Chinatown Murders Reveal Systemic Issues in Homeless Policy



A memorial to one of the killed homeless men, located in Chinatown (Photo Taken by Will Walkey).

Fruit, flowers, candles and other items line a little stoop outside a convenience store in the Chinatown district of Manhattan. They comprise a makeshift memorial for Cheun Kok, one of four homeless men killed in a murderous rampage on Oct. 5. One hand-written note shoved behind the offerings has a sentence that reads, I feel pity that we as humans have gotten to a level that ignores the homeless.” 

As New York City reels from these tragic deaths, city officials are considering long-term solutions to the long-standing problem of street homelessness, notably improving mental health services and demanding increased supportive housing. Though the city is utilizing more personalized and effective outreach tactics, its investments focus too much on improving the shelter system, advocates say. Additionally, some homeless citizens say the New York City Police Department (NYPD) has failed to keep them safe.  

Following the recent killings, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that mental health outreach teams were going to Chinatown to conduct evaluations on the vulnerable street population in the area. Randy Santos, the 24-year-old who allegedly used a metal pipe to beat four of his homeless neighbors to death in their sleep and put another in critical condition, has a well-documented criminal and mental health history. 

“There were a lot of touchpoints where he probably could’ve been pulled into a program,” said Nathalie Interiano, Policy and Advocacy Manager at Care for the Homeless. Her organization, she says, is advocating for increased outreach efforts related to mental health following the murders. To her, the tragedy “certainly is shining a light on where we are.”

Though the vast majority of New York’s homeless population — just under 60,000, according to Department of Homeless Services (DHS) statistics — currently reside in shelters, a significant number of people still live on the streets. The 2019 Homeless Outreach Population Estimate says that just over 3,500 people sleep in parks, public transportation stations or anywhere else they can find every night. 

Outreach teams, such as those operated by Care for the Homeless, try to bring those numbers down by sending people into safe havens, shelters or permanent housing via one-on-one consultations. They can also recommend city-run programs designed to address ailments related to mental health, physical disability or substance abuse — many suffer from a combination of the three, according to Interiano. 

Care for the Homeless embeds a medical examiner with its team when it organizes outreach in the Bronx, and they often conduct multiple on-site interviews and diagnoses with its patients before moving them elsewhere. This technique has been successful, according to Interiano, because it breaks down the barriers, such as travel costs, that keep many on the streets from receiving the attention they need.

The city is now using similar tactics in Chinatown, and is also increasing its police presence in the area, de Blasio said in an interview on Inside City Hall. However, the NYPD did not say it was changing tactics regarding its policing of street homelessness citywide. 

De Blasio called these murders “a very particular, horrible individual tragedy,” but many suffering from homelessness on the ground say the event was indicative of the dangers they experience every night. 

Ali Azdy, who has slept on the corner of Canal and Lafayette Streets for the past nine months — currently getting by panhandling for change outside a MacDonald’s — says he was beaten up in his sleep three months ago. He has scars on his face, a broken nose and deep bruises on the back of his legs and neck. 

Charmain Hamid, who says she’s slept for five years on the corner of 33rd Street and 8th Avenue, claims she was attacked with a corkscrew by another woman just three weeks ago. She has a long scar the size of a thumb down the right side of her face. 

Azdy and Hamid both say that their lives have felt more dangerous in the last few months. They each have their own tactic for remaining as safe as possible — Azdy never rests for more than a few hours at a time, and Hamid has built a strong community of homeless people living around her block that protects her.

The police, Hamid says, “don’t want to get involved” with the affairs of the homeless. 

Azdy says the recent murders have made him “very scared” because of how close he was to the murder sites — he claims to have been about seven blocks away from the area where they took place. Mario Robinson, another homeless man who prefers to sleep in train cars, asked, “What if I fall asleep somewhere for too long?” 

Many people living on the street are in limbo waiting to find a permanent place to live — they either need documentation, space or money. Some have been in an out of shelters multiple times, but prefer taking their chances on their own to living in temporary housing. 

“The only difference with the shelters is it’s indoors,” said Robert Dvorak, who has allegedly been living on the streets near Times Square since August. On Oct. 12, Dvorak said he was knocked out in his sleep and robbed of all his possessions, including all his documentation necessary for obtaining housing. Dvorak’s eye was visibly swollen, and he claims to only want from the city his own apartment with his own room, a door and a lock.

Aine Duggan, President and CEO at Partnership for the Homeless, says permanent affordable housing is by far the most important ingredient to getting people off the street. “There isn’t housing stock for people who are low income….Everything else is a distraction from that,” she said.

External economic factors and previous governmental decision-making have made it increasingly difficult for those on the streets to find low-income housing, according to Arianna Fishman at the DHS. The end of the Advantage housing program in 2011, which provided financial assistance to households transitioning between homeless shelters and permanent dwellings, also strained poorer New Yorkers and contributed to increased homelessness, Fishman said. 

The loss of low-rent apartments in previous decades also led to a lack of space for poverty-stricken New Yorkers. Data from New York City’s 2018 Housing Supply Report shows that dwellings with stabilized rents have a vacancy rate of just over 2 percent, compared to just over 6 percent for non-regulated units. 

Yet the city continues to emphasize shelters as a means to decrease the homeless population. “Turning the Tide on Homelessness,” the city’s plan to address this issue, has focused much of its efforts thus far in “transforming a haphazard shelter system with major investments,” according to Fishman. Advocates like Duggan and Interiano say the city should focus more on affordable housing. 

“We need shelters like we need emergency food,” Duggan said. “But emergency food does not solve the problem of hunger.”

Investing in the shelter system does not lower the number of homeless people on the streets, Interiano said, because it does not break the cyclical nature of poverty. “We are putting resources into essentially keeping homelessness where it’s at,” she added. 

Across the street from Koks memorial in Chatham Square is another cluster of candles, flowers and notes, put together to commemorate another man killed in his sleep during the same rampage. On a gray morning on Oct. 12, a few disgruntled men sat on benches looking at the memorial. Many others walked by, on their way to somewhere else.  

Another memorial, located in Chatham Square (Photo Taken by Will Walkey).