Polish immigrants homeless in USA FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 1 Feb 1999 19:16:18 -0800 (PST)

FWD from The Bergen Record (New Jersey):

   Your Town News


   Friday, January 1, 1999

   Staff Writer

   More than a decade after leaving his native Poland, Mieczyslaw
   Kosakowski has few sure things in his new life in America besides
   scrounging for scrap metal and getting drunk.

   Like the other hard-luck Polish men who drift on the edges of Clifton
   and Passaic, the 43-year-old Kosakowski is part of a younger
   generation of immigrants that traded a slower-paced life in Poland
   during the late 1970s and 1980s for a chance at prosperity,

   These days, he wears filthy clothes and wanders through the streets of
   Botany Village, a neighborhood where successful Polish immigrants run
   travel agencies, meat markets, and gift shops. "I had big dreams once,
   but they have faded away," Kosakowski says through
   an interpreter.

   Most Polish immigrants who settled in lower Bergen and Passaic
   counties have worked hard to forge productive lives, but Kosakowsi and
   a small number of others have wound up on the extreme fringes in
   Clifton and Passaic.

   In middle-class Clifton, the men are the first group of homeless
   people to be seen on a regular basis, according to police, officials,
   and merchants. They roam around the Passaic border, sleeping near the
   river in both cities.

   Because they don't speak English, and because they don't seek
   professional help, the men are not even a blip on the radar screen of
   local shelters and social service agencies.

   Some have met a terrible fate.

   "I've seen three Polish immigrants die from exposure," said Police
   Officer John Michal, who has patrolled Botany for years. "It gets to
   the point where you say, 'I wonder which one of them is going to die
   this winter.' "

   The men started turning up on the streets in Clifton four years ago,
   Michal said. They sleep in dirty blankets near the Passaic River, or
   in cars and in abandoned buildings.

   They drink heavily, pick food from garbage, and occasionally fight
   with each other. It is common to see them with scrapes and bruises.
   There are about six or so who hang around in Clifton, and a number of
   others in neighboring Passaic, police say.

   For the enterprising immigrants who operate businesses in Botany
   Village, the sight of their impoverished
   countrymen is painful and bewildering.

   "I see them more and more, but I don't know what any of us can do to
   help them," said Maria Boczniewicz who runs a travel agency with her
   husband, Mike. "In America, you have to work. They don't want to work.
   They tell me they are too sick to work."

   Indeed, the emphasis on hard work and self-sufficiency
   in the immigrant community may help explain the lack of a support
   network and the unwillingness on the part of the men to seek help.

   "There is this tradition of independence -- a feeling that if you
   don't succeed on your own, you have failed," said a Clifton lawyer,
   Henry Walentowicz, who is active in the Polish-American community.
   "Hopefully, that is going to change."

   It is a problem that has also frustrated a
   Polish priest. "I've tried to help them, but they have a habit of
   disappearing," said the Rev. John Podgorny of Holy Rosary R.C.
   Church in Passaic. "Some of them like this type of living. They
   don't come and ask for help."

   In many cases, the men entered this country alone, on temporary visas,
   with the intention of working construction jobs and sending money back
   to relatives in Poland. But they stayed longer than their visas

   Kosakowski has been here for 14 years, and his wife and child are
   still in Poland. He does not have a green card, and he says he sleeps
   in a car.

   Returning to Poland probably would mean being barred from reentering
   the United States. "They feel ashamed to go back with nothing in
   their pocket," said Adam Wilk, a Polish immigrant who owns a
   liquor store on Lexington Avenue.

   Although the immigrants came equipped with some blue-collar skills,
   the construction jobs they find are not always steady and not enough
   to make ends meet. Some, including Kosakowski, say injuries prevent
   them from working. Others say the contractors cheat them or pay them
   in alcohol. If their citizenship is in question, there is little they
   can do.

   And, there is no organized support network in the Polish community for
   new immigrants. "Other than a place to stay for a few days, there is
   nothing," said Maria Boczniewicz.

