Homeless have little choice in winter

This story is a reminder that being homeless is not a crime. It is also an example of why we should not continue to manage homelessness but work to end homelessness. It would be wonderful if the city endorsed the Passaic County Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness and encouraged permanent, affordable and supportive housing for the homeless. Share your comments.

Homeless have little choice in winter
Saturday, March 10, 2007

By MEREDITH MANDELL
HERALD NEWS

PASSAIC — It’s bitter cold and Tadeusz Zawistowski has no place to go and sleeps on a cardboard box beneath a Route 21 overpass.

Zawistowski, 59, , along with his 11-year-old pit-bull “Killer” are well-known faces among the city’s homeless population.

On most days, Zawistowski, also known as Ted Stack, with his curly white beard is easily mistaken for Santa Claus and can be found reading a Polish newspaper or feeding the birds along Main Avenue. While some people might fear his scruffy appearance, many residents say he is gentle-natured and they often stop by to say hello and offer him cigarettes or dog biscuits for Killer.

When police ticketed Zawistowski in January for “obstructing the sidewalk for placing blankets and boxes on the ground,” according to the complaint, some locals came to his defense in Municipal Court. Zawistowski’s friends say he has refused to enter a homeless shelter in another city because he does not want to leave Passaic or his beloved dog.

This was not the first time, Zawistowski, a native of Poland who says he once drove a tractor-trailer rig, was ticketed. In May of 2006, police had written him a $150 ticket, calling his cart a “nuisance,” said Grace Wolfe, a parishioner Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. She began to cry when she recalled finding Zawistowski’s cart, which held all his possessions, emptied in a recycling dump. All his precious mementos — childhoods pictures, souvenirs from trips — were lost amidst a heap of garbage.

Residents and homeless advocates say Zawistowski is one of an increasingly visible homeless population that the city leaves to flounder in a dilemma.

City police officers often shoo and ticket them for living on the sidewalks, but yet there is no overnight municipal shelter in the city where they can seek refuge.

While the area was hit with several nights of subfreezing temperatures, it was not known whether there had been reports of people suffering from exposure or hypothermia. In January, a homeless man was found dead in the front seat of his car in Paterson. The cause of death was listed as a heart attack and hypothermia.

“They are not dealing with the problem by just ticketing them and moving them from one place to another,” Wolfe said as she got coffee for Zawistowski at a local Quick Check.

Several other homeless people interviewed at the Salvation Army food pantry on Main Avenue told similar stories of harassment from police officers.

“Tickets, no shelter. I am a Vietnam vet and I am walking on the street,” said one man who did not want to reveal his name because of fears of police retaliation, while eating a free lunch at the Salvation Army Thursday morning.

Deputy Police Chief Matthew Paz said officers assist the homeless in providing transportation to shelters in Paterson, but some of them refuse to go inside. Officers are instructed to ticket the homeless if their behavior is hazardous, he said.

“We do not allow them to block the sidewalk with setting up shopping carts or cardboard boxes because it’s forcing people to walk around into the street on Main Avenue, which could jeopardize traffic safety,” he said Friday.

The Salvation Army once operated the city’s only homeless shelter in the basement of a church until the Fire Department cited officials for several building code violations. The facility was forced to shut down in 1996.

Keith Furlong, a spokesman for Mayor Samuel Rivera, rejected the perception that the city administration is inattentive to the homeless issue. The city made an attempt to buy a building to start a homeless shelter on Wall Street four years ago, but the deal fell through when the owner sold the building to another buyer, Furlong said.

“In a city that is a 3.2-square-mile area, it’s difficult to locate the property for a shelter,” he said.

Reach Meredith Mandell at 973-569-7100.

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