Body Count: How the Reagan Administration Hides the Homeless

Cold weather is coming, and the streets of American cities are decorated for the holiday sea­son with homeless people and their meager belongings. Shop­pers often feel affronted by the sight of the homeless. Most stare straight ahead; a few make gestures of contempt. Our unspoken desire is for these spectral presences, these Dickensian ghosts, to disappear.

In its way, the Reagan administration has acted on that wish. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has tried to make the homeless vanish with numerical sorcery. During the winter of 1984, HUD undertook a $138,000 study designed to refute the claim by advocates of the homeless, in particular Washington’s Community for Creative Nonviolence (CCNV), that over two million Americans have no place to live. CCNV spokesman Mitch Snyder has become one of America’s most visible and relentless advocates for the homeless (see “The Flatbush Faster,” below), and until HUD released its findings in May 1984, Snyder’s two-mil­lion figure was widely accepted as a rough estimate.

The HUD findings, published as A Re­port to the Secretary on the Homeless and Emergency Shelters, stated that probably no more than a quarter of a million Americans were homeless on any winter night last year. The report imme­diately provoked charges of fraud and deception. Snyder, joined by other home­less advocates, sued in Federal court to stop distribution of the report. That suit was summarily dismissed, but an appeal is still pending.

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Last week, after waiting six months for HUD to respond fully to his requests for data underlying the report, Snyder filed another action to force the agency to sur­render more documents. But the hunt for hidden information is only one more step toward his ultimate goal. Assisted by vol­unteer counsel Terry F. Lenzner (former­ly of the Senate Watergate Committee staff) and James H. Rowe III, Snyder is seeking a grand jury investigation of at least two administration officials on charges of criminal perjury and conspiracy.

Snyder and his co-workers in CCNV have worked with street dwellers for more than 10 years. Snyder’s frequent dealings with the federal government, as well as the local bureaucracy, have added considerable political experience to his street wisdom, and he is convinced the report’s conclusions were a predetermined attempt to “deprive the homeless of the only thing they have: their exis­tence.” HUD’s claim that there are far fewer homeless than previously believed, he says, is meant to ease pressure for federal relief. The homeless, after all, are not simply an affront to other Americans; they are also a living rebuke to the “suc­cess” of the president’s economic program.


When HUD’s Report to the Secretary was released, it was front-page news. Its assessment that there were only 250,000 to 350,000 homeless persons seemed to justify Reagan administration policy, which regarded these people as a problem for the states, localities, and private sec­tor — not the federal government. This view is reflected in the skewed funding of homeless programs: over the past three years, the Reagan budgets have allocated a total of $218 million — about the same amount that New York City spends on its homeless in a single year (see “The Federal Failure,” below).

On the frontlines of opposition to the Reagan policy stands CCNV, which along with local officials and other homeless advocates insists that only federal re­sources can provide adequate food and shelter. For more than a decade, CCNV has cared for the capital’s homeless with a combination of donated goods, hip in­genuity, and a defiant, prophetic activ­ism. While local communities including Washington were still ignoring the grow­ing numbers on the streets and in shel­ters a few years ago, CCNV activists went public with hunger strikes and other ac­tions intended to penetrate public apa­thy. Snyder’s style doesn’t charm every­one in official Washington. Some politicians and pundits are offended by his bold challenge to authority, accompa­nied by caustic remarks about our “little Western minds that have to quantify everything in sight, whether we can or not.”

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But in 1982 Snyder did try to count, admittedly unscientifically, the ranks of homeless Americans by calling shelter providers in other cities and projecting their estimates nationally. From that telephone survey came the figure Snyder used in congressional testimony, of “two to three million.” It was a neat statistic that rounded out to about 1 per cent of the U.S. population, and was intended to reflect the number of people without shelter during the course of a year.

What irritated HUD officials was that the little Western minds of the media had, by early 1984, latched onto Snyder’s figure and used it — in editorials, in news stories, on TV and radio. One way or another these stories all posed the same question: If there are two million home­less, why isn’t the government doing more to help them? The HUD report was Washington’s answer: turn the debate about what to do into a dispute over numbers.

When Mitch Snyder and his colleagues around the country read the report, it didn’t make sense to them. Many of them had been interviewed by HUD and were convinced that the numbers they’d given had been misused. Snyder angrily disput­ed the report’s techniques as well as its findings and purposes; he said it was “a political document” intended to “mute the atmosphere of urgency” that he and others had fought to create.

