Isidoro Hernandez lives in a plot of land hidden deep among overgrown trees and brush by the Coney Island creek. His roof is a brown tarp held up by fallen tree branches. His floor and bed are a bundle of blankets. He obsesses over his garden, where he grows zucchini, corn and green peppers among other vegetables. When it’s warm enough, he paddles his motorless Wave Runner out in the water.
For the last five years, Hernandez’s nourishment, entertainment and even his toilet have been provided by a creek, once forgotten by history and polluted by sewage. Remnants of its neglect are still found in the abandoned, decaying ships that mark the waterside. But for Hernandez, 45, and his black cat, Diablo, this is home.
“I fell in love with this park like one would fall in love with a woman,” Hernandez said in his native Spanish.
Hernandez is one of over 3,000 homeless New Yorkers living outside the shelter system— a number that has increased by almost 23 percent since last year according to the City’s figures.
It’s the result of funding decreases in affordable housing subsidies that give many New Yorkers little choice but to overwhelm the shelters that do not have resources to keep up.
“[Shelters] are supposed to be temporary,” said Benjamin Henwood, researcher at NYU Silver School of Social Work. “But they’ve evolved into default housing for a population that can’t afford another alternative.”
Hernandez had a particular bad experience in one East New York shelter. He was so overwhelmed by the crowding in the building that he left after four days.
“Everybody ignored me,” Hernandez said. “They just forgot about me.”
He was determined to never go back.
However, unlike most of the unsheltered homeless who sleep out in the streets and subway cars, Hernandez created an encampment where he could live off the land using the gardening skills his mother taught him when he was a child.
Hernandez emigrated to California with his older brother when he was 16 years old. They worked for years in a textile factory in order to make enough money, about $5,000 each, to bring his mom and the rest of his family to the United States.
When the family moved to New York a couple of years later, Hernandez along with his brothers kept on working to provide for his relatives, especially his now-diabetic mother. However, when he started working as a janitor for a building in 72nd street in Bay Ridge, he soon grew wary of the daily routine of fixing toilets, taking out the garbage and tending to other people’s gardens.
“I don’t really know what happened to my mind,” Hernandez said. “I guess [my mind] just got tired of it all.”
He started to drink heavily which led to him losing his job and alienated him from his family. Forced out of his apartment after failing to keep up with rent, he began to live out on the streets and in park benches where police would routinely pick him up. Hernandez anxiously looked for a place to settle down, hidden enough not to be disturbed.
“I was just looking for a place where I still had a little bit of liberty,” he said.
Hernandez found that liberty in the Coney Island Creek where he could live virtually undetected. When called, a representative from Community Board 13 was astonished to hear that someone lived in that space. They have never received calls complaining about the encampment either.
“But we should still be made aware of every homeless situation,” the representative said, adding that as long as Hernandez is not hurting anyone, he could stay.
The Coney Island creek consists of two narrow sea passages that were once joined and completely separated Coney Island from Brooklyn. In the early 20th century, the city had planned to make the creek into a shipping canal. However, developers found those plans economically impractical and instead filled it to build railroad lines and a highway. This made Coney Island into the peninsula that it is today.
The western sea inlet of the creek, where Hernandez camps out, has a long and notorious history of pollution and neglect.
One of the biggest perpetrators was Brooklyn Borough Gas, which operated a work plant that spewed pollution into the creek from the beginning of the 20th century until the 1950’s.
“They could have cared less,” said historian Charles Denson. “Back then, stink was the smell. It gave people jobs.”
A native Coney Islander, Denson founded the Coney Island Project in 2004 to archive and educate Coney Island’s past. He is planning on writing a book on the storied creek, and there is no greater story than the ghost ships that reside in the creek’s shallow waters.
Back in 1950’s, the creek was a dumping ground for unwanted boats. Owners would abandon them and leave them to decay. The crown jewel is a yellow submarine built by Brooklyn shipyard worker Jerry Bianco to seek out sunken treasure from the wreck of the ocean liner Andrea Doria back in 1956. After a storm, the submarine dislodged from the shore and became stuck in the mud where it still sits today.
In the past, the Army Corps of Engineers has studied abandoned ships in what they deemed as New York’s economically viable waterways. The ships of the Coney Island creek have never been investigated by the agency.
However, Denson argues that the ghost ships, clearly visible from Hernandez encampment, are ultimately valuable.
“They’re mostly habitat for wildlife,” he said. “They’re pretty clean wrecks.”
Despite its tarnished past, Denson said that there has been renewed interest in revitalizing the creek.
In 2006, KeySpan, whose predecessor Brooklyn Union bought out the Brooklyn Borough Gas’ polluting plant, spent nearly 114 million dollars cleaning up much of the western inlet of the creek.
In addition, as part of its Vision 2020, the city plans in 2013 on diverting the sewers away from creek to prevent an overflow of sewage and storm water runoff.
However, most of the restorative efforts have come from the local community itself. The Partnership for Parks recently gave Denson a grant to construct signage to educate the public on the creek’s ecological and historical significance. Friends of Kaiser Park, which has organized creek clean ups in the past, also gave Denson a grant to launch a kayaking program.
“If you’ve seen it 10 years ago, you’d be amazed how much it’s come along,” he said.
However, it still has a long way to go. The area is still mostly undeveloped, except for a few car repair places, and in a 2011 report, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection declared the creek as “impaired” for aquatic life and recreational use because of pollution.
That has never stopped Hernandez. He and a motley crew of seven other visiting homeless men regularly cook and eat the fish they catch in the creek over a makeshift campfire. They fish deep in the creek where Hernandez insists it’s not polluted. He has never gotten sick from eating the fish.
“On the contrary, it has made me stronger,” he said.
A couple years ago, a friend gave them a broken Wave Runner without a motor. Hernandez and his friends fixed it, although they still haven’t found a motor for it. Instead, they ride up and down the creek using a paddle.
Many residents who frequent the area have seen Hernandez and his friends, and they all give the same commentary—they drink a lot, but they’re pretty much harmless.
Indeed, Hernandez admits that many of the activities involve heavy drinking and it can have its consequences. A month, he broke his leg after slipping and falling by the creek after a few many drinks. He had an epiphany that while he loves the freedom living outside has provided him, it has also given him the liberty to drink— an addiction that he has been struggling with for the last few years.
“I have to overcome this,” Hernandez said. “I need to at least attempt it.”
In order to make money, they collect empty cans and bottles and redeem them at local supermarkets, a crucial tactic for surviving the winter when the garden is bare.
To keep warm, Hernandez and his crew pick up discarded wooden slabs from the nearby Home Depot. They put them up against the tarp to protect from the cold and burn the rest in a big bonfire while wrapping themselves in blankets.
“We can overcome the cold because we know how to take care of ourselves,” Hernandez said.
Despite his affection for the creek, Hernandez isn’t sure if he can take another harsh winter outside. He hopes to move in with his brother when fall arrives or maybe even move back to Mexico. That is, if he can stop drinking first.
But no matter if he stays if he stays or if he goes during winter, he’s determined to come back when the weather warms up and continue to take care of his waterside home by the creek.
“I don’t plan to completely abandon it,” Hernandez said. “Like I told you, I fell in love with these lands.”