For “Street Stories NYC,” her weekly column at thelmagazine.com, contributor Jessica Hall interviews the homeless and street people she meets around the city. She’s chosen a few of the most compelling interviews to be included here. While a nearly two-decade long municipal effort to deal with homelessness by criminalizing poverty has, superficially, changed the character of NYC (some would say sanitized it), stark iniquity remains.
Diane, 37 I was walking through Penn Station at rush hour when I came across Diane, who was there to check on a friend who was also homeless in Penn Station.
What are you doing here? Believe it or not I got stories. A lot of them. It’s rough out here.
Where did you grow up? In Brooklyn. I lived with my mother and my father. My father was an alcoholic and he constantly beat on my mother. He worked in a gas station and he’d buy beer after work, get drunk and beat my mother up. Till I was nine, and then my mother finally went to school to become a bookkeeper and she got remarried. Then I got pregnant at 14. Then I got pregnant again, and when my second baby was three months old I got pregnant again. Me and the dad lived in an apartment in Brooklyn for 14 years. I left him. He was a father, a provider. He’d get money, get drunk. He punctured my eardrum. He knocked all my teeth out. So finally I tired of it. I took off. I haven’t been with him for four years.
How old are you now? I’m 37. I’m six months pregnant.
Where have you been staying since you left your husband? I stayed with my sister for two years, then she got married. I’ve been in the shelter system for two years. It’s been downhill. I got on drugs, heroin.
Were you using before you left your husband? Before I left him I started on the down-low. It got me away from my problems. He kept the kids. He met this new woman and they have a house on Staten Island.
Where’s your baby’s dad? Him? He’s a worthless bum.
Where did you meet him? I was volunteering in the needle exchange on 37th and Eighth Avenue and I went over by the Open Door. I was handing out condoms and fliers for HIV testing and he was in the shelter. I was in the women’s shelter. Then we went to a couples’ shelter. I got pregnant and couldn’t stay there. I packed and went to a shelter in the Bronx.
Why did you leave there? I don’t know. Everything was bothering me. I was getting annoyed.
Did you leave the shelter because you couldn’t do drugs there? No. In the shelter people are getting high in the bathroom and dealing.
How long have you been in Penn Station? I been here nine days.
What’s a day like down here? I get chased all over the place. If they see you resting with your eyes closed they chase you. They gave me a ticket for sleeping on the ground at 6am. They arrested me; took me in. (While we were talking a cop came over and told us to move).
Are you still using? That’s another thing. I’ve been to the hospital to get into detox. I shoot heroin, cocaine and smoke crack. Someone told me, what I’m taking they can’t give me nothing. One of my friends told me they only gotta take you if you’re drinking alcohol.
Why don’t you just stop? I was in a program. I was clean. But you get high, you know? I know I gotta stop because they’ll take the baby away from me.
I approached Danny on a late Friday afternoon because I saw him sitting at a table with a huge pile of unwrapped bagels. When I spoke to him, he told me that he’s working undercover as a homeless person (“A calling by God”) to report back to the government on how to solve the homeless issue.
What are you doing here? The mayor says he wants 70% of the homeless off the street by 2010 and I love and respect him very much. This is my answer: They don’t want to get off the street. That’s all. This (park) is my living room. I’m doing this on purpose here to make my principal report to my organization in Washington, DC. By the way, no one is dying of starvation in New York.
What is the psychology of a homeless person? When you are outside in an area you are listed in the National Institute of Health as a human energy field ‘cause basically we’re relational light. When you put people in an enclosed area they act different than when they’re outside. When you are cooped up you go into depression. It affects your mood better to be outside. It oxygenates the body. There’s more air outside. Even though you’re homeless, you’re more alive than when you’re living in a house.
How do you think homelessness should be addressed? I estimate the city throws away about $1 billion a month in garbage. When people move, they’re throwing out TVs, camcorders, mattresses, cameras… What I want the President to do is to get on the TV, the radio and blast, bombard, put signs everywhere, for a Homeland Security project Faith-Based Initiative to take all the household items that people don’t want, and take them all — aluminum, plastics, bottles, copper, we’re talking millions of dollars a month — and recycle everything you’re throwing away: laptops, CDs, cassettes, Christmas lights. We want ‘em cause we can sell them, and it gives homeless people a job and vocational training.