A few weeks after the report’s release, Snyder accused HUD officials of fraud before a special joint hearing of the House Banking Committee’s subcommit­tee on housing and community develop­ment and the Government Operations Committee’s subcommittee on manpow­er and housing (which will reopen its probe of the HUD report December 4). He and other CCNV members called shelter operators around the country, in­cluding colleagues in the National Coali­tion for the Homeless and discovered they too were furious. Snyder organized them to join a lawsuit against further distribution of the report, the first volley in his legal war against an administration whose top officials, as he told Congress, “remind me of nothing so much as a school of piranha circling, waiting to tear the last ounce of flesh.”

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Snyder has a dramatic flair. In another life, years ago, he worked on Madison Avenue. But the former ad man has gone much further in combating HUD than Secretary Samuel Pierce or his advisers must have expected. Not satisfied with discrediting the report itself, he is pursu­ing those whom he accuses of writing the homeless out of existence. And if the Jus­tice Department doesn’t probe his charges, Snyder says he and Lenzner will seek their own hearing before a grand jury and the appointment of a special prosecutor. In the meantime, he has con­vinced banking subcommittee chairman Henry Gonzalez to reopen his investigation.


Secretary Pierce has never been a White House favorite. He is the Cabinet member who, early in his tenure, was mistaken by the president for a black mayor, and under his tenure HUD has suffered the heaviest cuts in the Reagan budgets. Pierce has also been lambasted annually on Capitol Hill for HUD’s fail­ure to assist the homeless.

In January 1984, Pierce’s boss suc­cinctly entered the debate with his own assessment on Good Morning America: “What we have found in this country­ — and maybe we’re more aware of it now — ­is one problem that we’ve had, even in the best of times, and that is the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice.” This was the presidential reac­tion to a media blitz — including pictures of homeless families with small chil­dren — that took place that same month.

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Pierce’s response to the growing public relations problem was to study the issue. In early 1983, a HUD deputy had pro­posed a small study of how HUD initia­tives were helping the homeless and how innovative programs in 10 cities were preventing homelessness or assisting homeless families to find permanent homes. But Pierce instead ordered HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research to formulate a national estimate of the homeless, ascertain who they were and what was being done to help them. The study was undertaken by Dr. Kathleen Peroff, then deputy director of the office’s division of policy studies, and the official Mitch Snyder would later ac­cuse of criminal perjury.

Under her direction, HUD staff and an independent consulting firm, Westat, used four techniques to estimate the total number of homeless. HUD had already decided that what they wanted was a “snapshot” of how many homeless there were on an average night in January or February 1984 — a number that would certainly be lower than a count of how many people were without shelter for any extended period during a year. Many people are homeless for a few months, then stay with friends or family before they hit the street again. Others end up in jails, hospitals, or vouchered housing for periods during the year, but adminis­tration policy is to consider none of these people officially “homeless.”

The derivation of social statistics such as the number of homeless, hungry, or illiterate is often difficult to comprehend. To lay readers, disputes over methodolo­gy may seem arcane or even irrelevant, but they lie at the heart of the political struggle over who should help the home­less and how much they should be helped.

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HUD’s estimate was an extrapolation based on previous estimates — and in a very few instances, actual headcounts — done by other agencies. Each of the four methods used was, in essence, a survey of other surveys, manipulated statistically into a national estimate:

  • HUD’s researchers took published estimates for 37 localities, most of them large urban areas, added them together, and divided by the combined populations of the cities surveyed. That came to one-­quarter of 1 per cent of the population which, when multiplied by the total U.S. population, yielded an “outside esti­mate” of 586,000 homeless. HUD consid­ered this number its least reliable, since it relied wholly upon newspaper and oth­er published accounts, and focused on large cities where the homeless tend to be concentrated.
  • Westat’s employees conducted tele­phone interviews with 200 operators of homeless shelters in 60 cities — 20 small, 20 medium, and the 20 largest — and asked dozens of questions, mainly con­cerned with how the shelters operate. The next to last question was: “On an average night last week, how many home­less (including those in shelters, using vouchers to live in hotels, in cars, streets, parks, etc.) would you estimate are living in this metropolitan area?” The answers were added together and extrapolated to a national figure of 353,000.
  • HUD staff conducted 500 interviews in the same 60 cities, asking local offi­cials, advocacy groups, researchers, shel­ter operators, social service agencies, and police departments to offer their best guess as to how many homeless were in their cities or counties. Many refused, but the answers received were analyzed for “reliability” based on the perceived experience and knowledge of the inter­viewee, given a weight based on city size, and then added together and extrapolat­ed. This figure came to 254,000.
  • Three studies by local homeless ad­vocates which attempted to count the number of people on the streets in Bos­ton, Pittsburgh, and Phoenix, along with a 1980 census “casual count” were used to derive a national figure of 192,000.

