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 doesnt 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. Parks 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 Im 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 parks fence on Seventh St. were some covered shopping carts left by other homeless persons who would return later after it got dark. But Lessane doesnt 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 womens 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 thats 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.
Its capricious and arbitrary, he continued. If they were consistent, perhaps wed get along a little better
. By law, they have to compensate me for everything they take.
While not a teetotaler, Lessane stressed, Im not drunk and hitting people on the head.
Ive 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 didnt have a definitive answer regarding the incident. However, told by The Villager that police had been involved, she said, Thats a police action because were 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 comptrollers office, Dawkins added.
Ashe Reardon, a Parks Department spokesperson, said, Were 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 hes familiar with Lessane. Bermudez was on detail at the WaldorfAstoria 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 Lessanes belongings. But he said Lessane is a pack rat and may have a mental illness that makes him compulsively collect things.
If Lessanes stuff spills out onto the sidewalk, blocking pedestrians, its unsafe, Bermudez said. If Lessane leaves his belongings unguarded, its potentially a health hazard, as there could possibly be sharp needles in his bags or some other biological substance, Bermudez said, though adding he doesnt know this to be the case. Also, if Lessanes possessions give off a strong odor or smell like urine its an unsanitary condition, he said. All the rules are subject to interpretation, he added.
When Lessanes 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 wasnt a lot, but it can snowball. It requires constant attention in the park. As soon as they realize no ones around, it becomes a free for all in there. We cant have that, because if we dont [do anything] well get the whole encampment there again that started the riots.
Lessane recently moved from the park. Hes now camped out at Fifth St. and Avenue A outside the Con Ed substation a spot where Bermudez said he probably wont check up on him.
The communitys a bit more tolerant when its 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 its 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 Ill be more like Robert the Bruce.