   Two years ago, Clifton officials cleared a small encampment near the
   river and helped take the Polish-speaking
   squatters to shelters. But since then, they say their only contact
   with the men is sporadic. "We will help them get the assistance
   they need," Mayor James Anzaldi said. "But you can't force
   an adult to do anything they don't want."

   The closest shelters, including three in Paterson and the Salvation
   Army in Passaic, report having no contact with the men. The Passaic
   County Board of Social Services said illegal aliens cannot receive
   welfare benefits in any case.

   All these factors -- the
   idle time between construction jobs, the lack of family ties, the
   feeling of rootlessness--tend to lead to one inevitable destination:
   alcohol. Liquor, whether vodka or wine, is cheaper in the United
   States than in Poland.

   "I'm up to a pint and a half [of wine] per day," Kosakowski said.
   Michals, the police officer, said "there is a trail of empty liquor
   bottles around the area."

   Kazimierz Serafin, 48, was
   a chicken farmer in Poland. He said the Communists hampered his
   entrepreneurial instincts, and now he hangs out drinking behind an
   apartment building in Passaic. On a recent, chilly afternoon, he sat
   asleep in a chair. Empty liquor bottles lined the outside window sill
   behind him.

   "My first problem now is my alcohol," Serafin said after waking up.

   The men are sometimes treated at a detox center at Passaic Beth Israel
   Hospital, where there is a Polish-speaking nurse. They stay for five
   days and then leave. "We refer them to other places, but they don't
   usually go," said Kim Titmas, nurse-manager of the North Jersey
   Addiction Recovery Program. "There is not a lot of Polish-speaking
   places they can go. They don't like the confinement of the shelters."

   The latest casualty was Paul Mucha, a 34-year-old Polish immigrant who
   was found dead Aug. 6
   by the Dundee Canal, near the river. He was was known as a bright,
   promising man who held down a job, had a girlfriend, and rented an
   apartment on Center Street in Clifton.

   But he started going downhill after his mother moved back to Poland,
   friends say. "In two weeks, he went from top to bottom," said Wilk,
   the liquor store owner who shared an apartment with Mucha.

   By 1995, Mucha's girlfriend had left him, and he was spending time in
   a shack on Dundee Island, near the river.

   He would end up dying this summer not far from that spot. Police say
   he was found face down in a small amount of water. He was disheveled,
   with long hair and a beard. Police say he had no address at the time
   of his death and had been living near the river for a few days. Police
   do not suspect foul play, but an exact cause of death has not been

   "His problem was alcohol," said his girlfriend, who has since married
   and asked not to be quoted by name. "He was so smart, I fell in love
   with him. But he could not stop drinking."

   Even without the problems of alcohol and unemployment, the Polish men
   face culture shock in America. Many come from villages and towns where
   the pace is slower and where friends and family still live close, says
   Tomasz Deptule, a Wanaque resident and managing editor of Nowi
   Dziennik, a national Polish newspaper based in Manhattan.

   "In Poland, social life is very tight. If you walked around drunk,
   everyone would know about it," he said. "Now the men come here and
   they are rootless. They don't belong to any social group.They have

   He said the cultural gap between the generations of Polish immigrants
   makes it hard for the newcomers to get help. For the established
   community, "the problem is how to keep Polish, how to keep the
   traditions, not how to legalize or find a good job."

   Deptule said his newspaper is trying to help by running articles on
   how to become a legal immigrant, how to find a job, and how to adjust
   to life in America.

   Help is also trickling in from other sources. There are Alcoholics
   Anonymous meetings in Polish
   at a Passaic church.

   Eileen Marino, a former nun and a Wallington resident, brings food
   several times a week to the homeless Polish men in Passaic. Michal,
   the police officer, brings coats from the Clifton Police Department's
   annual coat drive.

   The men gladly accept the handouts, but most say they don't need help.
   Bojcich Najewski, for example, says he can find a warm place to stay
   at a friend's house. Staring sullenly out at the run-down Passaic
   neighborhood before him, Najewski says: "I lift boxes for money,
   and I get enough to get cigarettes," he said. "Why do I need
   any help?"


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