Pier-1 bench
The bench near Pier I where a young homeless man would often sit, until he vanished one day.

By Joy Bergmann

He was always there. The young homeless man in the maroon hoodie, always sitting bolt upright on a Riverside Park bench – sometimes at 75th Street, other times near Pier 1 Café at 70th – his big canvas rucksack near.

He said almost nothing. No requests for money or food. No murmurs to himself or invisible interrogators. His gaze seemed steady, as did his strong walk – all six-plus feet and 200 pounds of him, occasionally spotted on Broadway peeking into garbage cans or picking up a free Metro paper to read.

He had neighbors who wondered and worried about him. Food, clothes, magazines and money would be placed within his reach. After several such interactions, he might turn toward his visitor, meet their eyes and give a faint, quick smile. But he left it at that.

For going on four years, he was always there. Until he wasn’t.

“It took me weeks to find out what happened to him,” says Billy the Birdman, another daily presence at the park, an avid hawk-spotter who lives nearby on 76th Street. “I knew him better than anyone, saw him every day for years, but I never got him to engage past saying ‘yes, no or thank you.’ And yet I feel like I really lost somebody.”

According to Billy, park workers told him that the man in the maroon hoodie had been found dead several weeks ago in a fenced off area controlled by Amtrak under the West Side Highway near 71st Street, steps from the Riverside Park South Dog Run.

Amtrak Area under WSH
The homeless man was found in this area under the West Side Highway near 71st Street in Riverside Park.

Today WSR asked NYPD and the Parks Department for verification. Though we cannot be certain it was the maroon hoodie man, NYPD confirmed that on the morning of March 9th an “unidentified male in his 30s” was found there, “seated on the ground, unconscious and unresponsive.” EMS responded and pronounced him dead on the scene. “The medical examiner will determine the cause of death. There are no arrests and the investigation is ongoing.”

The Office of Chief Medical Examiner told WSR that, “The person still has not been identified yet. And the cause and manner of death are still pending.”

Billy thinks the man he called ‘the homeless kid’ was more like 25 years old, but it was difficult to discern any specifics about him. He seemed healthy and strong. He had a full head of reasonably neat, short, wavy black hair, a medium complexion and features that were not easily categorized. Was he of Samoan or North African or Caribbean descent?

“He had no accent when he said any of the three words he would say,” recalls Billy. “I wish I knew his name. I want to say a prayer for him.”

Billy the Birdman
Billy the Birdman on the Riverside Park bench at 75th Street frequented by the homeless man.

Billy’s not the only one. WSR heard from several readers asking if we could find out about the man. Said one, “We’re all part of the life of the park.”

Whoever he was, he was likely not one of the 62,692 homeless people in NYC shelters each night. And if he was sleeping tucked up under the highway, the City likely didn’t count him in its annual HOPE census of street homeless people.

But to those who saw him every day, he did count.

If anyone has additional information about this young man, please let us know in the comments. If we learn more from the Medical Examiner or other City agencies contacted for this story, we will publish an update.

Photos by Joy Bergmann.

NEWS, OUTDOORS | 27 comments | permalink
    1. Ted says:

      The Ghetto


      Here I am, standing all alone.
      Seems like I’m a thousand miles from home.
      You know that never did I have a friend.
      You know I never had a dollar that I could lend.

      And sometimes I get down on my knees
      And I wonder if He sees.
      New York City is where I’m from.
      Down there in the ghetto, where you don’t come.

      Seems like my life has passed me by.
      And you tell me, tears of joy,
      But I tell you, I cry!
      And sometimes I get down on my knees

      And I wonder if He sees.
      Don’t give me liquor for my pain.
      All my friends they never came back again.
      Nowhere to run, there’s nowhere to hide.

      Just me in the ghetto with you looking in from outside.
      And sometimes I get down on my knees
      And I wonder if He sees.

    2. R E says:

      He always seemed so kind when I passed by. I’m saddened to read of his passing.

    3. Glen says:

      Thankfully, you don’t need to know his name to say a prayer for him. God knows who you are praying for.

    4. Lisa says:

      His name was Stephen. He told me that he was from Long Island and that he had no family. The last thing he said to me was “God bless you.” He will be missed.

    5. Jeff Foreman says:

      I really enjoyed your very sensitive and insightful article. Thank you.

    6. Each year, Care for the Homeless holds a memorial event on the Winter Solstice (December 21 this year) to remember homeless individuals who have died during the year in and around New York City. We will include this young man right now as a “John Doe”. If he is identified, please contact me at tnewton@cfhnyc.org so we can properly memorialize him. Thanks for your help.

    7. MaryDowns says:

      No matter how early in the morning I would go out for a run, he would be there, appearing to be both waiting for something and not waiting for anything. I imagined at first that he simply liked spending time down by the river before work, maybe with the park service or a nearby construction crew. I mistook his quiet, self-contained manner for contentedness.
      This is terribly sad news, but I appreciate WSR’s coverage of it.

    8. Kathleen says:

      Beautiful poem, Ted. Sad story. I wonder what his soul’s journey is that it led him to that bench each day and left this Earth so quickly. It’s also heartwarming to read of the many who felt a connection with this man of so few words, to know people cared about him. Thank you for the article and comments.

    9. Bruce Bernstein says:

      an excellent, and poignant, story. thank you WSR and Joy Bergmann.

      and i have seen Billy the Birdman — he has even pointed out hawks to me — but now i know his name and can say hello!

    10. Karen says:

      I am so sad to read this. I’ve shared silent hello’s with this gentle soul several times a week as I’ve passed him in the park. He was often on the bench by 74th or staring out at the river by the pier. He struck me as a sad, lost young man and I always wondered why. I noticed his absence right away and have found myself looking for him every time I’ve run over the past three weeks. I wish I would have spoken with him. I hope he is at peace.