Earlier you said that homeless people don’t necessarily want a home. How do you expect to organize them? My friends are bustin’ their butts getting bottles and cans for $20 a day. They all said they’d come to my building, they’d all work with me. I wanna shower. I wanna bed. I been shot at, punched in the head, harassed, trashed, thrashed and helped, the whole gamut of love and hate here. I’m crucified daily. Look at me. This is not an easy mission.
It would be easy for me to get a day job. But I have a mission. The other day I stopped a purse snatcher, a fist fight, I reported a sexual predator and I found a guy with his tongue hanging out, which I took to mean he was dead, so I stayed with him till the ambulance arrived. I believe we’re operating with a modern caste system.
There are different behavior models:
#1 Extreme addicts: They act in bizarre and uncontrolled ways, which makes them high risk. They’re untrackable and unpredictable. That comes from sexual abuse, unfit parents.
#2 Reclusive types: They got some horrific conditions that causes their homelessness. Like losing a parent, death of a spouse, no support systems. They’re dependent. They go into a depression and they won’t interact. They have a bizarre tendency to hoard possessions.
#3 Homeless who come from executive backgrounds who continue to work but still live on the streets.
#4 Vets who never left the war.
Where did you grow up? I grew up on the Jersey shore. I had a golden childhood. My parents got divorced when I was in 6th grade. That’s when I got interested in super hero figures and martial arts. I ran away when I was 15. I went to Bethesda, Maryland. I had a friend whose dad was working for Nixon. That’s when I got involved in the government stuff and we went to a smoke-in for marijuana and I woke up surrounded by police in riot gear, with masks and guns, and they got my picture. My eyes were wide open. I was on an acid trip. I went home and joined the Navy. I went to underwater explosive school. I was slated to guard the president. I got busted for marijuana in ‘82, got out of the Navy and went into construction in nightclubs. I met all kinds of people. It gave me a good network at the same time it was very detrimental ‘cause I was extremely addicted to drugs and alcohol. The biggest thing I can do for repentance for my sins is to help other people and that’s why I’m working undercover.
I met Gigi while she was panhandling in front of Key Foods on Ave A and 4th Street in the East Village. She’s an incredibly sweet woman, and was very excited about our interview. We went next door to the Bagel Zone, where I knew the very nice owners would be hospitable to us. Sure enough, after we ate
they gladly gave her bills for her cup of change.
How old are you? Forty-eight, but I know I look much older. That’s ok, I’m that much closer to the other side.
Why do you have stitches on your head? I have water on the brain, but I call it a tumor ‘cause it’s the same damn thing to me. My story you’re not going to believe in your entire life. I have a 22-inch scar on my arm. I tell people it was a car accident. (She pulled up her shirtsleeve to reveal a long, thick scar that ran on the inside of her arm from her wrist past her elbow.) You should take a picture of it. I did this to myself. I’ll tell you why. I was 18 on the typewriter, typing my own stuff ‘cause I write, and the room went white, and in the white I saw the Revolutionary War and there were Red Coats and colonial men fighting, and then there were two men who met and were brothers. One was English and one was American. I got so scared when I saw this that I ran from the typewriter and my sister said I was white as a ghost.
I remember being two and looking in the mirror and seeing a little girl and saying, “That can’t be me.” And when I could speak I said, “Why did you bring me here, Mama?!” I remember the light, this beautiful warm light that we come from, it would embrace me, and I started telling people’s futures. I started to get things from people; this one’s cheating, that one’s controlling, and I couldn’t turn it off. I wanted to get back to the light again, so I asked my friend how I could kill myself the best and least painful way, and he said the Romans would get a razor blade and get into a warm bath, but don’t cut it this way (across the wrist) cut it that way (up the arm).
