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- March 05, 1990
- Vol. 33
- No. 9
To Put a Human Face on the Masses Huddled in Our Streets, a Veteran Reporter Joins Them for Two Weeks
I hadn't come simply as a reporter to cover this stygian scene (see Publisher's Letter, page 1). Wearing faded jeans, a frayed corduroy jacket, vintage combat boots used in Korea, and with a beat-up pack strapped to my back, I was hoping to blend in with all the vagrants who had converted this old pier into a makeshift hotel. This was my first stop on a scary two-week journey into their murky, purgatorial world. I wanted to report on what I had seen as one of them.
I had put off a haircut for several weeks and hadn't shaved for days. Still, I worried. Would this disguise really work? Could I make myself feel truly destitute, or would the safety of my just-temporary plight betray me? I fixed my gaze on a smartly dressed businessman tapping his shoes, impatient for the next boat to depart. He glanced everywhere except at me. That was a good sign. I had joined the estimated 3 million homeless who, it is said, have become "invisible" to most Americans.
I must admit that they had been largely invisible to me. On my way to work from suburban Greenwich, Conn., I would see the sleeping bodies sprawled over the cold marble or tucked into the recesses of Grand Central Terminal. In the evening as I headed home, these figures would come alive, rising like specters out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, dunning us commuters with outstretched palms or empty coffee cups. But my personal involvement was very slight.
My knowledge of their problems was also slight. I knew that a preponderant number were black and that a large percentage were drug addicts, alcoholics, AIDS victims or crazies turned loose from overcrowded psycho wards. And yet there were other homeless people, both black and white, who almost could have passed for fellow commuters. They were the ones who intrigued me most. Who were these seemingly sane, reasonably well-dressed drifters who languish in rail and subway stations, bus depots, bank vestibules, and stand like frozen statues on the street? How did they fall between the cracks of our affluent society? Could they ever climb back up?
I had decided to try to learn more about these victims of homelessness by stepping into their lives, and yet as that day approached, I felt myself becoming more and more apprehensive. I had heard horror stories about the knifing and shooting of homeless men, mostly senseless attacks by marauding youth packs. One old man had been doused with gasoline and set afire. I had also heard about wild free-for-alls started by "crackheads" in the big armory shelters of Manhattan and Brooklyn. "Better sleep with your shoes on or they'll be stolen," I was warned. "Your glasses too."
The day was clear and crisp when I arrived at the Staten Island ferry terminal. I had $50 stashed in various pockets in small bills, but no house keys, checks, credit cards, driver's license or any identification other than my Medicare card. To my wife's consternation I had removed my gold wedding band for the first time in 37 years. Shorn of all these accoutrements, I felt peculiarly weightless. Worse, the desolation made me feel that perhaps I had made a horrible mistake. Sharing a soldier's danger as a war correspondent, as I had done, was strangely exhilarating, yet the prospect of hunkering down with these derelicts seemed only demeaning.
I parked my pack next to an old geezer and asked him if it was possible to spend the night in the terminal. "Yes," he said. "The cops usually don't bother you." He said his name was Philip Nachamie, and he had lived there for three weeks. "Once I worked as a clerk for E.F. Hutton," he explained, pointing in the direction of Wall Street. "Just a few blocks from here."
I decided to board the next boat. Standing on the open bow with the cold wind whipping my face, I felt suddenly uplifted by the beauty of New York. The profusion of steel and glass soaring skyward from Manhattan's southern tip, Miss Liberty standing proudly with sun glinting on her gilded torch, the spidery span of the Verrazano Bridge stretching across the harbor's mouth—all striking human accomplishments in a city where thousands lived on the street.
I hadn't been to Staten Island for years, but a social worker had mentioned a place called Project Hospitality, a few blocks from the ferry. A sign on the door warned DON'T EVEN THINK OF DOING DRUGS HERE. A friendly woman at the front desk told me to sign in. "We'll be serving dinner in an hour," she said. "But you can have coffee now."