    11. Nikki says:

      This makes me so sad. I walk my dog in the park and would see him all the time. Last summer, on a day that was particularly hot and humid, I offered him food and a bottle of ice water. He said, ‘no thank you’ and I walked away, kind of embarrassed. I will say a prayer for him tonight…..

    12. Valerie McCarthy says:

      I am so sad about this, it is haunting. I’ve seen him more times than I could possibly count. Just feeling like it’s such a loss. Have no idea of his story.

    13. B.B. says:

      A few notes;

      Those wishing to do something might look into arranging a memorial service.

      Not sure of the details or if even wholly correct, but IIRC friends or others not related to an unidentified/person without family are able to arrange funeral services. Cremation is not possible without consent of family/legal heirs but burial (again IIRC) is possible. Though this would be an expensive proposition, it might make those who knew this young man feel better than the alternative; Potter’s Field on Hart Island.

      Cannot remember exactly all the details but many years ago a close friend was involved in arranging the funeral and so forth for a young person who died in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment.

      Apparently the young man was estranged from his family and they wanted nothing to do with him even after demise. To prevent the body from going to a paupers grave the group of the deceased friends got together to arrange a funeral. They couldn’t afford burial and perpetual care so wanted cremation and the closest of the friends would take custody of ashes. While the first could be done, the latter couldn’t without consent of family so someone actually flew out to where they were and got them to sign the necessary papers.

      Body was claimed, cremated, beautiful church service had, followed by a repass at a local spot frequented by the deceased and his crowd during the former’s lifetime.

      If this young man had any sort of ID on him/in his bag the City will make every effort to find any relatives.

    14. We could make our space available, the Christian Community Church at 309 W 74th Street if friends in the neighborhood would like to gather and remember Stephen. Best dates would be Friday, Saturday or Sunday afternoon or evening, April 28-30. If interested in arranging or attending such a gathering please contact Reverend Gisela Wielki at 212 874-5395 or cell phone 212 877-0208.

    15. Richard says:

      I saw this morning a simple note taped to the bench i knew him to occupy these last surprisingly 4 years long. Always intending to engage with him, he purposefully shied away. Perhaps sometimes a faint nod would be returned. He often had a sandwich or salad with him as my dog and i passed. I knew people were offering him food. Occasionally i would see him near Broadway with a bag of food i assumed he had purchased somehow.
      The purple hoodie. The stuffed knapsack. His thick trousers. He survived until he didn’t. I often thought of him in the frigid weather wondering how he would fare through the night. Sadly my image of him finding a warmish place is belied by his discovery in the rail yards under the west side highway.
      Life was short for him. Brutish. Yet he survived as only he knew how. I too hope he has found peace where life had failed him.

    16. Akwesi says:

      I work as a fitness consultant trainer and I remember 1st seeing Stephen (if that’s his name). Prior or after time with my client I would train in the park in an adjacent park bench. We would see each other few the years and seasons. I never seen him bother anyone, nor asked for handouts. While in the park today I thought about him, being too in view site of the note and flowers on the bench where he would sit.

    17. Dan says:

      I train my younger brother at a park where he always sat. I would look at him and just wonder. He seemed like an enlightened man. Like he knew some secret, like he understood the world. He was not distracted by a phone, and he was never bored. He just sat, and stared as if each moment lasted a million years. To think that he would impact so many souls with so few words is a marvel to me.
      My brother and I will look at that park bench and remember his mysterious half smile, content and full of wisdom. He was the Buddha of riverside park.

    18. Jacqui says:

      Thank you so much for this info and all the comments with info … I’m so upset … and sick that I didn’t do more to reach out to him … I brought him a heavy coat in the bitter cold but never saw him wear it … always with that half smile … no one should have to live their life like that … Rest In Peace Sfephen … you will be thought of often

    19. Gisela Wielki says:

      His name is Stephen. I asked him and often spoke with him addressing him with his name and he always responded in as much as he responded.

    20. RE says:

      I am still so upset over this. He was so kind looking. So gentle. I’m sad. Can’t stop thinking about him. I’m really sad. I miss him even though I never actually stopped. I am so sad.

    21. Julia says:

      Each day I walked by him as I walked my dog
      I was comforted by his presence
      I wanted, yearned to speak to him,
      I never did
      He never spoke, he never bothered anyone
      He seemed content to just be
      And yet I felt,he couldn’t be content that is
      I wanted to help but hesitated
      Now I am so deep,y saddened
      I should have done something
      I should,have helped
      I should have ……
      Thank you to whomever left the memorial to this quiet soul
      He effected me, he was a part of my life
      I only wish he knew that I shared that with him
      So to Stephen, I will miss you

      • Simone Rose says:

        I always see him by the bench at 74 street every day like around 1.15 pm. I tried to give him eyes contact he always looked away! I’m so sad he died on my birthday that was a cold day. This makes me really sad!

    22. Jessica says:

      Thank you for writing about this, Joy. I just saw the note on the park bench with flowers and candles. Very sad.

      One cold day two winters ago I asked a friend who does homeless outreach how to approach him, and he said, “Well, it’s cold. Ask him if he’d like a cup of coffee.”

      He said yes, and I brought coffee and tomato soup, from the deli on 72nd and West End Avenue. He told me his name. I told him mine. And for two years since he kind of made eye contact, but mostly not. I tried not to say “Wow man, I’m worried about you. How are you going to make it through this cold day? How will you make it through winter?” Maybe I should have. Maybe I did. I don’t recall. He seemed so determined, of something. And gentle. I felt safe in the park when he was there.