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December 26, 1996
Tragedy of the streets

Vigil and death evoke horror of the homeless

by William K. Rashbaum and David L. Lewis
A ragged body on a downtown sidewalk yesterday served as a chilly reminder of the Christmas Day tragedy in Grand Central Terminal that crystallized the plight of the homeless 11 years ago.

Even as advocates gathered yesterday morning to mark the anniversary of the public death of the homeless woman known as Mama, two 5th Precinct cops found the unidentified man in front of the New York Chinatown Senior Citizens Coalition Center on Mulberry Street.

He was lying faceup under a scaffolding, his eyes still open, as Christmas music wafted from a nearby Asian market. He had $3 in his pocket.

"Maybe God will let him into heaven now because he died on Christmas Day," said Officer Michael Grannis.

The cause of death was not immediately established, but there were no visible marks on the body.

He died 11 years to the day after Mama perished of pneumonia in the Grand Central waiting room.

Fellow denizens in the terminal said then that Metro-North police had ignored requests to help her ? and her death quickly came to symbolize the city's disregard for the homeless.

Former Mayor David Dinkins joined a candlelight memorial service yesterday a few feet from the wooden bench that was Mama's deathbed.

"We will be judged as a society ultimately by how we treat the least among us," Dinkins said at the vigil, attended by a dozen advocates and homeless people who sang "Amazing Grace" in Mama's honor.

Advocate George McDonald, whose Doe Fund was named for the dead woman, said the latest Christmas Day tragedy should surprise no one. While services for the homeless have improved, he said, poverty has gotten worse.

"Homeless folks are dying every day," he said. "Christmas Day is no different."

Yesterday's victim, a black man in his 30s or 40s, was wearing two tattered black nylon jackets, a gray shirt, hiking boots and jeans a few sizes too large cinched up with a long belt.

None of the local merchants knew the dead man.

"It's such a shame," said a worker from the senior center, hunching his shoulders against the bitter cold. "What kind of homeless policy does the city have?"

"There are many others," he said, pointing to a nearby park where homeless people sometimes sleep.

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