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Officials Target Shanties On Hudson River

May 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

UNION CITY, N.J. -- Apart from the million-dollar view of Manhattan's glittering skyline, the plywood shanty that Cruz Melendez fashioned on a wooded slope has little in common with most of the posh housing that's been built on the Hudson River in recent years.

But the 5-by-15 foot ``casita,'' as he calls it, is home. Most important, it's rent-free, since the 63-year-old said his income from collecting recyclables buys food.

``I'm happy because I believe in God,'' said Melendez, a Roman Catholic, who has a raised bed, battery powered radio, patchwork carpeting, roll of toilet paper, tiny fireplace and a poster of Abraham Lincoln tacked the low ceiling.

The problem: city officials want Melendez -- and everyone else in the makeshift neighborhood -- to get out. The area has drawn the attention of authorities and concerned residents for recent violence and its unsightly appearance.

Like a miniature version of the sprawling favelas populated by poor rural migrants on the outskirts of Latin American cities, the shanties -- extremely rare in these parts -- occupy a sloping strip of wooded no-man's land in Hudson County, New Jersey's most densely populated region.

The shanties are within Union City, but are closer to the base of the Palisades overlooking Hoboken, with its luxury apartments and townhouses closer to the Hudson River opposite Manhattan that sell for more than $1 million.

Union City Police officers and Mayor Brian Stack descended on the area earlier this month, urging residents to seek shelter elsewhere. Stack said he offered to pay a month's rent on new housing and provide other assistance -- an offer some have taken. He said no one would be evicted from their homes among the dozen people who remain in three clusters of shanties overlooking northern Hoboken.

``I call them homes because that's what they are,'' said Stack, who arranged city jobs for three residents of the cliffs. ``They're low-paying jobs, they're street sweeping jobs, but it gives them a foot in the door, especially if they're willing to work hard.''

Melendez is a native of Puerto Rico who said he will seek social security when he's eligible in two years but now receives no public assistance. He said Stack appeared genuinely concerned when the two spoke during the mayor's visit.

Melendez said he wouldn't mind moving, but added, ``We don't have any place to go.''

Melendez is not exaggerating, said Tom Harrigan, co-director of the Palisades Emergency Residence Corp., a soup kitchen and 40-bed homeless shelter that is filled most nights.

Harrigan said the average cost of a furnished room in the area is $125 a week, barely affordable for people earning minimum wage. Many of the 150 people a night who eat free dinners at the shelter do have jobs, he said, but can't afford food after paying rent.

Harrigan commended the mayor for his compassion, and said the shelter houses the three former squatters for whom the mayor got jobs. But with little affordable housing, he asked, ``Where do you send these people?''

Melendez' son, Diego Ramirez, 39, shares a shanty with one other man just up a dirt path from his father's little shack. The men live surrounded by what seemed to be years worth of broken beer bottles and other trash, 30 or 40 feet above railroad tracks being installed at the base of the Palisades.

Ramirez said he has been living in various spots on the Palisades for 10 years, since his girlfriend threw him out of the apartment they shared, and started drinking heavily thereafter.

Life on the cliffs is not all bad, he said.

``We're in nature, with the little animals,'' he said in Spanish. ``We're peaceful.''

Indeed, under a canopy of green, away from any roads or sidewalks, the shanty town seems tranquil. But in recent months, that tranquility was shaken by the separate stabbing deaths of two of its residents.

``I don't know if I would characterize any place as dangerous,'' said Guy Gregory, first assistant Hudson County prosecutor. ``However, when you have people living together in tight quarters without security, there is an invitation to crime and violence.''

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