Volume 74, Number 24 | Octuber 13 - 19 , 2004

Villager photos by Bob Arihood

Leroy Lessane on Sept. 21, right after most of his possessions had just been tossed in a city garbage truck. Police say he is a compulsive collector.

A tent city of one: Tompkins homeless man targeted

By Lincoln Anderson

In the mid-1980s, Tompkins Sq. Park was taken over by the homeless. Living in what was dubbed “tent city,” they covered half the park. While many in the neighborhood were appalled, others supported the right of the homeless to be in the park. Following a riot over the encampment in 1988, Mayor David Dinkins cleared the park and closed it for 14 months of renovations. A midnight curfew was also enacted.

Apparently, someone doesn’t like the idea of even a trace of tent city returning. On Sept. 21, at 6:30 p.m., a multi-agency sting operation of police, Sanitation and Parks workers surrounded a homeless man by the park and, in front of his eyes, according to witnesses and the man, threw his personal belongings into a garbage truck.

“It was not the first time, but it was the most blatant — because I was sitting on it,” said Leroy Lessane. “Usually, they wait until I leave.”

For the past six months, Lessane, 62, an artist and former actor, had been hunkered down either just inside or outside Tompkins Sq. Park’s Seventh St. and Avenue A entrance. He says he lost his apartment in a Brooklyn housing project two years ago, because his name was not on the lease, but had not worked for the 10 previous years.

“I consider myself an urban camper,” he said. “And I’m thankful for my Boy Scout experience. I am not quite a homeless person — I am camping innocently.”

Of the multi-agency sting, Lessane recalled looking up and seeing “lots of gold badges.” Witnesses confirmed the three agencies had been involved.

Yet, a week later, Lessane could still be found sitting at his regular spot. Along the park’s fence on Seventh St. were some covered shopping carts left by other homeless persons who would return later after it got dark. But Lessane doesn’t use a cart and tends to stay in one place and sleep a lot day or night.

He was wearing a gray, hooded tunic, with bare legs and open-toed gold slippers, with a small fine-art paintbrush poking out of his pocket. By his side on the ground were some jigsawed pieces of wood and a Chinese package label, possible collage materials.

“I do multi-layer stuff — basically these women’s faces, half the surface is black-and-white newspapers, the other half is color,” he explained, while sipping spoonfuls of a cup of soup.

He was especially upset that a large collage of his had been thrown in the garbage truck on Sept. 21.

“When you have something that’s mounted, nearly completed….,” he said, his voice trailing off. Also taken by the Department of Sanitation workers, according to him, were several cans of paint.

“It’s capricious and arbitrary,” he continued. “If they were consistent, perhaps we’d get along a little better…. By law, they have to compensate me for everything they take.”

While not a teetotaler, Lessane stressed, “I’m not drunk and hitting people on the head.

“I’ve been on Broadway,” he continued. “I acted with Ingrid Bergman in the 1970s, doing George Bernard Shaw. We toured all over the country. Ingrid Bergman was the reason for the show.”

Kathy Dawkins, a Sanitation spokes-person, said she didn’t have a “definitive answer” regarding the incident. However, told by The Villager that police had been involved, she said, “That’s a police action — because we’re authorized by police to do it.” In these cases, she said, Sanitation is called in after someone makes a complaint. She noted that a few years ago, a similar action was authorized to move a homeless encampment out from an area under the Manhattan Bridge.

“The only recourse the gentleman has is to file a claim with the comptroller’s office,” Dawkins added.

Ashe Reardon, a Parks Department spokesperson, said, “We’re looking into the situation, but at this point have no knowledge of the incident.”

Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel said, from the description of what happened to Lessane, it sounds “punitive and vindictive.”
“I had heard about this happening in the late ’80s,” Siegel said. “I thought it had stopped.”

Lieutenant Carlos Bermudez, the Ninth Precinct Tompkins Sq. Park lieutenant, said he’s familiar with Lessane. Bermudez was on detail at the Waldorf–Astoria when President Bush was in town for the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21 and so did not take part in the trashing of Lessane’s belongings. But he said Lessane is a pack rat and may have a mental illness that makes him compulsively collect things.

If Lessane’s stuff spills out onto the sidewalk, blocking pedestrians, it’s unsafe, Bermudez said. If Lessane leaves his belongings unguarded, it’s potentially a health hazard, as there could possibly be sharp needles in his bags or some other biological substance, Bermudez said, though adding he doesn’t know this to be the case. Also, if Lessane’s possessions give off a strong odor or smell like urine it’s an unsanitary condition, he said. All the rules are “subject to interpretation,” he added.

When Lessane’s pile grows too large, Bermudez said he will often tell him to move it, and Lessane will do so, making several trips, though to where, the lieutenant has no idea, never having followed him. “These guys can get pretty creative,” he noted.

During the Republican National Convention, Bermudez and his officers were assigned to the convention, and in the space of just a few days conditions in the park worsened, he said. When the officers returned to Tompkins Sq., they threw out a large canvas postal cart, two shopping carts filled with cans, a mattress and cardboard boxes set up for three sleeping areas.

“Nobody was around, so we chucked everything in the back of the garbage truck,” Bermudez said. “It wasn’t a lot, but it can snowball. It requires constant attention in the park. As soon as they realize no one’s around, it becomes a free for all in there. We can’t have that, because if we don’t [do anything] we’ll get the whole encampment there again that started the riots.”

Lessane recently moved from the park. He’s now camped out at Fifth St. and Avenue A outside the Con Ed substation — a spot where Bermudez said he probably won’t check up on him.

“The community’s a bit more tolerant when it’s not in the park, where they have to walk by it with their kids,” Bermudez noted.
Although Lessane lost most of his important documents when he first hit the streets, the incident last month has set him back again, he says.

“The stuff that I built up, trying to make a new start — it’s like the life of Sisyphus,” he reflected. “I try to push the boulder up the mountain and it rolls back down. Or like Robert the Bruce — maybe you saw ‘Braveheart,’” he said, referring to the tale of how the Scottish nobleman was inspired to strive for the throne by watching a spider try seven times to stretch its web.

“Sisyphus never did it,” Lessane noted, adding, “I hope I’ll be more like Robert the Bruce.”

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