After Brutal Murders of Homeless Men in Chinatown, Mayor is Urged to Take Bold Action

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The horrifying murders of four homeless men in Chinatown early Saturday are generating national news headlines and renewed pleas for a comprehensive strategy to confront New York City’s homelessness crisis.

In court on Sunday, the suspect, 24-year-old Randy Santos, was charged with four counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. Police were called to Bowery at Doyers Street just before 2 a.m. on Saturday, where two men had been viciously attacked with a metal pipe. One was dead; the other was rushed to New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Hospital in critical condition. Three other men were found beaten to death in the area around Chatham Square. Santos, also homeless, has a long police record and a history of violence.

State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou is organizing a vigil and “community action” today (Monday) at 10 a.m. She plans to gather with local activists and other elected officials at 23 Chatham Square. In a statement, Niou said, “Violence and cruelty towards New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and abject poverty is unacceptable. Homelessness has continually grown in New York and it is clear that we lack a holistic system to address this issue. We need to build a model rooted in providing deeply affordable housing and direct prevention services to end homelessness and poverty and in the meantime work towards supporting our homeless population and minimize the risk of violence that they endure.”

City Council member Margaret Chin said, “This senseless and devastating act of violence against the most vulnerable members of our community must serve as a wakeup call: we must do more than the bare minimum to help the tens of thousands of New Yorkers in our homeless shelters and on our streets. As the City faces a mounting housing crisis, the tragic loss of four New Yorkers makes it clear that the response to the magnitude of this emergency has been insufficient.”

The New York Times noted that the murders have brought new attention to the dangers of living on the street. The Bowery, the Times reported, “is now drawing younger homeless people, many with drug and mental health problems, a population that the city’s traditional outreach methods have struggled to confront.”  The city’s $1 billion Thrive NYC program, intended to address mental health issues, has been a failure. The administration has also failed to open enough new shelters, in part due to opposition in neighborhoods across the city.

The men were attacked as they were sleeping. One of the victims, Cheun Kok, was 83 years old.  Police are reviewing surveillance video that shows a man dressed in black clothing swinging a bar at a man covered in blankets.

Santos came to New York about four years ago from the Dominican Republic, and lived with his mother in the Bronx for a time, but she kicked him out following several violent episodes. A neighbor said he lost a construction job after he began using crack cocaine and other drugs.  In May, Santos was arrested after assaulting a resident of a men’s shelter in Brooklyn. The charges were dismissed.

The Times pointed out that this neighborhood (Community District 3) has a high concentration of homeless shelters (at least two dozen). Even as high end hotels and apartments opened on the Bowery, the homeless problem has grown worse. More from the Times:

…homelessness has persisted, and longtime residents have raised concerns about a new subpopulation within the homeless community. A recent report described them as “travelers” or “young homeless people who travel to destinations depending on the weather, and often include instances of drug use and aggression.” Over the past three years, complaints have increased about these younger arrivals, and the police and homeless outreach workers have said that “traditional outreach is not successful with this population,” according to the report.

City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, who represents sections of the Lower East Side, said, “Unfortunately, it’s evident that we’ve failed as a city at building deeply affordable housing. How we provide mental health services — we have to do better. We cannot treat this as business as usual, and we need a comprehensive plan.”

In her statement, Council member Chin agreed with the need for a more far-reaching plan, saying,  “Our approach must include both an ‘all-in’ strategy of maximizing every resource to create more affordable housing now and a citywide, multi-agency framework that gets these New Yorkers the help they need quickly and safely.”

Santos did not enter a plea in court on Sunday. He is undergoing a psychiatric evaluation.