Why Being Homeless in New York Today is Worse Than Ever
The housing situation is getting more concerning by the minute in New York. As some fortunate people keep purchasing luxury condos in Manhattan, a rigged shelter system and constant police abuse leave the homeless completely to themselves in the streets.
Blizzards happen almost every year in New York City, leaving significant precipitations in their trails and disrupting the lives of millions of people across the five boroughs. And every year, homeless have to fight to get a spot in one of the city’s numerous shelters, looking for a warm place to stay, for some hot food to eat and some comfort in knowing they still matter in today’s fast-paced world.
Jena is one of those homeless. Rolled into her gray cover and bundled up in a thick bomber coat, she watches traffic drive its way to Manhattan’s bridges and tunnels as winter storm Juno intensifies over the city. As hurried Chelsea residents are packing emergency supplies, Jena is making sure her boots are leak proof so her feet will stay dry in case she has to sleep outside.
Jena was 24 when she started living in the streets. After moving from Albany to New York in 2008 to escape an abusive stepfather and an unsupportive family, Jena settled in an old East Village apartment shared with a Vietnamese immigrant who didn’t speak English, a woman who played keyboards in a local band and an older man from Pennsylvania who peddled drugs in the neighborhood. Taking sleeping aids since she was 15, Jena began tapping in her Pennsylvanian roommate’s supplies and gradually came to consume more powerful medication to relieve her of her anxiety issues. “I’m not blaming anyone. I was a wreck for a long time,” she says, mentioning difficult teenage years. “I did a lot of things I regret now, but I’m not a bad person.”
The police eventually made a bust in the apartment after the landlord found out crack cocaine was sold on his property, attracting dealers and addicts and entailing several neighbors to move out. The eviction notice was quick to follow. Jena was the first to leave. “I thought I could start over, you know. I already had been through worse,” she recalls. But starting over proved more difficult than she thought. Her job as a part-time clerk in the Garment District wasn’t enough to pay for a rent, even less so with the city’s increasing real-estate prices. She stayed with an acquaintance for a few weeks then went from place to place until all of her alternatives were exhausted. Going back to her parents in Albany wasn’t even an option.
And so Jena slept her first night without a roof.
According to the Coalition for the Homeless, over 58,000 people have been sleeping in New York City’s municipal shelters in September 2014, an all-time record since the 1930’s Great Depression. As of March 2014, the numbers of families sheltered in Manhattan had increased by 14% compared to the year before. Manhattan, which makes for up to 60 percent of the homeless population in New York, is now one of the places most touched by homelessness in the nation. Even worse is that these numbers only account for sheltered people and do not include the ones staying on the streets. During a major winter storm like Juno, hundreds will rely on the relative warmth of subway stations or abandoned structures to spend the night, waiting for the snow and the wind to subside. With temperatures sometimes dropping below 10 degrees, nor’easters are not to be taken lightly when living outside — frostbite can set in quickly, freezing the skin and exposing the human body to irreversible damage.
It is also good to remember that if as much as 40 percent of the homeless are assumed to suffer from mental illness or addiction, the remaining 60 percent are just fairly regular people trying to find a way out of tough times. “It all starts slow,” Jena says, “until it goes very fast and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”
In her first days of homelessness, Jena kept working until her job contract ended. Then she just wandered around Penn Station, panhandling money from passersby, staying inside the station to eat and warm up. It took all of three days before her first encounter with transit authorities. She can still remember the Amtrak agent screaming at her to leave. She can still remember the blows and the kicks when she refused to let go off her duffle bag. “People were watching and filming with their phones,” she says, nestled in the alcove of an empty office building. “I’ve never felt so alone.”
After NYPD Commissioner Bratton took office in January 2014, police crackdown on illegal panhandling in the public transit system soared, with more than triple the arrests compared to the year before. Mary Brosnahan, president of Coalition for the Homeless called the arrests “low-hanging fruit” and vehemently criticized the categorization of the homeless in the same class as gropers and other subway threats. The arrests eventually stopped and the MTA unlocked $6 million to help relocate the illegal dwellers, but the harm was done.
