Beginning just beyond Patel’s Kingston Lanes bowling alley and ending at Van Kleeck’s Tire in Lake Katrine, there’s a three-mile north-south stretch of the American dream on either side of Route 9W. It’s a self-contained kingdom of big-box shops, fast-food restaurants, national chain stores, car dealerships and hotels. Parking lots pave the gaps in between.
Consider the Texas Roadhouse. Look behind the Party City, where a path like a game trail cuts through the brown winter weeds. Follow along to the doorway of a wide, low, derelict 12,240-square-foot brick building with a smashed-out front storefront window and a collapsing roof. Inside, with no electricity, running water or gas, 44-year-old Vincente Italiani stands, haunted by a dream of providing toys for children, beds for the homeless and treasures from the collected detritus around him.
“I noticed there was a problem with excess donations and how much beautiful useful stuff was going into the trash,” says Italiani. “They pay to throw it in the trash, which is why they have no problem giving it to me free. What I do is collect the overflow from other thrift stores like Salvation Army and Goodwill, and I upcycle it. I give it away for free.”
Walking from room to room pointing things out, Italiani speaks with the fervor of conviction in the argot of delusion or revelation, Energy flows. Chakras open. Synchronicity abounds.
“See, for homeless people this is just such a blessing. And if you look around, you`ll just see the depictions of God and Love everywhere. “All from random acts of kindness, compassion and generosity. It`s really manifested into a real, tangible thing now.”
Italiani says he has been living in the building since 2017, when he needed a place to stay. Through providence, some guys he had helped out brought him to the property.
“It`s beautiful when it`s clean,” says Italiani, showing off a room he calls his office. It really was an office at one time. The door of an empty wall safe as large as a framed painting hangs open.
“I did have electricity when I first got here, and then a few months after I was using generators and stuff because the electricity got cut off.”
Though Italiani calls the building home, his name isn`t on the deed. The vacant building is owned by MSF Holding, a limited liability company which shares its address with HAHN Motors, an automotive-parts distributor doing business out of Rochester, New York.
The title has been jumping hands since the Eighties when Michael Futerman, founder and chairman of HAHN Automotive Warehouse, Inc, bought the building for $10 from Max Kligman, president of Hudson Valley Furniture. In 1993 Futerman sold it to his son Eli for one dollar, to be put into a trust. Eli Futerman sold it back to his father in 1997, again for one dollar. After Michael Futerman passed, Eli took on his father`s job. Two years later, the building was sold to MSF Holding LLC, again for a dollar.
Whatever else it may accomplish, this business of selling buildings for a dollar causes the sale of the property to be perceived by taxing authorities as a gift, thus avoiding the title transfer tax. The property is assessed at $750,000,
Arie Schochat, one of two vice-presidents at HAHN Motors, is in the process of getting it demolished.
“About a year ago, the Town of Ulster contacted me,” says Schochat over the phone. “Said that due to a stabbing, due to the fact it was a vacant property, will you please demolish the building? And we said absolutely. We’re happy to demolish the building.”
Schochat says the property had been offered for sale many times over the years, but no deal was ever worked out. HAHN Automotive used to have a store location here but it closed.
“So between getting contractors lined up, Covid, the whole nine yards, we finally found somebody to take on the job,” says Schochat. “And then we found out that this gentleman was squatting in the building. He never had a lease with us. He’s been trespassing the whole time.”
The building has been vacant for nine years.
“He’s on a different page”
Near the front of the building, Italiani crouches before a fireplace feeding cardboard egg filler flats into a fire as he talks, gesturing at the large, broken plate glass scattered across the showroom floor.
“A fully functioning fireplace in the dead of winter for homeless people I`d say is a miracle,” says Italiani. “A few days before Christmas, the day before that big snow, they busted that window out. Before that, you could get it nice and cozy in here.”
Outside, a yellow hydraulic excavator on treads frames the window with its long, destructive arm.
Steve Sucato, owner of M&D Services, the company hired to do the demolition, speaks with a mellow, Bronx accent.
“We offered him $6000,” says Sucato. “We`re trying to do the right thing, ownership and myself. But Vinnie is not using his smarts right now. I was talking to Vinnie yesterday, I was like `Vinnie, listen, once they take you out you’re gonna have nothing. You’re gonna have no money. You have a chance to get yourself a place, clean yourself up, or whatever. But he`s on a different page.”
Sucato and Schochat both confirm that they offered him this money as well as money for the first week in a hotel and for the first month of a storage space.
“The ownership`s now pissed because they have a deadline,” says Sucato. “I told Vinnie that by Monday the deal`s completely off the table. He’s going to go from having something to having nothing. It’s not like we’re going to keep negotiating. Nobody does what we’re doing. Ari`s a businessman. He doesn’t have to do any of this stuff.”
A storehouse of blessings
Italiani leads the way walks through all the rooms on the premises, commenting on this or that as he goes: salvaged typewriters, framed signs with uplifting messages, collected bric-a-brac and furniture.
