NEW YORK - At 10:15 last Thursday night, most stores along Park Avenue were locked and shuttered. But Bernie was doing his best business of the day.

The self-appointed doorman at a Citibank branch had just coaxed "tips" from three consecutive ATM customers. One emptied her change purse - $1.48 in all - into Bernie's outstretched coffee cup before nervous hailing a cab.

Preying on Fear

"I'll tell you a little inside information - it gets better as it gets darker," says the 30-year-old homeless man. "Scared people tend to be a little more generous."

Panhandlers like Bernie have become an irritating fact of life for the city's banks and their customers.

Perched in ATM vestibules, the beggars are usually polite yet sometimes seem threatening at the same time. And even when they appear totally harmless, customers wish they weren't there.

While the beggars have been widespread since the late 1980s, they were thrown into the spotlight earlier this year by the debate over a tough ATM security bill. Even though the measure was ultimately adopted, no one thinks it will drive away Bernie or his brethren.

Indeed, bankers, legislators, and the police department have barely been able to make a dent in the problem despite a variety of efforts.

"Try as we may, we cannot hermetically seal an ATM," says Gary Roboff, a director of the NYCE network and an executive of Chemical Bank.

Sleeping in the Vestibule

It is estimated that one in four ATM sites in New York is occupied by a homeless person at some point during the day. And while not all of these people pan-handle, a study showed that even a sleeping vagrant in a far corner of the vestibule can be threatening to customers.

Bankers have responded by spending millions of dollars on surveillance cameras and security patrols.

Yet at the same time they find themselves walking a fine line between protecting the rights of their ATM customers and being sensitive to the needs of the homeless.

"It would be nice to guarantee a sterile ATM environment, but there is a limit in terms of moral and ethical conduct as to what we can do to achieve this," says Mr. Roboff.

It's a sensitive issue for all parties involved," acknowledges Ted Houghton, an assistant director of the Coalition for the Homeless in Manhattan.

"The banks are right in saying that the homeless are not their responsibility, and the police clearly do not have the time to play social worker. But the fact is that no one else has been empowered to do anything about this problem."

45,000 Homeless in New York

While there are ATM vagrants in many cities, the problem is most prevalent in New York City, where there are about 45,000 homeless people, according to the advocacy group.

A shortage of beds and dangerous living conditions at many of the city shelters force more than 20,000 of the homeless onto the streets every night.

For this group, New York's 700 enclosed ATM vestibules are attractive sites for makeshift homes. One squatter reportedly even had mail delivered at a Chemical Bank branch.

The vestibules are also attractive for panhandling. On a good day, a vagrant working the door of an ATM site can make $100 or more. Bernie - who works in shifts at the Citibank ATM on 31st Street with a homeless woman named Barbara - says he averages about $40 to $50.

ATM Shooting

Opinions are split on whether the homeless pose a significant security threat. The police department does not track the number of ATM incidents caused by the homeless.

But their presence can clearly undermine security. In one widely publicized case, a city prosecutor was shot by a gunman who was able to enter an ATM because a panhandler had jammed the door to keep it from locking.

And vagrants unquestionably create an element of uncertainty for ATM transactions that bankers would like to eliminate.

"The costs are hard to quantify, but it's clear that the presence of homeless in ATM sites does not help us make automated transactions attractive to our customers," says one senior banker who did not want to be identified.

Women Quicker to Shy Away

A study by the consulting firm Carmody & Bloom Inc. found that vagrants discourage customers from using ATMs - particularly women and especially at night.

"Given the choice, people are going to go to an ATM that isn't co-occupied," says Liam Carmody, president of the Woodcliff Lake, N.J., firm. "In situations where people need money and have no choice, they will go to an occupied ATM, but there is clearly an element of discomfort there."

One customer of Chemical Bank agrees. "I don't know that I consider [the vagrants] dangerous, but you just never know," says Scott A. Baily, a senior analyst at Hibbard, Brown & Co., an investment banking firm.

Foot Patrols Help

According to the New York Police Department, the city's new focus on foot patrols has eased the problem somewhat. Yet police officials acknowledge that the problem is hardly the focus of their attention.

Vagrants technically can be charged with trespassing if they are in an ATM vestibule or loitering within 10 feet of the door. But unless a bank presses the issue, nothing is usually done.

"We don't consider such enforcement a high priority because the condition [homeless people in ATMs] is such a common one and not generally volatile," says a spokesman for the chief's patrol office.

Bernie describes what usually happens at the Citibank branch: "There's a cop who comes by here pretty regularly, and I move down the block and act like I'm rummaging for cans or something until he's gone. It's kind of an agreement that we have."

Banks Fend for Themselves

Realizing that the police cannot solve their ATM quandary, a number of New York banks have taken matters into their own hands.

Citicorp, for instance, posts after-hours security guards at several high-traffic ATM sites and uses roving security patrols for others.

On the more creative side, Chemical Banking Corp., Chase Manhattan Bank Corp., American Savings Bank, and several other financial institutions co-fund a program that employs formerly homeless people as ATM security guards.

Begun in 1989 by the Grand Central Partnership for the Homeless, the program patrols about 60 ATMs, removing vagrants and offering them information on shelters and soup kitchens.

Security Measures Mandated

"We are a twofold solution to the problem," says Frank Schiazza, program director at the Grand Central Partnership. "We employ formerly homeless people, and we make the bank sites safer without confronting ihe illegal occupants with traditional authority figures."

In addition to these voluntary efforts, the new ATM law requires banks to take a number of steps aimed at reducing unauthorized access to ATM sites by criminals and vagrants.

The measures include more sophisticated card-reading devices, surveillance cameras, and at least temporarily, security guards at many ATMs.

But before the law's proponents become too optimistic about how effective it will be, they should consult Bernie, who is more than ready to deal with any security precautions.

"Give me a hairpin or a water pistol, and I'll get into just about any [ATM] door in the city," he said.

"One Way or Another"

The hairpin is used to disrupt the magnets that lock most ATM doors. A squirt from a water pistol into a card-reader slot causes the same door-release action as inserting a valid ATM or credit card.

If either of these entry methods fails, Bernie says he can always just walk into a site behind an ATM customer.

"One way or another, I'll find a way in here. I've got to - this is my job."

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