“I try not to look like a homeless. It’s important for me to keep trying,” Jena declares while fumbling in her backpack stuffed with clothes and various first necessity items — all belongings from her previous life. “But in the end it doesn’t matter. Getting beaten just becomes a normal thing when you’re on the street. You learn to live with it.”
Harassment can come from anyone — passersby, drunken partygoers or even kids on their way to school. And more often than not, it comes straight from law enforcement. One time, a female NYPD officer and her partner shoved Jena against a wall to pat her down for stolen goods. As Jena asked them to be careful not to spill her meal on the curb, the cops bashed her head against a scaffolding pole, requiring seven stitches to close the wound. She didn’t have any stolen goods on her. Another time, Jena was sleeping along other homeless in a Hell’s Kitchen construction site and the police broke out in the middle of the night, repeatedly hitting them with batons if they tried to escape. “Just for fun. Just because they could.”
More recently in October, she was assaulted by an MTA worker in a subway station because she wanted to sit on a bench. “The guy almost made me fall down the tracks. I was this close to the edge,” she says, spreading her hands about one foot wide. “I don’t stink. I don’t bother people. I don’t do any harm. Just let me be already!” Jena never filed a complaint. She knows she’s not a priority.
She also understands very well the dangers of living on the street year-round. This is why she tries to stay in shelters as much as possible, even if the situation there is often shoddier than outside. “I almost got raped once,” she says referring to a Brooklyn temporary housing she had lived in at the beginning of her downward spiral. “Employees stole food from our rations and took it home. Always people coming and going, you never knew what to expect. It was truly terrible,” she adds, showing a mark on her arm she said was the result of an altercation with another occupant.
Jena was recently evicted from the West 95th Street shelter she was staying at after the place was downsized due to growing demands from local residents who wished their neighborhood to remain safe from drugs and thefts. Well-known for its subpar services and unsanitary facilities, the shelter could nonetheless represent an option for those in need of a temporary roof. Its capacity reduction from 400 to 200 people means that Jena will have to find somewhere else to sleep if she doesn’t want to freeze to death in the winter’s cold. This kind of critical situation seems to be a continuing trend, with Department of Homeless Services outlining that an increasing number of families were being rejected from shelters, turned away by eligibility changes — the rejection rate reaching 30 percent, eviction and domestic violence becoming the first reasons of shelter entries after 2012. “I’ll probably end up in the Bronx,” Jena says. “That’s where they put us all. Away from the city so they can forget about us.”
The Freedom House at 316 West 95th Street looks like every other building in the Upper West Side. It is owned by the Podolsky group who controls almost 40 shelter properties in New York, housing about 11 percent of the city’s total homeless families and generating $90 million in rents since 2010. Currently contracted by Department of Homeless Services to accommodate 200 tenants, the building has had a lot of headlines in its name. Once used as an illegal hostel before a new state legislation forced its owners to shut the operations in 2011 and pay a hefty $600,000 fine to the city, the place was then converted into a homeless shelter, effectively pushing-out preexisting occupants in order to make room for 400 new people. No notice had been given to the community ahead of the scrambled opening.
The reason many building owners decide to convert their properties into homeless shelters is simple: the incentives given to landlords when renting out units to DHS are far exceeding the ones they get when simply providing affordable Single Room Occupancy to regular low-income tenants. DHS is granting more than $110 per room per day, which in the case of the Freedom House results in the city paying a hefty $3,735 a month for each room occupied by a homeless person.
Aguila Inc., the private company managing the Freedom House, is headed by former DHS commissioner Robert Hess. Aguila is handling scores of other shelters across the five boroughs and is benefiting from a clear position of strength thanks to Hess’s knowledge of the city’s inner workings. When DHS recently decided to cut $61 million in payments to private shelter operators to help finance new rent subsidies, Aguila responded by sending a heap of eviction notices to all their Bronx-based housing facilities — implying countless families would have to relocate, and reaffirming the contractor’s dominance in an already monopolistic environment.