I still felt queasy in my new role, but I poured myself a cup and sat down. About 40 men and women filled the chairs that lined the room. Dinner consisted of mushy Swedish meatballs on a heaping mound of brown rice. Two peanut butter sandwiches were also doled out to each "client," as the homeless are referred to in drop-in centers like this. I pocketed mine for breakfast. "Sorry, but there are no beds available tonight on Staten Island," the woman at the front desk informed me.
I decided to spend the night crossing back and forth on the ferry. Its throbbing engines lulled me right to sleep, but as the ferry docked, a cop rapped his club against the back of my seat. The police, I came to learn, are viewed by the homeless as both enemy and protector. I slipped into the terminal through an exit, then re-boarded the boat without paying. By 5 A.M. I had made half-a-dozen round trips, snatching 20-minute naps en route. Finally I joined the snorers slumped on the benches in the Manhattan terminal.
When the new day dawned, I was camped between a pair of talkative New Englanders. Anthony Joseph Robert Quinn proclaimed himself a lace-curtain Irishman from Boston. His downfall apparently came from growing up with too much money and an unquenchable thirst for whiskey. Having quit Boston College to join the Army in World War II, he married a "very artistic lady" who eventually departed for Palm Beach with his and her money. But I couldn't pry loose the secret of what sent him into oblivion. "You don't have an extra shirt in that pack, lad?" he inquired. "There's nothing under this coat." I had two extra and gave him one. "Bless you. Care for an eye-opener?" he asked, pulling out a pint.
Cecile Sanscartier, an aging but still twinkly-eyed blond woman, was originally from New Bedford, Mass. She moved to New York City, where her husband drove a taxi. One night, she says, he was parked in front of Metropolitan Hospital, and he was shot and killed by holdup men. For several years after his death, Cecile worked in a stationery store but kept falling behind in her rent. Reluctantly last summer she entered a city shelter, where she says, "I was scared of being robbed or raped, and felt like a prisoner. Here I can walk out through the turnstile any time I want." She had been living at the ferry terminal for two months.
After only one night there, I was eager to find a bed. My back ached, and I felt groggy from lack of sleep. I consulted the Street Sheet—a nonprofit annual publication, distributed free to New York's homeless, which lists the places they can go for food, shelter, clothing, medical assistance and legal aid. It included the McAuley Water Street Mission. Within walking distance, it seemed like a good place to begin looking. At McAuley's, you must attend a midday, two-hour Bible class to get a ticket for dinner, a bed and breakfast. "Food for the soul before food for the body," its homeless lodgers are told, although none seem eager for the religious nourishment. After the Bible class, I spent the rest of the afternoon at a nearby public library writing notes for this article. Warm, with clean bathrooms as well as books and newspapers, branch libraries are homeless havens.
Returning to McAuley's at 5:30 P.M., I joined about 90 men in the chapel. Most were young blacks. First we stored our belongings for the night in a padlocked closet. Then we were interviewed. I was "Roy Brown from Chicago," the cover I had decided to use. "No, I don't have any identification. My wallet was snatched at the bus terminal when I arrived." Many of the homeless, I knew, carried no identification.
Finally we filed downstairs for a thick meat soup that looked more like slabs of beef in gravy. Then everybody marched up to the dormitory, found their assigned bunks and stripped for the communal showers. Hospital gowns were given out to sleep in because our clothes were hauled away on wheeled racks so they wouldn't be stolen. By 7:30 everybody was in bed, the aged, handicapped and grossly overweight having been awarded lower bunks.
Many men at McAuley's were regulars: some with jobs but no place to live, others out looking for work. But none had surrendered to homelessness. There was a laid-off garbage collector from the Bronx, an unemployed bartender from Ireland, a sugar worker from St. Croix whose home had been devastated by Hurricane Hugo, a political refugee from South Africa. "Why," he asked, "does a country like yours, that gives so much food to Africa, have so many hungry people?"