“I wanted to get this fixed up and have it looking pretty functional,” says Italiani. “This is the guest room, when it`s cleaned up it looks like a two-million-dollar-a-night B&B …. That`s somebody`s stuff, an employee that works over at Red Lobster, keeps their stuff here. I`ve had countless amount of people living here, matter of fact before the home went up, Samadhi`s in Saugerties, I had probably a half-dozen of those people living here.”
We enter a large room with high windows which was a garage at one time. The bare concrete floor has been covered with carpets, bright reds, warm colors, deep fibers, lush shag.
“This place is a mess right now,” apologizes Italiani. “Normally, there ain`t a spot of dust. The cops joke `I thought you said you were homeless, like, you want us to take our shoes off?’ It`s Hollywood carpet red in here.”
A Christmas tree wrapped in string lights and ornaments stands alone as a focal point. Toys, stuffed animals and other decorations ring the tree. This is the main storehouse of Vincent`s blessings
He reads from a printed and framed mission statement: “Our mission at homeful blessings recycling center is remain faithful, hopeful and grateful, that we can make a difference changing the world one random act of kindness at a time. Through the recycling of one’s blessings and donations. It`s through the compassion and generosity of others that allows us to provide much-needed resources to those in need at no cost to them.”
According to fire inspector Jimmy Bruno of the building department for the Town of Ulster, the building was condemned on August 11, 2021. There are concerns about asbestos contamination, the lack of utilities and sanitation, the condition of the roof figures prominently.
“By New York State law,” says Bruno, “once I condemn that building no one’s supposed to be in there. They`re breaking the law. He can be taken out immediately. There is a law in place, and you should be going by what the law says. But for some reason they`re not, so my hands are tied. I’m just sitting back and waiting to see what happens.”
“He deserves a soft landing”
In a large adjoining space so long that it disappears into gloom and darkness, the ceiling has collapsed. Shaggy, rotten-looking insulation hangs down. The rib structure of the beams set every 24 inches on center face the grey skies above. The sleeting rain falls through.
Maybe it’s the contrast between the light and the dark that emphasizes interior gloom. Whatever else it might have been, it’s a scene of squalor. Characteristically, Italiani sees what he wants to see.
“This eventually is where I want it to be a shelter,” says Italiani. “Yeah, I wanted to purchase the building,. I was in the process of getting an endowment grant. I mean, look at all this space! I was even going to do a separate section over here for couples, because I noticed one of the issues that shelters have is a lot of couples aren`t allowed to go there. And that`s hard on them. And I would make this the kitchen eventually. This goes into my office, which they kicked the door down on that previously.”
Who had kicked in his office door?
“Whoever dug up the gas line and broke the window purposefully … and they kicked that door down, so I had to put it back up, because that wasn`t enough for them, apparently. Yeah, they`re trying to make me uncomfortable, but they don`t realize whatever they do to me this is God`s plan. This is bigger than me.”
According to Schochat, over the course of a year there had been made mention for Italiani to remove himself from the property.
“He needs help, you know,” says Schochat. “But the help that he requires, he really can’t get that in a condemned building. We’ve even offered him money to get him set up. I believe in a hotel or with a storage unit or something, just to kind of move him on to the next chapter of his life. He refused to take it. Listen, he`s a human being. He deserves a soft landing, at least to go on to the next stage of his life. It’s like, you know, you’re trying to be a mensch here. But obviously, it doesn’t work all the time.”
The police haven`t rousted Italiani out physically at this point, according to Town of Ulster supervisor Jim Quigley. The town is acting under counsel`s advice that the situation should be treated as a civil matter, under which the police play no part.
While trespassing is criminal, inhabiting a property for as many years as Italiani has enters into a legal grey area. At ten years, there would have been no question. In New York State, squatters too have rights, and the building would have been his.
“I don’t feel homeless”
Since January 10, red tape has been wrapped around the fence at the front of the building. Signs have been posted.
“If there are red signs on there, and they contain the signature of Warren Tutt of the town building department,” says Quigley, “you can take it as an assurance the building has been condemned.”
With the decision made to pursue the matter as a civil rather than a criminal matter, Italiani has gained a short reprieve.
“Hopefully somebody uses their noodle and they can figure something out,” says Socuto. “He`s a character. I get a kick out of him. I don`t know if you`ve spoken to Vinnie, but he`s very articulate, you know. He has books he writes stuff into. I said to myself, he`s so articulate, the guy. I just can`t see him doing what he`s doing.”
For now, everything has come to a standstill, The excavator patiently waits.
Today, the temperature outside is just a degree or two warm enough to prevent the rain from turning into snow. The winter wind blows in though the empty window frame. The monotonous rush of traffic passing by on Ulster Avenue creates the mechanical equivalent of waves crashing on a seaside.
“I was actually crossing that bridge right there,” says Italiani. The span to which he refers is the East Chester Street Bypass where the road lifts up to let the CSX trains go beneath.
“That`s when I got the vision for all this,” he says. “I said, homeless? I don`t feel homeless! I got a home full of crap I`m trying to give away. That`s when I came up with the fact that someone could be upcycling all this excess overflow and giving it away for free. And this would not only reduce waste but it will also be a compassionate system of give-and-take that`ll teach people how to share. It`s okay to share your blessings.”