How Did the Homeless Survive Last Night?
It’s just past 7 pm Monday night, snow is already sticking to the ground and the Coalition for the Homeless has finished serving dinner to more than two hundred people at St. Bartholomew’s church in midtown.
The big blizzard, the one expected to shut the city down, is only hours away when the Coalition’s vans set out to deliver the rest of the food to street corners and church steps, the same stops they make every night, where the homeless and hungry are waiting.
First stop, Broadway and 51st street. A small group is waiting on the corner. Time Square’s lights are in the backdrop, spotted white in the mist of snow. When the van parks people are waiting by the back door where the food is.
“One in every seven people in New York is worth more than a million dollars,” one of the men in line says. He gives his name as Bishop.
No pictures Bishop said as he waited in line for his food; he’d been warned about cameras. Then a moment later, without anyone asking twice, he’d pulled a pint of vodka from his overcoat and held it out while he asked for a picture to be taken.
“This is one of the richest cities in the world,” Bishop says. He already has his dinner bag and stands off a bit from the food line.
“Yet the best we can offer our veterans and over 20,000 homeless children is a cardboard box.”
It’s true that New York has become a gilded city but Bishop’s numbers are a bit high. It’s more like one in every 25 New Yorkers is a millionaire. On homeless children it’s worse than he realizes. According to the city Department of Homeless Service’s daily census, there are 29,944 children living in city shelters, and that figure doesn’t include children living on the street, which is harder to measure.
At the mayor’s press conference Monday to address the storm, the commissioner of homeless services, Gilbert Taylor, discussed the steps the city was taking. “Our outreach efforts are in full force,” Taylor said. We’ve doubled the number of outreach teams that are currently working throughout the five boroughs to bring in anyone who is unsheltered into shelter.”
Normally getting into a shelter requires a process of screening and paperwork but those requirements were waived when the city declared a “Code Blue,” using its protocol for extreme cold weather.
There are people who don’t want to get to shelters even on nights like this. Some are scarred by past experiences; others might turn away out of pride or from the affects of mental illness. The Coalition, founded in 1981, bills itself as the “nation’s oldest advocacy and direct service organization helping homeless men, women and children.“ The organization can’t reach everyone but it operates every night of the year, including in a snowstorm.
The next stop is 40th street and tenth avenue, near Port Authority, the city’s largest bus terminal and a popular indoor stop for the homeless. There’s a larger group waiting here, maybe 25 people, at least two of them women.
The line builds up immediately and the food starts going out. Dinner is served in plastic grocery bags: meatball soup, a carton of milk, school cafeteria size, bread, an orange.
“Tonight they were in luck,” Paul Fitzgerald, a coalition staffer and the van’s driver tells me. There are socks tonight, enough for everyone to get two pairs, and a smaller supply of blankets, sleeping bags and coats.
Fitzgerald started with Coalition four years ago as a volunteer and now works full time managing the other volunteers the organization depends on to run its food program.
The food line is moving but a man named Jacob is still standing on the curb chatting with a friend and smiling warmly. Jacob lives with his mother in a Brooklyn homeless shelter run by the city.
“It’s too corrupt there,” Jacob says. “The good guys like us stay in the subway,” Jacob tells me. “We stay away from the shelter.”
Jacob is one in a small circle of people. Next to him Frank is standing alone.
Everyone out here is cold but Frank must be freezing. All he has for a coat is a thin hooded sweatshirt; it’s fraying and the zipper is broken. There are plastic bags tied around his feet. He tucks his chin into his neck as he paces in place.
Back in the van, Fitzgerald tells me about Frank, “He’s a regular. When I came 4 years ago he was here and I believe long before that.”
“He’ll ask for shoes,” Fitzgerald says, “but we’ll bring shoes that will fit just fine and he’ll never take them.”
“Who knows? Maybe tomorrow he’ll actually take the shoes.”
There are three main groups that Fitzgerald encounters: homeless people living in shelters, the “food insecure,” which means people who may have somewhere to live but don’t have anything to eat, and the street homeless. Over the course of the night we meet people from all three groups.
Frank is street homeless. He fits the profile Fitzgerald encounters in that group, predominantly single men with mental illnesses exacerbated by their time on the street.
The city’s homeless population has been going up. In the past ten years the number of people living in city homeless shelters has risen by almost 25,000 to 60,352. Fitzgerald sees it for himself.
“Overall, every year we’ve had to order and make more food,” Frank says.
Next stop, the Upper West Side: 87th street and Westend avenue. “I’m so forever grateful,” a woman says to Fitzgerald and Jackie Hertel, a Coalition volunteer, as the two of them pass her food.
Dressed in a purple snowsuit the woman says she has nowhere to go, that she’s “just out” for the night. A train horn sounds as it passes along the Hudson River tracks. The woman starts to leave but turns back.
“Oh mom!” she says as she hurries to where Fitzgerald is helping an older woman cross a snowdrift back on to the sidewalk.
“She’s my friend” the younger woman in the snowsuit explains. Then she asks the older woman which way she’s going before the two of them say goodbye and walk off in opposite directions.
“Up here there are almost no services provided,” Fitzgerald tells me as we drive to 138th street in Harlem, “that’s why we’re going to see so many more people at this stop.”
The line is waiting for us when we get there, about twenty people in all.
Snow is not only falling but flying now. The wind turns the snow into flocks, sending them sideways and up, swooping in gusts. If you’re outside for more than a few minutes it gets under your clothes.
All night, the number of people waiting for the van has been about half what Fitzgerald usually sees. The weather is forcing them to choose: stay in whatever shelter they have found or cobbled together and go without food, or try to eat and risk losing whatever bit of warmth they’ve left behind. Already two of the van’s regular stops have been deserted.
Last stop. We’re at the Sony building, back where we started in midtown east.
Like other corporate building’s in the area, Sony’s tower is required to provide a public space by virtue of the city’s zoning regulations that allowed it to be built.
Tonight, there’s a group taking shelter in the indoor arcade. Some are already asleep but 25 or so people come out when the van arrives.
Joseph and Nicole, together for 9 years, and on the street for 6 are the only couple on the line.
In an hour and a half, at 10:30, Joseph says the Sony building will close pushing him and Nicole, along with everyone else, back outside.
“We’ll try to panhandle a little bit to get a few bucks to get on the train. If it’s still open.”
The trains shut down at 11 pm. That leaves the train stations, which have indoor spaces that don’t require any money to access.
I’m anemic so my blood is very low and I get cold very quickly,” Nicole said.
Just after the Coalition’s van is parked for the night, the city will shut down its public transportation system and close the roads to all but emergency vehicles. Tomorrow the van will be cleaned and restocked.
Tuesday Fitzgerald will be back at work. “Unless some kind of disaster absolutely prevents us” the food gets delivered.
“There’s never been a night” he says, “when there weren’t people waiting for the van.”