I returned to McAuley's three consecutive nights, making a couple of friends there whom I would be happy to meet again. One was Jimmy Pate, a highly intelligent black man with a close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard. He had managed a Salvation Army shop on Long Island and worked as a messenger in Manhattan. But as a periodic boozer, he would begin swigging gin and get fired. "I haven't had a drink for two weeks," he boasted. "Time to look for a job."
Another was Mark Fitzgerald, a gargantuan Canadian with a black beard so thick all you could see was a pair of blue eyes peeking out above it. He came from Churchill, on Hudson Bay below the Arctic Circle, where "polar bears," he said, "roam the streets like stray dogs." New York he called the "Trapezoid City. No matter what you do, you end up in a trap."
A linebacker in high school in Beaver, Pa., Fitzgerald once dreamed of a pro-football career. Instead he found work in a Canadian oil field. A series of job changes back in the U.S. followed, and with each he seemed to pick up more weight, until he tipped the scales at more than 400 lbs. Finally last December, at 29, he was hit with a massive heart attack in New York. "They jump-started me twice and kept me in intensive care for 10 days," he reported. "That cleaned out my bank account."
Despite his own problems, Mark took pity on me. "I'll buy you a bus ticket to St. Christopher's Inn when I get my next welfare check," he promised. St. Christopher's, he explained, is a retreat in Garrison, N.Y., for homeless men. It bothered me not being able to level with Mark. But if word got out about what I was doing, it could have been dangerous. "How come you ask so many questions, man?" a McAuley regular had already wondered. My last night there, the director asked if I would like a permanent job manning the front desk. Clearly it was time to move on.
I had been spending my days trudging the streets, investigating different drop-in centers and soup kitchens listed in the Street Sheet. Some, I discovered, like the Holy Apostles church in mid-Manhattan, serve hot, sit-down meals for 1,000 men and women. Voices to and from the Streets, a free homeless newsletter published by the South Presbyterian Church in suburban Dobbs Ferry, even runs a column called Dining Out with Rick C. that rates the soup kitchens for "atmosphere, service and cuisine." Sunday breakfast at St. Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue received a four-star rating in all three categories. " 'Bum's Rush' is really unnecessary here," it reported, since "everyone has a ticket." But I found Saturday breakfasts at St. Agnes even better. "The coffee cake here is top shelf," commented a toothless table mate, who also advised me, "Stay out of Grand Central. Too many guys over there eager to cut up a white face."
After dinner I checked into the Moravian Coffee Pot, considered a safe haven for older homeless men and women. At first, the reverend in charge was pessimistic about my chances of being assigned to a shelter. But after spying my week-old whiskers and hearing my sad story about being robbed, I was put on a school bus bound for St. Clement Pope Roman Catholic Church in Queens.
During the next few days, I found many surprises among the 100 Coffee Pot clients. There were teachers with master's degrees, shopkeepers, file clerks, secretaries, chambermaids, day laborers, a lawyer, even a TV actor who played in The Defenders and a former opera singer who now sang on Sundays in the First Moravian Church next door. Most were nicely spruced up, since two showers and long racks of donated clothing were available upstairs. Yet they sat around in segregated black or white cliques, complaining about everything from their free meals to the high rent and taxes that had driven them into the street. Consumed by their own misfortune, they showed little concern for each other. When it was announced that a woman there had died during the night, the news hardly caused a murmur. "I like rich people," a black woman confided. "Poor people are too cruel to each other."
Many Coffee Pot regulars, I was told, draw SSI (Supplemental Security Income) from the federal government for ailments that supposedly prevent them from working. But nobody appeared sick, except for the chronic, croupy cough that plagues practically all the homeless, and which I, too, had picked up. Several times I was tempted to stand up and shout, "Why don't you all go out and get jobs?" Instead, I'd go out myself, prowling the city till dark, seeking homeless people with more poignant stories. I must have looked pretty grubby. Women, I now noticed, leaned away from me on buses and subways.
