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Downtown Businesses Worried About Uptick In Panhandling & Criminal Behavior In Village
By Tina Traster
Nyack is seeking a community effort to solve a community problem.
Public officials, business owners, mental health professionals, and law enforcement have been meeting since May to address a rise in aggressive panhandling, drunken and lewd behavior, vandalism. and quality of life issues in the village that have ramped up over the past year or so.
The growing disorder in a village that promotes itself widely as a tourist destination and has long enjoyed a reputation as a coveted place to live is under attack from a rise in haranguing and criminal incidents that are creating the impression that the Village is unsafe and is increasingly becoming a hostile environment in which to run a business, shop, eat or recreate.
In response, a team led by Deputy Mayor Joe Rand, is rolling out a three-pronged village-run initiative that will address mental health, public safety, and a public relations campaign to discourage giving money to panhandlers.
The uptick in vexatious behavior mostly along Main Street has puzzled some but there’s consensus that folks in Nyack have been willing to open their wallets to “homeless” people or those who panhandle, particularly on weekends in the evenings when outdoor restaurant tables are full. For many years, most panhandlers were for the most part familiar faces to locals. There is some conjecture that word has spread to the hungry in other communities, and they take the bus to Nyack to shake a cup.
Ironically, a solution to weather the pandemic – more living and eating outdoors – has helped restaurants tough out rough years but it has also created a more visible, and apparently charitable opportunity for people who are begging for supper. And the pandemic too has impacted mental health outcomes countywide with joblessness and homelessness.
It’s a complicated stew of circumstances but Nyackers and business owners are complaining about an increase in uncivil and criminal behavior, including shoplifting and threats during daytime hours as well as during the evening and on weekends. Panhandling is a constitutional right, which makes it a difficult issue for law enforcement but many believe a greater and more frequent presence of police officers would deter more violent and aggressive behavior.
“We’ve had someone come in to announce they’re going to pee in the shop,” said Heather Reid, owner of Trilogy Consignment. “I’ve been in business downtown for about 15 months. I’ve had employees who are afraid to work, employees getting yelled at and money demanded of them. A couple came into every store on the street to ask for work but tried to steal from the shop. I have a location in Tarrytown for six years, and don’t have these same problems. All that money that gets spent on subway billboards to bring people to Nyack is wasted because they’ll only come once.”
Reid was referring to an ongoing Visit Nyack advertising campaign, that has been funded by Rockland County’s Department of Tourism for many years, and typically receives the largest grant among the county’s beneficiaries year after year.
Last month, a frequent and familiar panhandler who goes by the pseudonym “Alex” punched a waiter from The Burger & Breakfast Club. The waiter has pressed charges.
“We don’t know exactly what is going on but we’re trying to figure it out and address it,” said Village Mayor Don Hammond. “It was one of our ‘regulars’ who punched the waiter. This is unacceptable. We’re dealing with a mental health crisis.”
Worried over Nyack’s safety and reputation, public officials are in the process of establishing a nonprofit Nyack Cares Fund, which will allow people who give money to panhandlers to reroute the charity to nonprofit organizations that help the hungry and homeless including Catholic Charities, Soup Angels, Mental Health Association of Rockland and Westchester, and about a half dozen others.
In addition, the village — like many towns and cities have done — is planning a signage campaign (which has not yet been fleshed out) that will let diners and others know that there is a different way to help those who are panhandling.
“We’ve worked out the logistics with the United Way, and the fund should be set up by the end of September,” said Rand in an online post. “Once it’s built, we’ll start the marketing campaign to dissuade giving directly to panhandlers but instead giving to the nonprofits that provide services to them.”
The village is also committed to work more closely with local nonprofits and government agencies that provide social services, to increase the chances that people in need receive mental health services.
To lift this effort, the village is planning to launch the Nyack Ambassadors Program, which will recruit and train volunteers to be the eyes and ears of the village, like Neighborhood Watch programs. Hammond said he is expecting to get New York State funding for this program.
Travis Koestner, owner of Local and The Henry said he’s been losing young employees because they don’t feel safe. “I’ve had multiple people quit because they feel like they need security. I know people who won’t bring their kids down into town.”
Many have raised concerns over too little police presence. Nyack does not have its own police force: it relies on the Orangetown Police, which covers the entire township. Nyack disbanded its police force in the early 1990s.
Village officials say the Orangetown Police Department has been responsive when called out for a disturbance or the scene of a crime but many who are studying this issue say the police need to have a greater presence in the village, and more importantly, they need to get out of their cruisers and walk the beat.
“I see more police presence at night, but we have problems during the day as well,” said Colin Homes, owner of Colin Holmes: Home, Garden & Gifts. “I’m losing so many customers because they’re afraid. I’m afraid we’re going to be left with empty storefronts up and down. The stores keep the community going.”
If you do see something or have a problem, call the OPD 845-359-3700 for help or Behavioral Health Response Team: 845-517-0400.