Courthouse Stowaways Highlight City’s Homeless Crisis

Unauthorized individuals have sought shelter inside the Queens Civil Supreme Courthouse on Sutphin Boulevard.  Eagle  file photo by Andy Katz

Unauthorized individuals have sought shelter inside the Queens Civil Supreme Courthouse on Sutphin Boulevard. Eagle file photo by Andy Katz

By Christina Carrega and David Brand

Tara Dunlap was escorting building workers to the sixth-floor of the Queens Civil Supreme Courthouse at around 5:20 p.m. on Dec. 6 when she encountered a woman sitting on a bench in the public hallway.

The Sutphin Boulevard building officially closes at 5 p.m. so Dunlap, a senior court analyst in the court’s Fiscal Department, informed the woman that the building had closed and escorted her outside, according to an internal memo obtained by the Eagle.

When Dunlap returned, she “saw another woman, who appeared to be homeless, with several coats and bags, sitting in the hallway. She informed this individual that the building is closed and escorted her out of the building,” the memo said.

The next day, Dunlap reported what she saw and was informed that security remains in the building until 6 p.m. Security told her that “for her own safety, to always notify security when unauthorized/unknown individuals are observed in the facility after the facility closing at 5 p.m.,” the memo said.

Dunlap’s encounter with two unauthorized women after closing hours was not an aberration.

As winter sets in and temperatures drop, homeless Queens residents have again started seeking shelter inside Queens courthouses, their presence highlighting New York City’s deep homelessness crisis, court staff and union representatives have told the Eagle.

“This was not the first time this has happened in that building. Few years ago, in like 2015, people were found living in the electrical closet,” said Patrick Cullen, the president of the state’s Supreme Court Officers Association (SCOA).

After Dunlap reported the presence of the two women after hours, the chief clerk of the courthouse instructed security to conduct daily floor searches until 7 p.m. The clerk pulled court officers assigned to another part of the building to perform the inspections.

The Civil Supreme courthouse is located in Queens Community District 12, the Queens district most affected by the city’s homeless crisis.

On Aug. 31, 3,264 individuals staying in Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters reported a most recent zip code inside CD12, according to data provided by DHS. CD12 includes much of Jamaica, Hollis, St. Albans, South Ozone Park and Springfield.

Community District 13 accounts for the next highest number of homeless New Yorkers utilizing city shelters of Queens district, but the district accounts for less than half the number of homeless individuals as CD12. On Aug. 31, 1,587 individuals had reported most recent zip codes inside CD13

Overall, there were 60,949 people — including 22,405 children — staying in city shelters on Dec. 19, according to the most recent daily census report published by the Department of Homeless Services.

Yet because of disrepair, discomfort and potential danger many people who experience homelessness take their chances outside the city shelter system.

The surging homeless population demands more housing and, in the meantime, improved shelter conditions, said representatives from the Coalition for the Homeless during testimony before the City Council’s Committee on General Welfare Monday.

“The record number of individuals and families in shelters necessitates a comprehensive examination into shelter conditions and upkeep,” the Coalition said. “We routinely witness and hear well-founded concerns about the lack of dignity many people in shelters feel as a result of the environments they are living in.

We know that shelters are not homes, but some of the daily conditions and practices serve to make the experience of homelessness even more traumatic and dehumanizing for individuals and families.”

A court employee who did not want to be identified told the Eagle that he had an encounter with an unauthorized person near the judges’ chambers at 10 p.m. on a recent night.

“One night we had our guys doing carpet’s in the judge’s chambers and saw a shadow in the corners. She said he was looking for the clerk, but it was like 10 o’clock at night,” the court employee said. “I approached and escorted her out.”

The employee said that, though he is not trained to handle trespassers, he uses his instincts and approaches individuals with caution.

“We had a bunch of other encounters over the years. About a few months ago, we found someone living in a closet where they made a homemade mattress,” the employee said. “After that and what happened to Tara, now there’s more patrol, but they took the officers from monitoring one part of the building to patrol other parts.”  

Cullen attributes the presence of unauthorized people in the courthouse to a dearth of court officers. The SCOA has advocated for a staffing increase at demonstrations around the city in recent months.

“We think this is based on the shortage of court officer staff during the night patrol,” he said. “We need more and new officers now.”

Earlier this month, a new training facility opened in Crown Heights where 380 new court officers are expected to get trained and get dispatched throughout the Unified Court System by the spring. Cullen is concerned that even with almost 400 new court officers, the numbers won’t fulfill those who are retiring or are assigning to new positions.

“We have no problem dealing with authorized individuals, but our people need to be there in case there’s others because civilian employees can get hurt,” said Cullen. “They don’t have the training to handle unauthorized people. Where is their protection? What if there’s squatters who are left there overnight?”