From the Saw Mill to the Hudson

Police Officer John O’Brien has been an officer for 18 years. Born and raised in southwest Yonkers, he is a middle-aged Caucasian man, in his mid to late 40s, about 5’9″ and around 160 pounds. For the last five years, he’s worked at the Fourth Precinct, manning a foot post in the downtown area.

It’s a foot post, but not in the literal sense, he says. He drives a squad car and stops frequently to walk around. His friendly demeanor garners many waves and hellos, and several people stop him to chat. We cruise slowly around Getty Square—the so-called “downtown” business district in the southwest—a major transportation hub dotted with 99 cent stores, empty store fronts and cheap variety shops not too far from the waterfront.

Yonkers, which is about 20 square miles, is served by only four police precincts. O’Brien’s patrol area is divided into six different patrol sectors that serve and protect the area’s 57,000 residents. Also within the Fourth Precinct are three of the city’s largest housing projects. Roughly 7,000 public housing units have been built throughout the city, with 6,644–97.7 percent–located in the southwest. The rest of the city–mainly the east side–is zoned for single-family homes. And because of zoning laws in the municipality, the high rises–low-income apartments–were only allowed in one portion of Yonkers: in the southwest.

It’s mid-morning in January, and many people are on the streets waiting for buses and cabs, wearing hats and gloves, faces swathed with scarves. But not everyone on the cold city streets is waiting for a form of transportation.

O’Brien points out who’s homeless—or at least who he knows of. He points to a man in an electric wheelchair, in front of a restaurant in Getty Square—the downtown Yonkers business district. According to O’Brien, the man was hit by a car a few years ago and is in the wheelchair because his leg never healed properly. “But he steals,” he says. “We got a call when he was caught stealing cold cuts from the supermarket, in his wheelchair.”

Selling cigarettes is a usual hustle, O’Brien says. It’s not much, but it’ll keep a little money in one’s pockets. Some sell their urine in front of the city’s methadone clinics for about $5 a bottle. But many homeless people, he says, also sell heroin. “It’s sort of like a little day-job thing.”

He is very familiar with the homeless population in southwest Yonkers, and knows almost everyone we see by first and last name. O’Brien can rattle off their family histories, favorite music, jail records. He knows who has addictions and who’s prone to violence, who suffers from any mental illnesses.

“I don’t see it getting any better,” he says, shaking his head. “For me, I see more of an influx of people here. Folks are losing their jobs, getting divorced, ending up on the streets.”

Despite the arctic air, many homeless people still live on the streets. To keep warm, there are stairwells and abandoned buildings for sleep, a large library during the day. Alcohol keeps the body warm, O’Brien says, and the drinks of choice tend to be Crazy Stallion and White Cobra, Martin’s Vodka—all cost no more than $2.

Wintertime calls for creativity to stay warm. If proper clothing and heat are luxuries, hypothermia is a familiar constant. According to O’Brien, the corners of a local supermarket’s garage can offer places to sleep, away from the elements. He says a man was once found sleeping next to a slow plow that was parked against a wall. In the summer, O’Brien says, homeless people who stay in that particular garage sleep on cardboard boxes in the stairways.

“A lot of people don’t want services,” he says. “They stay in the library for the day, down by the waterfront.”

Over the years, O’Brien says, there have been various incidents at the library–though not recently. Fighting, smoking, doing drugs in the bathrooms. Inside the library, we meet an African-American man named Tyriq–a 28-year-old with a drinking and domestic abuse problem. Once, says O’Brien, he gave his girlfriend a black eye and several stitches for going back to live in a shelter without him. They were living inside a garage and he beat her up for leaving him, pushing her down a concrete staircase.