Although only a handful of residents attended last week’s Third Precinct Community Forum at Mineola Middle School, there was a lot to discuss—including the prevention of home invasions, mailbox fishing and homelessness, which was the main topic of the evening.
At the forum, resident questions were fielded by Nassau County Police Department’s (NCPD) Commanding Officer Inspector Robert Musetich, Deputy Commanding Officer Deputy Inspector Harun Begis and problem-oriented policing (POP) officers Jesse Cooper and Mike Costanzo. Mayor Scott Strauss and Deputy Mayor Paul Pereira were also in attendance.
“I have a question about the vagrancy around the train station,” said one resident. “It’s really out of control. There was a guy yesterday who’s running around the village near the train station with a sign harassing people. What is supposed to be done? It’s concerning because it makes you feel unsafe. They’re there every day.”
Musetich said that the police department has addressed homelessness for many years along with the county’s department of social services, which tries to offer the homeless people assistance such as housing options to try and get them off the street. However, most times the homeless people deny the help.
“We’ll address it,” said Musetich. “On our end, if they commit a crime or any violation, we can arrest them. We’ve dealt with homelessness for years and I’ll tell you, not in Mineola, but they actually had camps in Hempstead Plains and had tents. We went in there once and took down the tents off the Meadowbrook Parkway years ago.”
Another resident informed the officers of a homeless man on Washington Avenue near the train station.
“At the very east end of Washington Avenue right by the train tracks, there is a person that sleeps there,” said the resident. “He has crutches and he wears a medical mask. He definitely needs police and social services intervention. If you drive right past village hall, keep on going to the very end, that’s where he’ll be.”
According to Cooper, the main reason why homelessness is an issue at the train station is because the homeless are doing too well in the area.
“They put their hand out and, within minutes, they get what they need,” explained Cooper. “What they’ve done in other communities, is that they’ve actually put up signs that say do not donate to the homeless, [but] donate to this organization or this charitable organization because that’s one angle wherever the signs are municipal.”
“I’ve been harassed,” said a third resident. “I don’t take the train anymore, but I’ve seen some ugly situations at the train station. Even seeing these borderline thugs go up to young ladies…they’re intimidating. In the Mineola American, a quote from one of the police officers back in June  said ‘we’ll determine whether or not we want to enforce the law.’ It’s very frustrating. I know it’s not an easy thing for you guys to do.”
Cooper told the forum-goers that if the homeless people don’t get what they need, they’d move on to someplace else stating that the NCPD can make a lot of arrests, but the homeless people will only return to the same area where they’re getting handouts.
“Police presence helps, but unfortunately we can’t focus all of our resources in one place because we have other problems going on throughout the precinct,” explained Cooper. “It’s like a cat and mouse type of thing.”
Strauss said that it’s good to call 911 for everything, no matter how minor the issue may seem.
“If you call 911, they catalog the complaints and it gives a history of the address and the location and it becomes a hotspot,” said Strauss. “It justifies the dedication of more resources to that issue.”
Last summer, Strauss met with the police department as well as the MTA, homeless advocates and homeless assistance agencies from the county about the homelessness issue and kicked around some ideas on how to deter homeless people from hunkering down at the train station.
“I physically have been on scene with police at times down at the train station and I’ve [seen] police officers engaged with these individuals that we’re speaking of,” said Strauss. “Other people who work in the area will talk to the homeless guy and point to the cop and say ‘Is this guy bothering you?’ It’s absolutely stunning to me. But, those people who are doing that don’t live here. They work in the area, so it doesn’t bother them as much. I was absolutely stunned.”
Last July, the village board passed its aggressive panhandling law. The law focuses on all aggressive panhandlers, not just those who are homeless who harass residents and commuters for money at the train station. According to Musetich, there has been one arrest from an aggressive panhandler with the law in place.
Another resident said that it would be a good idea to educate the public about the dangers of giving out money to the homeless at the train station and asked if it was possible to put up signs at the train station to tell people to stop.
“Absolutely,” responded Musetich.
“We spoke to the MTA about it and it wasn’t something that they were interested in doing in putting up signs,” added Cooper since the train station platform is MTA jurisdiction and doesn’t belong to the county or the village.
“How about the parking lot?” asked the resident. “Is that MTA or Mineola?”
“Some of them are ours and some of them are theirs [MTA],” said Pereira. “So putting them [signs] under the bridge, lots of people who are giving the money aren’t going to see that. The homeless people see that, so that’s where they hang out. I think a lot of these interactions happen on the platform where we can’t put signs and where they [NCPD] don’t have jurisdiction. Three of the smaller parking lots on the west side are the Village of Mineola, but they have some parking that is theirs as well.”
As part of an ongoing dialogue about the homeless situation, Strauss will continue to meet with the NCPD.