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All these methods suffered from a vari­ety of technical, practical and even arith­metical errors, according to two statisti­cal specialists — Eugene Ericson of Temple University and Richard Appel­baum of the University of California, Santa Barbara — who examined the re­port and some of the underlying documentation at Snyder’s request. Several of the shelter providers and experts inter­viewed by HUD and Westat complained that their estimates had been misquoted or misused. Nine of the 20 largest cities were assessed on the basis of one or two local estimates. And the authors of the Boston and Phoenix studies — Valerie La­nier and Dr. Louisa Stark — blasted the report for ignoring the limitations of their estimates, such as the fact that in Boston, for example, the counters only examined a limited area and not the whole city. Lanier and Stark are plain­tiffs in Snyder’s lawsuit demanding that the report be withdrawn.

Ericson and Appelbaum both criticized the weighting system used by HUD, which gave the highest weight to the smallest cities surveyed, and the lowest weight to the country’s five largest cities. Ericson, who assisted the city of New York in analyzing the 1980 census, told the Voice he believed this was a deliber­ate attempt to understate the number of homeless.

But both Ericson and Appelbaum were most vehement about what Snyder calls the “smoking gun” in HUD’s calcula­tions — an arcane geographical measure known as the “Rand-McNally Metropoli­tan Areas” or “RMAs,” which were used by HUD to arrive at a ratio between local estimates of homelessness and the coun­try as a whole. Each of the 60 cities sur­veyed for the HUD report belongs to an RMA, which is a large geographical unit, usually used for marketing purposes, similar to the better-known Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. The New York City RMA includes the city’s seven million people, plus another 10 million spread across 79 other cities in 10 coun­ties spread across three states. The Los Angeles RMA also comprises about 80 cities; Boston includes 40 cities; Chica­go’s RMA stretches across three states, and includes 10 counties and 46 cities.

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The problem, according to Ericson and Appelbaum, is that HUD used the RMAs this way: They took already dubious esti­mates of homeless populations in the sur­veyed cities and counties which are part, but only part, of the RMAs, added them, and used the total as the numerator in a gigantic fraction. Then they added up the total populations of the 60 RMAs, includ­ing cities which were never surveyed or surveyed only superficially, and used that total as the denominator. The resulting fraction, which supposedly represented the ratio of homeless population to total population in the 60 RMAs, was then multiplied by the entire U.S. population, supposedly yielding a national homeless figure.

Appelbaum and Ericson both say that if the estimates gathered by HUD had been applied solely to the central cities from which they were taken, and not to the RMAs, the final figures on national homelessness would have been anywhere from 2.5 to five times as high, or from 650,000 to 1.6 million. This is because the number of people in the 60 central cities surveyed is about 30 million, while the 60 RMAs have a population of 90 million.


Peroff was obliged to defend her study in two separate forums. On May 24, 1984, she and other HUD officials and consul­tants testified at a joint hearing of the House Banking and Government Opera­tions subcommittees. Six weeks later, she gave a sworn declaration as a defendant in Mitch Snyder’s federal lawsuit to have the HUD report withdrawn.

Snyder and his lawyers examined both the congressional testimony and the sworn statement carefully, and he says he has found at least 13 instances of perjury by Peroff. Whether Peroff lied intention­ally is a matter to be decided by a jury, but there are serious discrepancies in some of her statements — enough so that Gonzalez subcommittee director Gerald McMurray says discreetly that he “hopes HUD will be more forthcoming on how they put together the report” at next month’s hearing.

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Among the discrepancies is Peroff’s de­scription, in her sworn statement to the U.S. District Court, of the HUD report’s definition of “homeless” and her asser­tion that that definition, which included homeless people temporarily in jails and hospitals, was explained to the local ex­perts surveyed by HUD and Westat. The questionnaires used by interviewers show this isn’t true, and several of those interviewed say it was never explained to them.

Most of the accusations of perjury, however, revolve around the issue of RMAs. Some of these could be dismissed as differences of interpretation, but there certainly are contradictions between the report itself, HUD’s congressional testi­mony, and Peroff’s account in her sworn statement.

