Dozens of homeless immigrants hiding in cemetery

This is an article that was referred to us by Jacob A. de Lemos about the homeless crisis in Hudson County. The full article with photos can be read by clicking here.

Jim Hague, Reporter staff writer

THROUGH THE HEADSTONES – The man makes his way through the headstones at the cemetery.
 
A 27-year-old man who would only give his name as “Eduardo” says that he has no choice but to call the Grove Church Cemetery in North Bergen, near Union City, home.

Eduardo is a native of Guatemala, but he’s an illegal immigrant who says he came to this country through Mexico and Texas, arriving in North Bergen after a family friend promised him construction work.

That was in May. The job lasted one week.

With no place left to go, Eduardo has joined a handful of friends from Guatemala who now live in the cemetery.

“I have little money,” Eduardo said last week, speaking very little English. “I have no house. I have no place to go, so I stay here.”

In fact, the burial grounds near Kennedy Boulevard and 44th Street may be hosting approximately 135 people, almost all Latino males.

Last month, a North Bergen woman was dragged into the cemetery and sexually assaulted by someone who obviously knew of the living arrangements there. While that person has not yet been found, a local church pastor told the newspaper at the time that as many as 30 or 35 people might be living there.

However, a few visits from the newspaper turned up many more.

A far corner near a fence

On a recent Friday, during a four-hour period between 1 and 5 p.m., there was an amazing scene at the graveyard: Hispanic males of all ages – carrying black plastic bags apparently filled with food – parading through the cemetery toward the far back right corner and crawling through an opening in a fence.

In fact, the reporter counted 135 separate men in the area.

One man was openly relieving himself. Another was wearing a Walkman stereo headset while lying on the grass between three headstones, sleeping.

Most were stumbling, appearing intoxicated.

An elderly Hispanic male, perhaps in his 60s, sat next to a mausoleum in his underwear, wearing no shoes or socks. He was with a younger Hispanic male who wore a New York Jets jersey and openly drank from a brown paper bag.

One after another, these men brazenly walked through the cemetery like it was their home.

In their eyes, it is.

Church giving away meals

While most entered through the cemetery, others entered through the back of a used car lot on Kennedy Boulevard, about three blocks away. But they were in the same condition as the others – disheveled, dirty, stumbling and staggering.

Rev. Douglas Shepler, the pastor of the Grove Reformed Church, which lies on the grounds of the cemetery, said that he was aware of the homeless problem. He said he had called the police and NJ Transit, who runs the nearby Light Rail station where the woman was first approached, to complain about the influx of illegal aliens.

He also has heard of a woman who was visiting a grave in the cemetery and had her necklace ripped off her neck.

However, Shepler’s church also organizes a charity food bank for the needy that is state-certified and cannot turn anyone away seeking help. It provides three meals a day for those who need them.

It appears as if the Grove Reformed Church’s generosity may have helped created a nuisance.

Police say their hands are tied

Even though Shepler insists that he called the North Bergen police, North Bergen Police Chief William Galvin insisted last week that he hadn’t heard of any reports regarding a rash of homeless people in quite some time. “Two years ago, we went into that area with our Department of Public Works and cleaned it all out,” Galvin said. “We destroyed where they were living. But within five days, they were back again.”

According to Galvin, it is difficult to arrest people if they are being peaceful. He said that the town currently has no laws against loitering in public places.

“If they’re causing a nuisance, we can chase them away, but that’s about it,” Galvin said.

Mayor Nicholas Sacco said that he had no idea that the number of vagrants had climbed so high in the area.

“It was never reported to me before,” Sacco said. “That number is astonishing. I will direct the police to do whatever they can. But how much support the police get from the federal government, that’s another story. Can you make an arrest? No, because it’s infringing on the rights of the illegal immigrants, so you’re stopped by the federal government [because it is their jurisdiction]. You call the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service], but they say the crime isn’t big enough. So we don’t know what our rights are.”

Added Sacco, “Can we check them for identification legally? Can we call INS? Can we respond to police calls? We have to find out where we legally stand and whether we’re infringing on their rights.”

Neighbors complained

But the neighbors aren’t pleased. Some have complained that the homeless have been using their outdoor water faucets to clean up in the morning. Others claim that they have been approached by drunken males who were panhandling and harassing them.

“I still believe that if the church wasn’t feeding them regularly, they wouldn’t be hanging around here,” said Walter O’Toole, who has lived near the church and cemetery for 35 years. “I think that the source of the problem is the church feeding them. They feel like it’s home because they’re being fed. It’s almost like a stray animal. If you feed the animal, it sticks around.”

Shepler also said that although the Grove Reformed Church and Grove Reformed Church Cemetery share the same name, they are two separate entities, that the cemetery is leased and run by a private cemetery association. “To help us out, they have to get some sort of security in there to try to keep them out,” he said.

However, throughout the cemetery, there are posted signs that say, “Need Help?” and give phone numbers for people to call with assistance in English and Spanish. The number refers people to the Grove Reformed Church.

The Sexual assault

The sexual assault, which occurred last month, was only brought to the attention of the local press two weeks ago by an informed source. It had not been announced by law enforcement because, according to prosecutors, they at first believed they were close to catching the assailant, and didn’t want to jeopardize the investigation.

As of last week, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office was still investigating the assault of the 56-year-old North Bergen resident. She was first accosted near the Union City Light Rail station on Bergenline Avenue, then forced to the cemetery by her assailant at knifepoint. She was then assaulted again, according to Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio.

It has not been ruled out that the act was committed by someone who was living in the cemetery. According to DeFazio, the assailant obviously had knowledge of the cemetery and what goes on there.

Mayor Sacco said that he has been in meetings with Galvin and township attorney Herb Klitzner concerning the matter.

“We still have to find out what we can do as a municipality,” Sacco said. “We should be able to police our own area.”

Almost 3,000 homeless in the county

As in neighboring New York City, there are thousands of homeless people living in Hudson County. Based on a count done by a consortium of organizations in April of 2006, there are 2,973 homeless people (considered an undercount) and 552 available beds in permanent, transitional, and emergency facilities in Hudson County. The county has three main homeless shelters: St. Lucy’s in Jersey City, the Hoboken Homeless Shelter in Hoboken, and the PERC shelter in Union City.

Last October, representatives from government, business, and non-profit sectors in Hudson County gathered at the steps of St. Lucy’s homeless shelter on Grove Street in Jersey City to announce a 10-year plan to end homelessness in the county. They are working on the plan with the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.

The intent of the plan is to transition homeless people into housing and to make sure they get the services they need.

But some homeless people intentionally avoid shelters, complaining that they have nowhere to put their belongings, or that they do not want to be kept in such close quarters with people who have worse mental or health problems. On the Palisade Hills in Union City, there are numerous shacks constructed by that area’s homeless. For several winters, Union City officials have knocked them down and encouraged people into their shelters, but the shanties have popped back up.

When there are over 100 homeless people in the same area like a burial ground, it is a cause for concern. “I can assure you that we are completely committed to solving this problem,” Sacco said. “We’re going to do everything we can do legally to help.”

Galvin said that he will increase the police presence in the area. “We have to find out who owns the property, and then we’ll work together to keep them out,” Galvin said. “We can’t have that many people living in the area.”

Eduardo

Until then, Eduardo and his Guatemalan pals will call the cemetery home.

“It’s not bad,” he said. “It’s peaceful. No one bothers us.”

He’s hoping that he can find someone to give him a job – any kind of job.

Until then, he’s sleeping on a makeshift bed, three blankets and a pillow, in the North Bergen cemetery.

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail.