Neil Harris

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Radio Diaries Episode One - The Unmarked Graveyard: Neil Harris

A few years ago, a young man who called himself Stephen became a fixture in Manhattan’s Riverside Park. Locals started noticing him sitting on the same park bench day after day. He said little and asked for nothing. When Stephen was found dead in 2017, the police couldn’t identify him.

Like other New Yorkers whose bodies can’t be identified, he was buried in a mass grave on Hart Island, America’s largest public cemetery. For many, that would be the end of the story. But one day, a woman who knew Stephen from the park stumbled on his true identity. This is the story of where he came from, and the people who went to great lengths to try to track him down. 

Listen to episode here

Added by Susan Hurlburt

This is my son, Neil Harris Jr.    He has been missing for four years, & now I find out through total strangers, (I like to think of them as Angels) that he passed away over a year ago!  He was listed as a missing person, flyers went out, in person & social media & someone recognized him!  She contacted me through The Aware Foundation & now I can give him his identity & let him Rest In Peace!  

He had a family that loved him very much, he also had mental disabilities,which made it hard for him to distinguish between what was real & not real.  For whatever reason he decided to go away & take on a whole new identity.  But never once did I give up on him!  I was sure I was going to find my son!  Just not this way.  It breaks my heart to know that he was homeless, but it gives me relief to know that so many people really cared about him.  There are good people out there, you just have to believe it!  

For my son I grieve, but giving him his identity means the world to me!  I am also praying hard that this type of thing does not happen again.  If I can prevent one parent the pain & suffering of not knowing where her child is only to find out he has passed & you were not properly notified then I know his death was not in vain.  

Thank you Jessica Brockington for never giving up on Neil , & thank you to the countless others that walked through that park daily & were kind to him .  You all will never know how much that means to mean, & believe it or not, just a kind smile meant the world to Neil!  

Rest In Peace My Son, I never gave up hope, & I will always keep you in my heart 💔😢.  

Susan Hurlburt 

Rest Easy My Son, you have found your Peace!
Added by Jessica Brockington
A memorial was held in a few steps away from "Stephen's bench" at the Christian Community Church April 30, 2017.
The memorial on "Stephen's bench" grew.

Posted on April 19, 2017 at 6:54 pm by West Sider

Locals will gather at the Christian Community Church on 74th Street on Sunday, April 30 at 4 p.m. to commemorate a homeless man who would sit on benches in Riverside Park. The man, whose name was Stephen, is believed to be the man found dead last month in the park. As of last week, he had not been identified by police — that’s not uncommon when a homeless person dies.

People have been writing remembrances and placing flowers on a bench on 75th Street in the park where Stephen used to sit.

Photos by Gretchen Berger. [Gretchen Berger's photos are added below.]

NEWS | 2 comments | permalink
Wendy says:
April 20, 2017 at 12:32 pm
Almost Russian Orthodox Easter, 2017. My goodness, all of us former rough sleepers, who’ve survived so far. There was a Woman, who attended Funerals, so that everyone could have Someone who noticed them in that way ? n.b. Stephen Ministries. Remember the book, &, the movie @ the funeral/undertaker business; @ 30 years ago ? Ah, a Community Church re a community. I don’t like being forced to set aside @$4,000 for my future funeral, if in N.Y.C.; [a long story].
Independent says:
April 21, 2017 at 1:41 am

From this and other comments of yours, it sounds as if you have been through a lot and I am sorry to hear that. If I have understood you correctly, however, it also sounds as if things are now improved for you. I certainly hope that is the case and extend my best wishes that your life continues to improve.

“There was a Woman, who attended Funerals, so that everyone could have Someone who noticed them in that way”

Certainly a kind gesture as are the efforts for the man reported on in this story. Sad indeed to think of all the people who are not missed or even remembered by anyone when their day comes to depart this earthly plane (as I am afraid we all must do some day, much as we may delude ourselves otherwise). Even sadder though, I would say, to think of all those who have no one who cares about them or for them while alive. “All the lonely people…”. For all who are blessed to never know such pain and solitude, it is all too easy to take for granted what are great blessings. These are the type of things few who are young, healthy and successful give much thought to. While not that old, I’m old enough to be able look back to my youth and marvel at my own relative blissful denial (on some level, at least) of these tough realities of life. We are all so fragile and anyone’s circumstances can change from comfortable and secure to very much the opposite, G-d forbid, in a little as a mere moment (and, sometimes, at least, vice-versa as well). There is much profund truth in the old saying, “There but for the grace of G-d go I.”

Do you have any connection to the Russian (Eastern) Orthodox Church? Just curious, since you mentioned their celebration of Easter. Do you know when their Christmas is?

Whatever holiday you celebrate, I hope it was/is/will be enjoyable and meaningful for you.

Take care and G-d bless,

Independent/ UWS Dissident

An impromptu memorial blossomed on the bench where the young man often sat.
In colder months, this man could be found on this bench. A memorial plaque contributed by his neighbors now marks "his" bench.

[This is the second of three articles written about the man found dead 3/9/2017 in Riverside Park.]

Posted on April 13, 2017 at 2:31 pm by West Sider

[photos added below]

Two girls placed flowers and a note a few days ago on the bench in Riverside Park near 75th Street where a homeless man used to sit, according to Gretchen Berger, who took the photos above and below.

