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January 27, 1986
Behind Badge, a Heart for Homeless

"What are we talking about? Roaches? Rats? I seen people talk about 'what are we going to do about them.' But the 'them' they keep talking about are people, human beings." -Sgt. Frank Dowd

by Saul Friedman
When Frank Dowd and his wife, Irene, were childhood sweethearts on Manhattan's Upper East Side, they played in the arched caverns of Grand Central Terminal and its "echo chamber" near the Oyster Bar, where whispered dreams resound magically off the marbled walls.

And years later, when he had become a police officer with the old New York Central, Dowd took pleasure watching the well-dressed and well-heeled clicking across the great waiting room to trains like the Twentieth Century Limited.

So Dowd, a burly personification of the Irish cop with a dimpled cheek and the accents of Noo Yawk in his salty language, says he, as much as anyone, ought to resent the homeless who now haunt and litter Grand Central.

It was a natural reaction to resent anyone who defaced my memories of this place," he said as he wandered through the terminal on a recent night. "This was a classy place 30 years ago."

"They weren't just the bums coming in from the Third Avenue joints," he said. "I started seeing people I knew, paper handlers who had no nothing when they lost their jobs. There was a retired cop whose pension was small and at the end of the month when he didn't have no place to stay, he'd come here."

Thus, as Dowd, a sergeant in the Metro-North police, made his way through the underground labyrinth, what seemed like hulks took shape and stirred to life from benches and dark corners to greet him as a friend and a protector.

"The sergeant is nice to the homeless," said April Savino, a pert 17-year-old who lives with her boyfriend, a flower-seller, in a secret place within the terminal where there is heat. "Other cops can get mean. The sergeant does his job, but he doesn't get vulgar about it."

Despite such testimonials from the homeless, or perhaps because of them, Frank Dowd, who had helped run the night-shift patrol, is now riding a desk, a change of status that he has accepted stoically, without complaint.

"All I want to do is my job," said Dowd, who has spent 35 of his 51 years working for the railroad as a mail clerk and cop. "But the homeless ought to be treated like people, like basic human beings, for Chrissake."

A spokesman for Metro-North said Dowd was reassigned as a matter of routine in which jobs change, and that Dowd chose a desk job rather than be transferred to the commuter railroad's station in Yonkers.

George McDonald, an advocate for the homeless who brings sandwiches and fruit each night to distribute to the denizens of Grand Central and has spent many hours there, said of Dowd: "His trouble is he doesn't always follow orders."

The Metro-North police are supposed to clear all the homeless from Grand Central when it closes at 1:30 a.m., no matter how cold the weather. But a few nights before Christmas, Dowd quietly allowed an old homeless woman known only as "Mama" to remain in the terminal because her breathing was labored.

On the following nights, when Dowd was off, Mama was obliged to sleep outside the terminal. On Christmas Eve, according to several of the homeless, Metro-North officers ignored pleas to call an ambulance for Mama. And on Christmas Day she was found dead of pneumonia.

Dowd acknowledged that the case of Mama may have been mishandled. But he added that if there is blame most of it belongs with those who make the policies towards the homeless, not the Metro-North police.

"Metro-North have the burden," he said. "But we don't have the proper training to handle all these people. They [Metro-North officers] signed up to be cops and do criminal investigations or find pickpockets. They think it's below them to deal with these homeless people. So they get frustrated and the homeless get frustrated and it's like a tinderbox in here sometimes."

When Dowd was not in charge, several of the homeless reported, the officers on duty rousted the homeless from the terminal at closing time, by banging on the benches with their billy clubs.

"They bang with their clubs and it sounds like shots in this place and it scares the hell outta these people," said Joe Hernandez, 29, a mail clerk who works nearby and visits the homeless. "These people are broken enough from drugs or booze or whatever and here comes a cop banging and yelling for them to get the ---- outta here."

Dowd and officers on his shift "get us out of here, but they do it more quietly," said Raymond Morales, 27, a homeless man. "They don't bang on the benches or open the windows so it will be too cold for us to stay."

Said Dowd, "Sure you never know who you're waking up on the bench. So the police officer is on edge. But you have to walk a fine line between being overly zealous and keeping the lid on."

He paused, "Some people don't have the capability of coping with other people unless they feel powerful and they abuse the homeless because they feel superior. It don't take much to feel superior to these poor people."

McDonald said, and Dowd confirmed, that terminal officials have sought methods of discouraging the homeless from remaining in or around the station.

Although many of the homeless have found out-of-the-way places to stay in the terminal which are unknown to police, most of those who do not go to city shelters sleep on the subway ramp on 42nd Street, just outside the terminal gates. On the cold night of Dec. 12, Metro-North officials chained open the doors to the ramp in an apparent effort to drive the homeless to shelters.

"I don't blame them for not going to the shelters," Dowd said. "When I'm here they feel safer, and I feel better because they are all together and I can watch them at night. They don't bother anyone, so why chain open the doors?"

Metro-North officials said later that the chaining of the doors was an oversight. But according to McDonald and Dowd, officials have proposed spreading ammonia around the terminal or wetting sleeping areas down to chase the homeless away.

Said Dowd: "What are we talking about? Roaches? Rats? I see people talk about 'what are we going to do about them.' But the 'them' they keep talking about are people, human beings."

Nickie, a 17-year-old girl from Queens, rushed up to give Dowd a long hug as he stood at the subway ramp. She told him she was visiting her homeless friends. And as she hugged Dowd, he reddened and explained that he had watched over the girl for several weeks last summer when she came to live in the terminal because, as she put it, "My mother and I didn't get along." Eventually, Dowd negotiated a truce between mother and daughter, and Nickie went home.

"If you have their trust you can do things like that," said Dowd. "And it's a good feeling when you can get someone the ---- outta this place."

He has donated to the homeless an occasional meal, clothing collected by his wife or carfare so that one of the men or women of Grand Central could get to a job interview. Dowd has even gotten a nearby hotel to donate a shower for a homeless man trying t

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