For about eight months, I’ve been conducting weekly interviews of New York City’s homeless for my column on The L Magazine
’s website. With the exception of one man, every person who I’ve asked about city shelters has told me that they’re so miserable they’d rather stay on the street. During one interview, a man suggested that I put on some crummy clothes and go see what it’s like for myself. I took it a step further, and, to make a comparison, spent a night on the street as well. Another subject of mine, J, was very eager to assist me.
J was right on time to meet me in the park, 6pm sharp. It was raining lightly. He admired my outfit: a beat up old biker jacket with studs and hand-painted decoration, black sweat pants, old sneakers, a kerchief and a hat. I had an old, broken-down shopping cart with blankets, clothes, bottled water and makeup. We walked downtown in the rain, along the East River. Before going to his regular sleeping spot, J took me to a food drop where a truck was coming to give away food, serve hot soup and distribute blankets and clothes. We found a small group of people congregated under the trees at the edge of the park, all of them waiting for the truck. J wanted to separate; he thought it better not to be seen with me because people would have too many questions. It was raining harder, and my feet were soaked, so I pulled out my umbrella and stood alone, waiting. There were a few other white people, mostly old men with matted hair and greasy pants pushing shopping carts, but most of the people waiting were black or Latino.
A tall, handsome and well put-together man approached me. “You look too good to be out here.”
“So do you.”
“You look good in those pants.”
“Listen, what the fuck are you doing out here hitting on me while you’re standing around in the rain waiting for a free sandwich?”
He smiled at me. “You wanna go out to dinner sometime?”
“How are you gonna to take me out to dinner?”
“When I get my unemployment check, that’s how. I’m gonna take you to dinner and a movie by 42nd Street.”
He wandered off, but came back moments later. “If you wanna go to the movies, meet me here at the next run, June 3.”
Finally, a yellow truck arrived, followed by a van with the volunteers. They piled out and one of the men shouted, “Whatever they want, give it to them! If they want ten lunches, give it to them!” The crowd fell on the boxes before they hit the sidewalk. There was a family — parents and three children. The kids ducked under the adults to grab bags full of food and dragged them triumphantly back to their parents.
Two young volunteers in bright sweatshirts ladled hot chicken noodle soup into cups. I reached my hand out from under my umbrella for a cup, which came as a warm and welcome relief. I hadn’t realized how tense the damp had made me.
When we got everything we could from the truck, we headed off to J’s spot. He told me he had been living at this location on a small side street in the Wall Street area for years. He selected it, he said, because there was private security and the cops didn’t come through. The narrow street was lined with mountains of trash and recycling. We got to his spot, about mid-block, which was, in fact, just a doorway, barely wide enough to fit in and not long enough for stretching out. “This is it,” J said.
In front of the building next to his doorway was a scaffold; he pulled a couple milk crates under it and we sat watching the rainfall in the misty lamplight. It smelled like wet concrete. There was a construction site next door, and J showed me a spot to pee in, a drain behind a cluster of dumpsters. “And I can show you how to do number two later,” he offered. I nodded, but I had no intention of taking a crap in the street, regardless of the technique. J regaled me for hours with tales of incarceration, his work on a chain gang and his participation in various “historical uprisings,” the details of which he requested I not include in my story. The later it got the more animated he became. Finally, as J was explaining animal magnetism to me, and the dynamics of predator and prey, I suggested that we go to sleep. We grabbed some soggy cardboard from a pile across the street. He made a kind of cardboard crib in his doorway and offered it to me, but I said I’d take the doorway at the barbershop, where I then laid out my own layers of cardboard.
“Not bad at all!” he smiled. “Do you have any food in your cart? Give it to me.”
I pulled out my bag of food and he hung it on the scaffold. “I don’t even want to tell you about the size of some of the beavers down here,” he said as he chuckled. Later that night when I went to pee I noticed, as my bare ass hung over the drain, dozens of rats and mice frolicking in the night.
J said that since the following day was Saturday, we could look forward to “sleeping in,” but I never really slept. I was hyper-aware of every sound and smell. A whiff of cigarette smoke implied the imminence of a stranger; the sounds of scratching indicated the proximity of rodents. I found myself thinking that someone could attack me just for kicks, and that the rats might mistake me for a bag of garbage. Besides those concerns, there was an endless parade of gigantic garbage trucks roaring down the tiny street.
I didn’t dare stretch out my legs, and I was curled up into myself in an effort to keep warm, but even with my two pairs of pants and a blanket, the dampness seeped through. I felt stiff — no amount of cardboard could cushion that concrete. I couldn’t wait for morning. At around 6:30am workers started showing up next door. I didn’t want to make eye contact with them. I felt embarrassed to be getting “out of bed” in a doorway. Luckily J had to get up to pee, so we packed up and went to a deli where he bought us coffee. It was becoming a beautiful, sunny day. We made for the park and finally I got to sleep on my blanket spread out in the sun.
