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Mount Kisco Searches for Answers in Addressing Homeless Population

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The fenced off dugout at Leonard Park after members of Mount Kisco’s homeless population had been found using the area to drink and relieve themselves.

Increasing concern regarding how Mount Kisco has handled the village’s homeless population was raised last week after repeated claims of county police moving vagrants from downtown to Leonard Park, and some residents expressed safety fears.

During his monthly update to the Village Board, Community Resource Officer Eddie Ramirez, of the Westchester County police, said that there has been greater emphasis on cleaning up the areas where the homeless most often congregate, but the problem has vexed Mount Kisco for at least the past 15 years.

“We hear the concerns of the village and we want to make sure that we’re addressing them, so we’re telling our officers to be in the park as much as possible, and not only the park but other areas of the village as well,” Ramirez told the board last Monday. “As you know, you start paying a lot of attention in one area, any issues that may be happening there move on to another part of the village.”

Mayor Gina Picinich said there has been an enhanced effort with plainclothes officers to address the problem downtown, but that forces the homeless people to move to another location.

Concerns were raised publicly in the spring about the prevalence of homeless people in and around Leonard Park and the village’s trails. The Trail Team had unsuccessfully appealed to the Village Board to hire a part-time ranger who would have patrolled mainly the trails and park and whose job would have been to monitor those areas.

Fears were also heightened after a man was found dead in the woods from natural causes in early June not far from Route 117 and Lexington Avenue.

Ramirez, who started with the old Mount Kisco Police Department in 2008 and has continued to work in the village after the local force merged with the county, said that many of the problems stem from alcoholism. Efforts to convince the men to seek help, while often successful, sometimes are not, he said.

“I would talk to these guys, trying to get them into services, doing everything I possibly could,” Ramirez said.

Recently, the village started a program where offenders who are charged with violations and who are unable to pay the fines levied by the village court must perform 25 hours of community service. A small portion of the homeless population have been repeat offenders of low-level offenses, according to Ramirez.

But Trustee Karen Schleimer said that while Mount Kisco has long faced the problem of unhoused people, in the past year she believes the problem may be more acute than before.

“Our residents, while they may not feel threatened, when I have a mother with a nine-year-old and a seven-year-old, call me up (saying) my child wants to play ball and he’s confronted with this quality-of-life issue and they’re seeing people who are defecating and drinking in the dugouts, you can’t allow my child to be subjected to this,” Schleimer said. “So something is happening that we’re not familiar with, and it’s resulted in locking up the dugout.”

The village recently installed fencing in front of the dugouts on the Little League fields at Leonard Park to prevent loiterers from entering those spaces, Picinich noted.

Ramirez said that through Sept. 25, there had been 773 visits to Leonard Park by county officers, most of them routine inspections of officers making their rounds. Between Sept. 25 and last week’s meeting, officers made 94 visits or “blotters” to the park, and only three of them resulted in anything of note – all parking complaints, Ramirez said.

He said police have given the park as much attention as they possibly can.

“There really isn’t much going on,” Ramirez said. “We’re in the park a lot. I see people in the park all the time. They bring their dogs, they’re with their children, making use of the Frisbee golf, having their lunch by the Tea House. I don’t see any danger to the residents.”

However, critics pointed to an incident of criminal mischief last month at the Tea House and remain unconvinced the village is doing enough to address the problem. Retired longtime Mount Kisco police officer Louis Terlizzi said last week that whatever efforts are being made to clean up the downtown are having a disastrous effect on the park and questioned whether it was a conscious effort by the village to move homeless people to Leonard Park.

“The extreme measures that we now know are taken, regarding taking homeless repeat offenders from the business district to the park, are unacceptable and inexcusable,” Terlizzi said. “There needs to be an immediate independent investigation into the actions of a member or members of this Village Board.”

Picinch, who refuted Terlizzi’s description as “a misrepresentation,” said the challenges are not unique or confined to the park. The board has also been working with the Recreation Commission on addressing the issue at Leonard Park.

“When police presence occurs, that causes people to move to other locations,” Picinich explained. “So police did not move people. Their presence, their details, cause people to move to other locations.”

Schleimer suggested it might soon be time for the board to again consider bringing on a ranger in an attempt to begin addressing the matter.

Trustee Karine Patino said she has uncovered data that has revealed homelessness has been a challenge for Mount Kisco since 1999. She said the issue is complicated, with housing and alcoholism playing a role.

“They’re members of our community, they’re just unhoused,” Patino said. “They consider Mount Kisco their home and they’ve been here for a long time.”

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