A security guard working at the Freedom House describes the conditions inside the building: “There is a single kitchen for 200 people. I’ve seen cockroaches in the food that’s served to the tenants. Things are crumbling apart and nobody lifts a finger,” he says, asking to remain anonymous by fear of being fired. Every room is occupied. Noise and litter are everywhere. Garbage piles up in the snow-covered courtyard for rodents to feed. “There are usually at least two or three couples arguing loudly [during a typical night]. Then you have junkies and thugs fighting over crack. Then there’s drunks yelling down the street. Someone eventually calls 911 and the police show up banging to doors and waking everyone up,” the guard describes, insisting on the lack of resources provided by Aguila. “We do what we can to keep the place together but it’s always one step forward, two steps back. We ain’t paid enough […] and there is no upkeep whatsoever in here. It’s like a jungle,” he says opening a service door to an emergency stairwell where two kids are playing with an iPad.
Aggressive panhandling, drug dealing and violence outbursts are all commonplace in the shelter’s vicinity. Sometimes a TV is hurled out a window or a cigarette lights a fire the inadequate sprinklers struggle to extinguish. Other times the NYPD closes the street after a man gets stabbed at the nearby HIV treatment center.
Quality of life has certainly declined in the neighborhood since the Freedom House opened, surrounded by ten other shelters all in the span of seven blocks, transforming an area populated by relatively wealthy families into a homeless hotspot. “I can understand the complaints,” says the guard when asked about the various lawsuits and petitions started by local resident groups such as Neighborhood in the Nineties. “It’s a lose-lose situation. On one side you have messed-up people left to themselves because everyone is only thinking about money, and on the other side you have people who pay a lot for living here and don’t want to endure bums all the time,” he adds.
Objections reached a first high in May 2014 when the police started raiding the Freedom House, sweeping the rooms and arresting 22 residents with outstanding warrants. The police busts were largely unsuccessful to restrain the crime, targeting domestic abusers instead of the major dealers, shoplifters and car thieves who had been roaming the area. Donna Lieberman, the executive director of New York Civil Liberties Union declared to the Huffington Post that “being homeless [should not be] grounds for suspicion” after the raids, confirming what many thought about the whole situation. “It was just a publicity stunt to make rich people happy and justify their taxes,” pointed the guard, hammering that “there’s only a handful of bad guys here but the NYPD puts everyone in the same basket as always.”
DHS came to an agreement with community boards and nonprofit organizations in the wake of November, assenting to cut the shelter’s capacity in two from 400 beds to 200, and granting Aguila a $16 million contract until 2018. Aguila, who operated without official contract since the city comptroller rejected a $46.8 million 5-year contract back in 2013, has already started evicting the 200 extra people who will be affected by the downsize. City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal was disappointed that DHS had moved forward with the new contract. “I do believe the Upper West Side is oversaturated and [that the shelter] should never have been situated in such a dense area across from a school,” she said when interviewed by DNAinfo. Neighborhood in the Nineties advocacy group’s president Aaron Biller said in the same report that “[Aguila had] to run the facilities better. They’re not running facilities, they’re running a warehouse. Giving people some dignity produces a better outcome for the community and the individual.”
The average stay is 352 days at the Freedom House. Rare are the ones who get to find stable housing arrangements after that, the people who live there often getting transferred to other shelters. “I used to work in the Auburn family shelter in Fort Greene. You never knew what to find there. I had to pick up syringes from the floor, can you imagine? One time a kid practically shot himself while playing with a gun he found in the trash. It’s no better elsewhere,” says the security guard during a short smoking break outside the building. “You see,” he adds, “most of these people don’t belong in a shelter. They belong in a hospital. But it’s more profitable to put them here rather than treat them, so here we are.” Down the street, a skinny man shouts something unintelligible at a passerby and disappears at the corner. “Every time I see one getting through, it’s like a miracle.”
Daniel lives in Riverside Park, not far from the Freedom House. Daniel is 45. He was an electrician. He was a cab driver. He was a furniture mover. He did a lot of odd jobs. Eventually, Daniel’s love for alcohol landed him on the streets. He doesn’t like to complain about his situation, even when it means he has to stay in the cold for hours, only getting warmth from a cup of bodega coffee. “You never get used to it, but after some time it gets a little easier,” he explains as a jogger stops by to give him a dollar bill.