It was beginning to sink in that sitting around crowded, fetid drop-in centers, standing pressed together in long soup-kitchen lines and sleeping side-by-side in shelters, the homeless had precious few moments alone. No wonder so many preferred the parks or streets, where even a cold packing crate to sleep in provided some privacy.
In four nights the Coffee Pot dispatched me to three shelters, each more comfortable than the last. Manhattan's famed Riverside Church, my final resting place so to speak, was called the "Helmsley Palace shelter." Pasta or some other tasty hot dish was served. The beds were well spaced in the men's choir room. There was a shower and a TV.
Already into my second week, the time had come to tough it out with the hard-core homeless in places like Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side, where police and squatters have been waging continuous warfare; Penn Station, dubbed the "Panama combat zone" because of a proliferation of drugs and guns; the Bowery; Brooklyn; and the big Bellevue shelter, converted from a hospital.
In Tompkins Square Park, with the temperature hovering around 20°F, I warmed myself over a trash-can fire with a group of shivering men, amusing themselves by reeling off their old penitentiary numbers. They eyed me suspiciously when I didn't chime in with mine.
That night I decided to stay on the street as long as my feet could take the cold. Dinner came from a Salvation Army mobile kitchen parked near City Hall. Too cold to sit around, I walked slowly up through Chinatown and SoHo back to the East Village. Along the way many men were leaning against buildings or slumped in doorways, waiting for the "Midnight Run," a church caravan from suburbia that distributes sandwiches and blankets.
"Be careful crossing the street," I kept reminding myself. The sleep deprivation that dims the consciousness of every homeless person was beginning to slow my own reactions. Quite a few street dwellers, I'd heard, get hit by cars.
Then I walked three miles back to the Battery. About 2 A.M. I decided to head for John Heuss House, a drop-in center for the chronically homeless and mentally ill, partly supported by Wall Street's Trinity Church. "You don't have a single scrap of paper with your name on it?" the night duty officer asked caustically. Eventually he told me to shove some chairs together and stretch out, as others had done. Every time I reached for a chair, a mentally disturbed man grabbed it away. Only after the duty officer threatened to toss him into the street did I lie down.
Some of the mentally unstable homeless people, I found, sound deceptively sane. Bill Roth, 33, a Long Island letter carrier for eight years, was holding forth brilliantly in Grand Central about the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, when he casually mentioned that boxing promoters were sure he could whip Mike Tyson, despite their 80-lb. difference. Later he admitted having been hospitalized for alcoholism and mental problems.
Deinstitutionalizing these troubled people, I realized, not only forces them to flounder helplessly, it also allows them to inflict their insanity on everyone around them—sometimes violently. Right after my homeless stint ended, a deranged man in a midtown subway station was pummeled to death by a passenger he had accosted and spat on.
The next night I was determined to find a real bed. I went back to Staten Island, but with no success. I tried the nearly all-black drop-in center on Bond Street in Brooklyn. James Conway, a homeless chef, who had just been released from the hospital, warned me that a bloody battle royal had erupted there the previous day. I wasn't feeling too comfortable anyway. A black woman had pointed at me and yelled, "Hey, look at the macadamia nut," when I walked in.
Then I remembered that Mark Fitzgerald, my McAuley friend, had high praise for the Fulton Hotel in the Bowery. But a room there, he said, costs $6.50. (Bus, subway and ferry fares, cough medicine and repairs to my backpack had already used up $35 of my $50.) Finally I decided to try some panhandling—not an appealing idea, although a man at the Coffee Pot had boasted of picking up $240 in one day.
It was already dark when I arrived in Little Italy, a district of posh restaurants bordering on the Bowery. The streets were filled with fur-coated women from uptown. "Could you help a fella out?" I kept asking. In 40 minutes I collected four quarters, a dollar and a fiver, although my heart wasn't in it. I felt dishonest playing on the sympathy of strangers, knowing that I didn't really need their help.