We spent the day wandering around drinking coffee, and J never ran out of stories: he used to write for the paper, he used to have a townhouse on Central Park and two buildings on Houston Street, he told me about the Greeks, the Romans and the Moors, he said the end was coming: “Babylon is going to fall and I’m going to have a lot of company out here.”
Later in the afternoon, J showed me where to panhandle, at the corner of Pearl and Wall Streets. There was a constant stream of tourists. I sat on my coat reading a book and scribbling in my notepad. I made 25 cents in an hour. J told me I had to jiggle my cup, but I felt so self-conscious and vulnerable that I really didn’t want to interact with the public.
As miserable and difficult as that night was, with the steady rain, the cold, the noise and the complete lack of privacy, it wasn’t as bad as the night I spent in the drop-in center. I was taken there by an outreach team, two ladies in a maroon minivan who picked me up from the park where I was visiting with a previous interview subject who’d found me there by chance. He was walking through the park, “looking for people I like,” as he said. When the outreach workers approached, he requested a couples’ shelter for the two of us, even though we’d been sitting together for less than an hour. I took the ladies aside and asked to be taken to a women’s shelter.
After a short drive, we pulled over to a building in Midtown. From the outside it looked hopeful, with large windows filled with plant boxes. As we approached the door I asked the outreach worker about the group of ladies hovering under the scaffold of the neighboring building. Some of them were smoking, some were just standing clutching shopping bags. They looked like a pretty sad bunch. “They’re just from the neighborhood,” she said, as I followed her into the center. The first thing I thought, looking around the high-ceilinged room filled with shabbily clad women and their assortment of bags, was that they’d created this scene as a disincentive to stay at a shelter: it was bleak. There were lockers in the back and showers near the front door next to the lone bathroom, where women waited in a constant line. The bathroom walls didn’t reach the ceiling and were covered by a flimsy plastic grid, doing little to mask the foul odor.
I noticed a stairway in the middle of the room, which I assumed led to where we were going to sleep — after all, I’d asked to be taken to a shelter. As it turned out, our “beds” were comprised of the two metal folding chairs that were given out to each woman. They were impossible to sleep on. Those women who were able to quietly settle down slid sleepily off their chairs throughout the evening, and those who didn’t stayed up most or all of the night, talking to themselves or pacing around the tiled floors. My chairs were in a corner near a bucket filled with dirty water and an open drain in the floor. Electrical cables protruded from the walls, and the electrical box was uncovered.
The majority of the women in the center seemed mentally ill. Although a sign on the wall said that clients had to bathe every other day, many of the women, including the one sleeping less than a foot away from me, were covered in a visible layer of dirt and, judging from the smell, had not bathed in weeks. The whole set-up seemed crazy to me, and I got out of there at 5am. No one said a word to me as I left.
• • • • •
When I got home, I called Patrick Markee, Senior Research Analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless. I wanted to ask him about the 1981 Consent Decree, which established the constitutional right to shelter in New York State. The decree was the result of a class action suit brought by the co-founder of the coalition, Robert Hayes, in 1979. In part, the decree says that the right to shelter includes a bed, clean bedding and a pillow. I asked him if the decree could be used to force centers where homeless individuals spend the night to provide beds. He explained that as I was in a drop-in center and not a shelter, the consent decree did not apply. “But isn’t that just a matter of semantics?” I asked. “If I say I need shelter, and I’m taken to a drop-in center, is that my fault? That’s not what I asked for.” He said that the outreach workers should have explained it better to me. But I was surprised at his defensive attitude toward the description of my experience. He cautioned me against judging the center too harshly, and blamed Mayor Bloomberg for abandoning his ten-year Action Plan, “Uniting for Solutions Beyond Shelter,” which declares itself a “multi-sector strategy to address these (homeless) concerns and strengthen the city’s response.” A 41-member coordinating committee, along with hundreds of task force participants and experts, convened between November 2003 and April 2004 to produce a strategy to address homelessness. The resulting plan is an impressive, comprehensive, multi-faceted strategy to eradicate homelessness in New York City. So why isn’t it being fully implemented?
The Coalition for the Homeless reports that in 2007 about 35,000 people slept in homeless shelters each night. Even more distressing is the number of homeless families, over 9,000, that resided in shelters every night. There’s no question that the city and all the agencies serving the homeless understand what needs to be done: affordable housing, section 8, housing vouchers, the creation of supportive housing for those individuals who aren’t capable of living independently, coordinating city services and providing people with ‘housing first’ rather than requiring they be ‘housing ready’ before getting them off the street — and, most importantly, holding the mayor accountable. The introduction of the Action Plan states, in part, “Street homelessness should not be accepted as a fact of city life. Today it is.”
After my homeless weekend, the idea that any person is choosing to exist under the hardship and humiliation of being homeless is absurd to me. Prior to my weekend, I’d actually believed that some people were making that choice. One of my recent subjects, a young girl, said to me, “Most people who you see on the street asking for money or anything like that... it doesn’t make them a bad person — they’re obviously lost, and if you have the means to help them you should.” •
To get involved contact the Coalition for the Homeless at coalitionforthehomeless.org