Daniel was among the firsts to be evicted from 316 West 95th Street after the downsizing. “I don’t understand how this is supposed to work,” he says, waving helplessly. “We get harassed for being on the street, then we get parked in the shelters like cattle, then we get thrown back on the street. It never ends!” Questioned if he knows how much Aguila charges the city for a room at the Freedom House, he chuckles before replying “certainly not more than a $500 a month.” His eyes widen upon finding out the real price is more than $3,700. “This is what’s wrong with this country. Always someone trying to make his pockets full of money at the expense of others. Always a crook taking advantage, I tell you.”
Occasionally working as a delivery man for a Harlem restaurant, Daniel now uses the little money he earns to sleep in an 87th Street hostel when it gets too cold outside or when a major snowstorm like Juno hits the city — and prays for administrative delays to improve in order to be granted a stable spot in another SRO. “I can make up to $150 per week with deliveries. A night costs me around $30. You do the math,” he declares.
Daniel is also moonlighting in a nearby construction site, getting paid on the side to carry heavy loads. He regularly walks in front of a billboard advertising the new luxury condos he’s working in. The pictures of waterfront views and granite bathroom floors don’t appeal to him. “I’m helping build the things that put me on the street. How fucked-up is that?” he declares with a weak smile. “People bitch about homeless shelters in the Upper West Side. But there wouldn’t be so many homeless in the first place if them people hadn’t driven the prices mad high. This wouldn’t even be a problem if there was more Section 8 available. Instead, promoters keep putting fancy towers everywhere and normal people get pushed out of the city.”
The housing situation has been steadily going worse in New York since 2002, following Michael Bloomberg election as mayor. The latest Elliman Report shows that the median rent jumped 3 percent compared to the same time last year, rising for the eighth consecutive month and continuing a trend not likely to revert significantly in the foreseeable future. All five boroughs are equally affected — the average rent for a 1 bedroom soaring at a staggering $4,200 in Manhattan’s Flatiron District and breaking the $3,000 mark in Brooklyn Heights.
This tendency goes back to 9/11, when the city got confronted to a tremendous financial drop resulting from its economic bubble burst. Almost 176,000 jobs were lost and the unemployment rate climbed to 8.4 percent in December 2002. Emergency funds were soon approved in response to this historic downfall. Originally an effort to help small businesses survive, a third of those funds — exactly 27 percent, or $144 million — ended up into the hands of investment banks, financial traders and brokerage firms, the consequence of a loophole in a quickly drafted regulation. This, along with incentives and tax breaks, opened the way for wealthy developers to bring their money to New York, exacerbating the gentrification and rarifying affordable accommodations.
When Daniel lost his Yonkers family home in a fire 12 years ago, rental prices were still somewhat reasonable in New York. But during the time it took him to rebound, going through several rehab centers to fight his alcohol dependence and falling off the wagon multiple times in the process, the rents had increased too much for his low income. Daniel was clean but had nowhere to go. He had heard of the Freedom Tunnel and how it was still a refuge for some people, and decided to settle there.
The Freedom Tunnel is an Amtrak-operated passageway running underneath Riverside Park. Empire Line trains dash through it in a muffled growl, lighting mounds of trash and walls covered in graffiti. The Freedom Tunnel had previously been the location of a homeless shantytown until the mid-90’s, making it a haven for hundreds of vagrants who came here to find relative safety, pirated electricity and the support of their peers. Ironically, the Freedom Tunnel was successful where places like the Freedom House weren’t, allowing for the fallen and the forgotten to thrive and eventually leave the streets. “It’s funny how every shitty place around here has the word freedom in its name, don’t you think?” Daniel asks laughing.