The Fulton Hotel turned out to be a Chinese flophouse named Fu Shin, where a four-by six-foot, windowless, tableless, chairless cubicle now costs $8.50. There was barely room to squeeze in between the wall and the bed, covered with a grimy green blanket showing worrisome brown burn holes. A light bulb hung from a false ceiling constructed of wrapping paper and chicken wire.
Here, at least, was a warm place of my own to shed my smelly clothes and sleep. But the cubicle, I discovered about 1 A.M., wasn't really all mine. That's when the cockroaches began running across my face. I sat up in bed the rest of the night reading a New York Times salvaged from a sidewalk trash can. By then I was almost looking forward to the Bellevue shelter with its 1,000 beds.
I wasn't sure they would let me into this city-run, older men's refuge. I lacked the required Human Resources Administration case number. But it was Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and the place was down to a skeleton staff. I gave my real name and handed the man at the admitting office my Medicare card for identification. It was 5 P.M. "You'll have to wait till midnight for an emergency bed," he advised. He issued me a dinner slip and pointed down a long, dimly lit corridor to a waiting room where some 50 other emergency-bed candidates were congregated.
This was an angry bunch of men—mad at the armed guards there to keep order, mad at each other, mad at the world for the way it had treated them. "Sit up!" snapped a guard, prodding a skinny black fellow sprawled on the floor. "Go 'way, asshole," responded the man. "Is my lying down a security problem?" The guard prodded him again. "You don't even know why I'm lying here, asshole. I got two bullet holes in me." The guard finally gave up, and the bullet holes were never explained.
A trembly, 80-year-old, bewhiskered white man kept trying to stand up and walk to the bathroom, only to fall back in his chair. The guards ignored him. So did the others in the room. I desperately wanted to offer a steadying hand. Yet, as a reporter, I also wanted to see what would happen. Finally I watched a dark wet spot spread across the old man's lap. Humiliated, he never looked down.
From time to time a woman came and called a few names—the lucky recipients of emergency beds. But at 1 A.M. about 20 of us were still waiting. "Okay, you guys are going to Post 5," barked one of the guards. He led us down two flights to an abandoned lobby and pointed at the marble floor. "Sleep here. You can go outside to pee." The price of homelessness, I had come to understand, is not the hard surfaces you sometimes have to sleep on or the soup kitchen meals that usually leave a strong aftertaste in your mouth. It is the dehumanizing loss of dignity.
After two weeks I felt saturated with these depressing sensations and ready to write. My grubbiness was also becoming unbearable. Sitting in the rear car of the train going home (where my neighbors never ride), I wondered if I would ever run into any of my homeless friends again. Would the deep chasm separating us make such an encounter embarrassing, even though I now know there are talented, intelligent individuals out there among all the derelicts? Never again would I look away when a homeless person approaches. It might be somebody I know.
There are a few I would very much like to see. I would like to find out if Phillip Nordé, a handsome 38-year-old Trinidadian who says he was the first black man to model clothes on the fashion runways of Europe for Gucci, Valentino, Giorgio Armani and Missoni, managed to stay off drugs. Having recently returned from a crack rehab center in Vermont, he lives at the Wards Island shelter under the Triborough Bridge. He fears that his problem is genetic. His father and grandfather were both alcoholics. "But crack," he says, "takes over your body, your mind and your soul."
One man at the Coffee Pot, I believe, will surely break free. He's a Fordham University graduate and a teacher whose periodic mental breakdowns have left him homeless. Nevertheless, he calls his situation "a temporary walk on the downside" and feels his positive attitude won't permit him to stay stuck in that miasma. "You can live without money," he says, "but you can't live without plans." That, I realized, is what had made two weeks of homelessness endurable for me. I always knew I would be going home.
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