required for its future use. For example, if a site were to be used as an industrial one in the future, it would not be held to the same stringent remediation standards as land targeted for residential or commercial use. Critics warn that this does not take into account the possibility of future changes in the use of a site, or the possibility of industrial pollution leaching onto adjacent residential property.

“If you live in a residential area near an industrial site and that is only cleaned up to industrial standards, the pollution has the potential to spread to the residential area,” said Curtis. “You don’t know what could turn up in terms of the detrimental effects of these pollutants left in the ground years later. It is a major paradigm shift from the major policy, which is ‘How clean can we make it?’ to ‘How dirty can we leave it?’ ”

—N.G.


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