As New York City prepares for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, stocks up on essentials, shuts down its public transport system and evacuates 375,000 residents living in low lying areas, there is one part of the city’s population of 8.5 million people that is still roaming the streets: the homeless.
46,631 of them seek refuge every night in the city’s often criticized shelter system, and those are the ones that manage to get in. Many more stay out in the streets. Some, because there simply aren’t enough beds, others because the system – to address the chronic shortage of space – has become a byzantine labyrinth of rules and procedures for them to deal with, and finally many of the LGBT community who feel their sexual orientation exposes them to significant risks from other shelter inhabitants.
James, 43, from Harlem is one such homeless I encounter sitting outside an upscale grocery store on Sunday night, as Hurricane Sandy approaches the city, in the gentrified section of Harlem called Morningside. He is panhandling from the last few passersby hurring past in the rising winds of the approaching storm. As he sees my camera he wants to talk and so I ask him why he hasn’t sought refuge from the storm yet.
“I can’t go back to the shelter system for another two months,” he explains.
“Why?” I ask and point out that the city has just opened 76 emergency shelters around the five boroughs as part of their hurricane preparedness plan.
“Once you’ve been in the system for 18 months you can’t go back there for at least one year,” James responds. “Only once you’ve been out for a year, can you be classified as longterm homeless, and therefore get access to additional assistance.”
“But what about the emergency shelters? You cannot go to those either?” I ask again.
“No, they don’t want us there. These shelters are for the good folks, the families that get evacuated. There is no room in there for me.”
“Have you tried?” I ask, pointing out that there are 73,000 beds available, and last I heard only about 1,000 had been taken.
“So what are you gonna do?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” James responds. “I’ll have to stay in place here so that the homeless outreach can see me. Once I’ve been spotted in this place for 10 days in a row, I can get access to some drop-in centers. They’re all full, so it’s hard to get in, but once an outreach service sees you for an extended period in the same place, there is help to be had.”
“But the winds are going to be very dangerous. You need to crawl under somewhere,” I insist. James just shrugs his shoulders in response.
“I used to go down to Trinity Church, where Occupy Wall Street was handing out food and supplies,” he continues. “But they stopped that, so I came up here. Harlem is hard. Every time you lie down on a bench you get arrested, then they put you through the system for fifteen hours, which is equivalent to time served for stretching out in public, then they let you go again. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow.”
James tells me that he became homeless seven years ago, after loosing his job in a restaurant. For four of these seven years, he’s been living on the street. The other three he spent bouncing around the city’s shelter system.
“Once you get in, they try to keep you there for nine months to make sure they earn good money on you. They don’t help you really, they put you through tests and classes, to this assessment and that specialist, but essentially they just string you along until finally after nine months they tell you you have to leave again.” New York City’s homeless shelter system is privately run, but funded by the city as each shelter is reimbursed for each homeless person they house. For each service they provide a shelter charges extra. Fathema Shad’idi, a Red Cross worker who has lived in the group of Occupy Wall Street protesters camping outside Trinity Church on Wall Street for the past four months in order to do homeless outreach agrees with James’ assessment: “New York City’s shelter system is human warehousing at its worst,” she says. “They put these poor people on a hamster wheel, chasing them from here to there with complicated rules and regulations without helping them succeed in finding a job and setting them up for returning to steady housing. There is so much money to be made in this city by keeping a person homeless that there is no incentive to get people off the streets and into affordable housing and work.”
The group of Occupiers who had been protesting outside Trinity Church against the worldly business practices of its Rector James Cooper, whom they accuse of running a multi-billion real estate company hiding behind the guide of being a tax-exempt religious institution, incidentally has found shelter for the duration of the storm. Earlier on Sunday the group dislocated from their campsite of 142 days at the onset of Wall Street and entered a Hurricane shelter in lower Manhattan, just as Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, another frequent target of their scorn, were holding a press conference in the next room.
James meanwhile is hopeful that eventually he’ll get back on his feet, and he has a few tricks left to get help until he gets there. “Sometimes, when I need help I go to a hospital, saying I need a detox,” he explains. “Then they keep me for about 5 days and let me back out. If I want to stay longer, I say that I want to go to rehab, and so they send me to rehab for another 20 days. Then I’m back in the street, but I did get a break for a while.”
As for the future, finding a home is his first priority. “That’s why I want to stay here, so the homeless outreach can see me. When I get taken in, I can find a job and I’ll be ok.” James tells me he is a trained small-machine mechanic “but that’s not a job I can find in the city. I’ve mostly worked in restaurants, and when the economy picks back up, I’ll be able to find work as a busboy in a restaurant.”
In the meantime, I hope that he will remain safe through the impending storm. On my way home I notice that the wind has increased significantly. Some wind gusts catch me off guard and push me off balance, and I have to hold onto a lamp post to regain my posture. I walk past other homeless people shuffling along 125th Street, Harlem’s main artery. They’re not in a mood to talk and seem preoccupied in getting somewhere without knowing exactly where as their usual hideout spots are either dangerously exposed or shut down by the storm. Others sit on benches talking to each other, seemingly impervious to the impending peril crawling up the Eastern seaboard.
In his many press conferences New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg urged people, in his often patronizing tone, to stay home during the storm, insisting that this would be the safest place to be. But what happens to those with nowhere to go?