NEW YORK—For the third day in a row, residents of the Boulevard Houses in East New York had to deal with the fact that a killer may be on the loose in their neighborhood. Police swept the area on foot and by car, searching for the man who they believe stabbed two children, one fatally.
The children, 6-year-old Prince Joshua Avitto, who was killed in the attack, and 7-year-old Mikayla Capers, who remains hospitalized. The children were cornered in a building elevator by the suspect on Sunday. Police described him as a heavy-set black male wearing a gray sweatshirt. The situation has been made more terrifying by the fact that a few blocks away, 18-year-old Tanaya Copeland was also stabbed to death on Friday.
Police were seen handing out flyers with Copeland’s photo on them to cars at red lights and passersby near where the children were stabbed. One woman with two small children paused to take a photo of a wanted posted on a telephone pole.
Everywhere near the housing complex there was a palpable sense of fear.
Some area residents, many of whom warned each other to be alert and vigilant, said the unusually heinous nature of the crimes raises another question: whether the crime was related to what they see as the proliferation of area homeless shelters.
“He must have come from one of the shelters in this area,” said one elderly resident who did not want to give her name. “Why would anyone do something like that?”
The sentiment was echoed over and over again throughout the day. The impression that there are a high number of shelters is not unfounded. According to The Network of Care Web Project and ShelterListings.org, there are about 10 homeless shelters in a one- to two-mile radius of where a child and a young woman were killed.
Neighborhood residents said they have noticed an obvious uptick in shelters in recent years. What’s more, they’ve come to associate them with safety issues.
“You’ve got them hanging out from morning to evening, begging for money,” said Steven Bracey, a 30-year resident of East New York who said the area has changed a lot in his time. He had gone to visit the makeshift candlelight vigil for Avitto outside of where the boy was killed. “It’s too many, it’s out of hand.”
Bracey added that in a community like his where there are children, women who work and walk from the train or bus at night alone, and homeowners who see property values impacted, the city should think twice about putting so many shelters there.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this [killer] was at one of these shelters now,” he added.
Bracey isn’t the only one with such an opinion. In an interview with CBS news, the boy’s father, Nicholas Avitto, was shocked to see that a police sketch of the subject looks just like a homeless man he has seen in his building. Avitto said he and his son sometimes gave the man money.
“I saw that sketch and I recognize that individual. I’ve seen him in our hallway,” he told CBS 2’s Janelle Burrell on Tuesday. “I saw that picture and I was devastated.”
The issue has not gone unnoticed at City Hall.
City Council member Jumaane Williams has long been a critic of the proliferation of homeless shelters. Williams is chair of the city council’s committee on housing and buildings, and has joined numerous protests against large shelters with 100–200 beds. Williams said at a May 19 rally that solutions are needed that serve the whole community.
The lack of security cameras in the complex has also been a major issue, forcing police and possible witnesses to identify the suspect without an actual picture of him. The New York City Housing Authority has come under fire this week for not installing cameras that were funded at the building.
“I support adding an additional 1,000 officers to the NYPD, with a significant number of those officers assigned to Housing Bureaus (patrolling public housing),” said James in a written statement. “We must do everything we can to protect New York families living in public housing from the scourge of violent crime.”