When a house is not a home

‘Homeless’ man prefers his shack to a residence on Fairfield Avenue

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When a man built a rickety shack in a wooded strip of land near where Johnson Avenue meets Kappock Street and settled there, neighbors began complaining about a homeless man living in their Spuyten Duyvil neighborhood. 

Except that the man is not homeless at all. 

The resident of the shack, which he built with tree trunks and plywood, owns a house on Fairfield Avenue, police said. But a little more than two years ago, he decided to move out. The house and yard have long been in disrepair—a result, he claims, of the neighbors’ misdeeds, or a result of his neglecting the house, according to police. While the police provided the man's real name to The Press, it has been replaced here with a pseudonym, “John,” out of privacy considerations. 

“He ['John'] makes statements that the people next door are poisoning his land. And there’s all kinds of building violations on his house,” Deputy Inspector Terence O’Toole, the commanding officer of the 50th precinct, said. “He’s not homeless but he is a problem.” 

Neighbors have made several complaints about the house he owns on Fairfield Avenue, according to police. Now, neighbors in Spuyten Duyvil are making complaints about the shack he built on the small strip of land, which is owned by the Education Department. 

The shack is hidden behind several trees, down a treacherous path in the wood. “John's” main source of income, according to people who see him walking the streets by day, is redeeming the five-cent deposit on aluminum and plastic bottles he collects around the neighborhood. 

On Saturday morning last week, “John” was cleaning the front of his shack of debris and snow. He had not been there the night before, when a Press journalist visited earlier, but declined to comment on how he spends his days or on other issues, demanding that the reporter first provide more solid proof of his affiliation with The Press. 

“Thank you for respecting me,” he said. 

Daniel Steiner, a teacher at John F. Kennedy Campus who lives in the River Point Towers across from where “John” enters the wooded area, said he is worried both about “John’s” wellbeing and the potential for other shacks and impromptu homes popping up on the land. 

“I feel but for the guy but… then this whole place will be a shantytown,” he said. 

Steiner, who describes himself as an environmentalist, said he often cleans up the trash “John” brings and deposits around his shack. 

“He is always collecting trash and I’ve talked to him and he thinks I’m crazy,” Steiner said. “By his shed, there is old mattresses and a ton of trash… he chopped down the woods in this area… started to grow a farm and had plastic containers everywhere.”

O’Toole said his officers have asked “John” to leave several times, but he always comes back.  Simply arresting “John” might not be the answer, he added. 

“I am assuming that he is supposed to be taking medication that he doesn’t take,” O’Toole said. “We keep chasing him out, I don’t want to arrest him for trespassing, that’s not the answer, it’s not the best thing going, so I don’t know what to do with him.”

Steiner said he has called multiple city services and agencies, but “John's” living situation remains unchanged.  A spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services said it can sometime take week for agents to earn the trust of someone living on the streets and to get the person into a shelter or permanent housing.  

“Our street homeless outreach provider responds to every community member call and has been working to address issues at this location,” Lauren Gray said in an emailed statement about “John,” though there was no mention of specific contact made with him yet. 

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