An unidentified homeless man died on March 9 in the park, and it appears that it was the same man who would sit on this bench or another one on 71st for the last four years. He developed a quiet but important bond with locals who spent time in the park. Police have not identified the man yet, though commenters have said his name was Stephen.

Others have added to the memorial in the days since.


NEWS | 8 comments | permalink
Gretchen says:
April 13, 2017 at 10:34 pm
And the outpouring continues today, April 13: the bench was literally overflowing with flowers, candles and other items.
geoff says:
April 14, 2017 at 9:08 am
i’m curious to know more about the “quiet but important bond” the homeless man established with the community. what was its nature?

did people socialize with him?

did people give him access to their bathroom/bath?

did people feed him?

what was it like?
West Sider says:
April 14, 2017 at 10:26 am
Please read our first piece on this:
Johnny UWS says:
April 14, 2017 at 12:58 pm
I “knew,” this man from passing him and noticed he was never engaged in anything and just sat quietly. I have been told by a man who lives in the street that he would not accept food from other street people and hardly spoke at all. To answer your question,I think these people mean some connection as a person who was just always there, and then was not.
Sarah says:
April 14, 2017 at 2:55 pm
Cool insinuations about people expressing human kindness, bro.

The number of people who measure the world by their own tiny and hard hearts…
Lawrence says:
April 15, 2017 at 9:15 am
Dont look to the fickleness of man but the steadfastness of the LORD !
Jessica says:
April 14, 2017 at 3:51 pm
I spoke with him and brought him food which he thanked me for and seemed happy about. But day-in-day-out walking my dogs in the park, he generally avoided eye contact, never said “Hi” first, never moved to pet my dogs or engage in anyway.

I think part of what drew people to him was that he sat outside in extreme weather and ignored everyone, even people who would say “Hi Steven” like me. Make whatever assumptions you will, since clearly you have no idea what we’re talking about, never saw the man or wondered about him and how to help. It was actually very upsetting to see someone who usually rebuffed a friendly “Hello” and who was sitting outside in dangerous weather. Sometimes it was like he was intentionally doing something dangerous – like walking a high-wire – and denying anyone’s ability to stop him. Taunting fate while so many people felt helpless to reach out.

Your questions, geoff, could be construed as reporterly, but this probably isn’t a topic to troll.
Wilfredo Ubardo says:
April 17, 2017 at 9:24 am
I Just got back and was shocked by this sad news. Although we never spoke, I was always looking forward to see his expressionless grace sitting on that bench. In a weird kind of way I felt moved by him. May he rest in peace

His body was found March 9, 2017 under the West Side Highway in Riverside Park at about 72nd Street.
The bench near Pier i where this young man spent many hours watching the Hudson River.

[Note from Jessica:  I'm adding the text and photos from local news stories about this man. He is identified in the DOC database only by the date and location of his death: March 9, 2017 in Riverside Park. If the West Side Rag should stop publishing, it would be a shame for this documentation to be lost.]

Posted on April 5, 2017 at 6:43 pm by West Sider

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.

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 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
Ted says:
April 5, 2017 at 8:01 pm
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.
R E says:
April 6, 2017 at 2:12 am
Ted, this is beautiful.
Ted says:
April 9, 2017 at 7:54 pm
Since a couple of people have commented, these are the lyrics to a song entitled The Ghetto by a group called Mark-Almond from their 1971 album. I am hoping the WSR will allow this link to a youtube of the song as it is hauntingly beautiful and has had special meaning for the 26 years I’ve lived in the city.
R E says:
April 5, 2017 at 11:04 pm
He always seemed so kind when I passed by. I’m saddened to read of his passing.
Glen says:
April 6, 2017 at 9:00 am
Thankfully, you don’t need to know his name to say a prayer for him. God knows who you are praying for.
Ish Kabibble says:
April 6, 2017 at 5:34 pm
Of course he does….
Lisa says:
April 6, 2017 at 1:31 pm
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.
Jeff Foreman says:
April 6, 2017 at 2:39 pm
I really enjoyed your very sensitive and insightful article. Thank you.
Thomas Newton says:
April 6, 2017 at 3:12 pm
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 so we can properly memorialize him. Thanks for your help.
MaryDowns says:
April 6, 2017 at 5:02 pm
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.
Kathleen says:
April 6, 2017 at 6:21 pm
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.
Bruce Bernstein says:
April 6, 2017 at 7:23 pm
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!
Karen says:
April 6, 2017 at 9:09 pm
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.
Nikki says:
April 6, 2017 at 9:34 pm
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…..
Valerie McCarthy says:
April 6, 2017 at 9:52 pm
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.
B.B. says:
April 7, 2017 at 8:39 am
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.
Rev. Gisela Wielki says:
April 8, 2017 at 6:16 pm
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.
Richard says:
April 9, 2017 at 11:03 am
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.
Akwesi says:
April 9, 2017 at 2:57 pm
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.
Dan says:
April 11, 2017 at 12:22 am
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.
RE says:
April 11, 2017 at 10:01 pm
Beautifully written
Jacqui says:
April 12, 2017 at 4:35 pm
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
Gisela Wielki says:
April 12, 2017 at 7:30 pm
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.
RE says:
April 12, 2017 at 10:14 pm
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.
Julia says:
April 12, 2017 at 11:19 pm
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:
April 13, 2017 at 3:39 pm
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!
Jessica says:
April 13, 2017 at 6:10 pm
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.

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