Like Jena, Daniel has known his fair share of abuse by law enforcement agents. During the couple of months he was living in the Freedom Tunnel, Amtrak patrols systematically ransacked his dwelling, an improvised tent made of cardboard and clothing pieces. “And God forbid I was in their way when they came by,” he adds with a somber look in his eyes. Threats were routine to him. “One day a younger cop told me ‘nobody would know if I killed you’ right to my face. I didn’t know what to do. I said ‘so why don’t you just kill me?’ and I was ready for it, you know. I was ready. But in the end he just threw my stuff to the ground and left,” Daniel recounts. He finally decided to leave the tunnel shortly after another agent tried to extort money from him. “The guy actually wanted me to pay him so I could stay there,” he says. “I couldn’t believe my ears.”
However the bullying didn’t stop after Daniel went up to live in Riverside Park. “They come poking me when I sleep. They see my bike and say I’m a thief. ‘That’s my work tool’ I tell them. They treat me like I’m a criminal. Sometimes they say ‘you a drug dealer’ and they search for drugs. I ain’t got no drugs on me! You see that mark?” he asks showing a scar on his stomach. “This I got after a cop kicked me in the guts and they had to bring me to the hospital to fix the bleeding.” Daniel learned early that he couldn’t count on the police to protect him from themselves. The only time he tried to report an agent’s bad behavior was in 2008, but the officer he talked to at the 24th Precinct almost shoved him out of the station after having directed him not to press charges. Daniel has been staying away from the authorities since then — even though he gratefully accepted the help of two NYPD cadets convincing him to go somewhere safe as the winter storm barreled over Manhattan.
“[The homeless] ain’t fitting with the new landscape,” Daniel says. “Officials don’t want us in the city no more. We’re too ugly for tourists and millionaires. That’s why cops have orders to make our lives as difficult as possible.” According to him, there is little hope for improvement. “I don’t see it becoming better anytime soon,” he tells me. If the recent uprise of regulations against the homeless is to be trusted, Daniel might well be right. Bans on feeding the hungry in public parks, discriminatory enforcement of loitering laws, anti-panhandling rules made to punish people giving to beggars, or attempts to make access to shelters harder are just a few examples of the latest onslaught against homeless people’s basic civil rights. “That’s how it is now,” Daniel adds, preparing to move from the park. “I just keep to myself and hope for the best.”
A little down 11th Avenue, policemen from the nearby 18th Precinct are making sure everyone has left Clinton Park for the night. Snow is building on the sidewalks and Juno is bound to hit the coast very soon. Several events have been cancelled during the day because of the weather, one of which being the annual count of the city’s homeless population — an ironic detail considering the shocking number of people who won’t have the luck of finding a bed in an emergency shelter. Late pedestrians are scurrying back to their homes, braving 50 mph wind gusts and bracing for the storm’s landing. Cabs are becoming scarcer.
A lot has been changing in New York. Mom and pop businesses are slowly being replaced by chain stores and big brand names. Housing prices are going haywire, with expensive condos being built every week to be sold to the rich and the famous.
Modified zoning laws allow for new glass towers to be erected in formerly working-class or industrial neighborhoods, the Hudson Yards being a prime illustration of this. One of the first reactions to the rising cost of living was for people to migrate to outer boroughs such as Brooklyn or Queens where the rents were cheaper. But gentrification crept up and started eating modest neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Astoria and Long Island City, making it even harder to remain in the city.
Homeless people have been quick to notice the changes. What those changes meant for them was even more difficult rehabilitations, hindered by a world speeding its pace around and without them, a world more concerned about revenue figures than the living conditions of human beings. With new mayor Bill de Blasio in City Hall, some expected the situation to improve, at least slightly, but it would seem de Blasio’s famous “Tale of Two Cities” campaign rhetoric, which promised to lessen inequalities between the rich and the poor, hasn’t been very fruitful so far.
New York City has today fully recovered from its financial drop. As a successful businessman, Michael Bloomberg ran the city like a company, giving it a stronger and more profitable presence, continuing the work of Rudy Giuliani to keep crime low and economy high. The new mayor wishes to improve on that, giving back priority to the metropolis’s residents rather than to its visitors. We’ll see how it goes.
New York is doing good but New York citizens are not. And a city without its citizens is nothing but empty walls. It becomes a simulacrum of a city, a theme park, an attraction resort with no soul, no reality and no meaning.
And New York has never been a place for things with no soul.