How old were you then? When I did this I was 23. All that time between 18 and 23 I was reading people. I found people, missing people. If I see a missing person on TV, I know ‘That girl is in a lake.’ I know. If you give me a map I can tell on the map where something is. Anyway, I was dead on the table. I had to have six pints of blood. That’s how I got AIDS. When I was little my father made our lives a living hell. He was a very violent man. Christmas was always a horror. I saw him pick my mother up by the scruff of her neck and throw her against the wall. You don’t know what my mother went through. If I could, I’d take her place. She had a degree in English literature. She loved to read. We’d say, “Mommy, would you play with us?” and she’d say, “After this chapter.” It was always, “After this chapter.” Me and my sisters used to recite with her.
Who is your favorite author? Longfellow. (she recites)
I shot an Arrow into the air
It fell to earth I know not where,
For so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
I breath’d a Song into the air
It fell to earth, I know not where.
For who has sight so keen and strong
That it can follow the flight of a song?
Long, long afterward in an oak
I found the Arrow still unbroke;
And the Song from the beginning to end
I found again in the heart of a friend.
That’s beautiful. Yes. I love Longfellow. Me and my sister, we were like bread and butter. I used to get into the bed first to warm it up, ‘cause I was chubby and she was like a reed. She raises horses in Albuquerque now. My other sister is a billionaire. She’s filthy rich. When she looks at me, everything we went through, that rolling hell, comes back to her and she doesn’t like to see me now.
Why are we here if we have to suffer? Oh, we suffer to learn. We’re supposed to learn how to forgive and do good things. Us doing good things, the light grows, and when we die we go into it and it gets bigger and bigger. But you can’t get to it by killing yourself.
How much do you make in a day? I want to work, but I’m too old. I don’t have enough of everything that they want. It depends, on a good day I’ll make $40. I can’t come out all the time. This AIDS is ravaging my body.
I saw Eddie panhandling in traffic on Houston Street and Second Avenue. Eddie is a 57-year-old homeless man with one leg. He weaves in and out of traffic in his wheelchair, collecting change in a paper coffee cup.
Are you from around here? Yes.
How long have you been panhandling here? I’m not panhandling, I’m taking donations. Ten years. Twelve years.
Where were you before this? Seattle, Washington; Bridgeport, Connecticut.
You get around. Yes, man, always been a traveler.
Some people say that people who beg are taking advantage and make lots of money. I’ve never heard of it. I mean, I have one leg.
What happened to your other leg? Someone pushed me off a subway platform.
Did you know them? No. The paramedics took a special unit. Took two hours to get me from under the train.
This happened in ‘97. I was in intensive care in Bellevue and Dr. Bruno was standing over me. He said, “I got to tell you something.” I said, “I think I know what you’re going to tell me. I got one leg.” Doctor said, “We tried everything to reattach it.” Oh, well, life goes on.
Did you know this doctor? No. I saw him when I woke up. He was standing over me in intensive care and he was there when I woke up.
Were you homeless before this happened? Yeah, sure. I was living in shelters, working in different agencies. Going out every day trying to find work.
What’s the steadiest job you’ve had? I worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for quite a long time. From ’72 to ‘78 on the dry docks building ships. That’s when Jimmy Carter was in office and there was that embargo. The US started building tankers. There were four massive tankers in the yard.
Before that? Odd jobs. This and that. I went into the job corps in the ‘60s. When they had the draft I wasn’t in it, and I damn sure wasn’t volunteering. They’re spending all this money for the war. The government and the corporations manufacture all that shit. Without war nobody makes any money.
Where do you sleep at night? I sleep right out here, around the corner under the scaffolding. When I’m over here I try to get enough money so I can get a room at night. If I don’t, I sleep right out here.
Where’s your family? I don’t have any. When I was small I never knew who my mother and father was.
Who raised you? I was up in Saint Johns Home in the Peekskills. It was all right.
Do you keep in touch with any of the other kids you grew up with? Never.
Who is your best friend? My pocket, or the man upstairs.
What do you attribute your homelessness to? I don’t have a home!
Do you ever think of what’s next for you? One day at a time. I want to get housing where I don’t have to be panhandling. I don’t mess with shelters. They’re dangerous. There’s a bunch of cliques. It’s a real awful situation.
How much money do you need to get a place to stay for the night? Three dollars for the key deposit and $20 for the room.
Can you make that in a day? Yeah, if people are willing to give. If you hear of anything, let me know, you know, that’s wheelchair accessible.