Although the word “metropolitan” ap­pears nowhere in the seven-page ques­tionnaire strictly followed by the HUD interviewers, Peroff claimed in her sworn declaration to the U.S. District Court that they “always noted what the area basis of the estimate was so that the com­putation of the final metropolitan reli­able range was based on: 1) an entire metropolitan figure; or 2) adding esti­mates obtained for separate jurisdictions within the metropolitan area.” In the same declaration she also referred to the “metropolitan estimates provided in these interviews (which) resulted in a na­tional estimate…” And she claimed that in the largest metro areas, such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, “calls were made by HUD staff to central cities and to all jurisdictions outside the central cities but within the RMA, to obtain additional homeless estimates for these jurisdic­tions.” In fact, HUD interviewers did call some of the counties surrounding the central cities in each RMA, but this was far from surveying “all jurisdictions.” Several of the shelter operators and other professionals interviewed by HUD dis­puted Peroff’s assertion that “those in­terviewed… were asked only to give es­timates for the particular jurisdiction within the metropolitan area which they were knowledgeable about.”

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The defense of the estimate for New York City, in Snyder’s view, is the clear­est example of an outright lie. Peroff claimed in her sworn declaration that “Forty interviews were held with persons knowledgeable about specific suburban areas in order to obtain estimates of the extent of homelessness in each of the sep­arate jurisdictions. These separate esti­mates were then added to the New York City estimate to arrive at an estimate for the entire metropolitan area.” Assistant HUD Secretary June Q. Koch repeated the same claim in a statement submitted to Congress.

But Appelbaum, after examining HUD’s documents, could find only 32 in­terviews with suburban New Yorkers — ­and only 18 of these offered homeless estimates. The others all refused, yet the jurisdictions served by their agencies were counted in the total population figures.

Peroff, who has moved from HUD to the Office of Management and Budget, is indignant at Snyder’s charges and the criticism of her work. “I simply didn’t perjure myself,” she says. The RMA method was chosen, she says, because it best represents the country’s urbanized areas where most of the homeless are lo­cated, adding that “critics of the report… don’t have a statistical background.” The smaller RMAs were given greater weight, she explained, because they had “a lesser probability of being sampled. There was a greater probability that we’d select one of the large RMAs, of which there are few, than the small RMAs, of which there are many.” But nowhere in the report is the precise rationale for the weighting scheme explained — that is, why a small RMA was given 20 times the weight of a large one.

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Peroff agrees that HUD only got 18 estimates for the urbanized areas outside New York’s five boroughs, but insists that “we made an attempt to call every person whose name came to us and in New York City we had good statistics made available to us on the number of people in shelters.” Peroff hasn’t re­tained a lawyer to defend her; she says there’s no need to. June Koch, her supe­rior at HUD, failed to return repeated calls from the Voice.

On August 27, 1984, Snyder filed a for­mal complaint against Peroff and Koch with Joseph DiGenova, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, alleging that the two HUD officials had committed multiple acts of conspiracy and perjury. He asked DiGenova to investigate and present his findings to a grand jury. Sny­der offered evidence and witnesses to cor­roborate his charges, but received no re­ply from DiGenova. Last March, seven months after the charges were filed, Sny­der again wrote to DiGenova — whose of­fice had successfully defended HUD against Snyder’s civil lawsuit in U.S. Dis­trict Court.

“We were hesitant to file the complaint with you, knowing that your office was representing HUD — and still is — in U.S. District Court,” noted Snyder. “We doubted that you would deal fairly — or at all — with these criminal activities, since you would be both representing and in­vestigating/prosecuting the same HUD officials.”

A few weeks later, Snyder got a reply from Charles Roistacher, a DiGenova as­sistant. Roistacher referred to his own office’s declaration in defending HUD against the civil lawsuit, saying, “We re­sponded to your complaints of flaws in the report’s methodology.… Upon review, I have concluded that the investigation you request is not warranted.”

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Lenzner and the other attorneys repre­senting CCNV charge that DiGenova’s decision was tainted by a conflict of in­terest. Last month they asked the ap­peals court to exclude the U.S. Attorney’s office from continuing to represent HUD in the civil suit brought last year to force the withdrawal of the report. They point­ed to Roistacher’s letter as proof of the conflict, protesting that “No distinction whatsoever was drawn between the U.S. Attorney’s undertaking of HUD’s defense in the civil action and its responsibility as a neutral, investigative body to expose criminal activity.” No ruling has been handed down yet, but if the court agrees with CCNV, HUD will be forced to retain outside counsel, and DiGenova may have to reconsider Snyder’s allegations of per­jury and conspiracy.

Two weeks ago, Lenzner and Rowe filed a new complaint in federal court seeking an injunction to force HUD to release the records and files they request­ed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) six months ago. Lenzner is also assisting congressional staff to prepare for the appearance of HUD officials for further questioning on December 4. The House subcommittees investigating the report are chaired by Texas Democrat Henry Gonzalez and Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, who will be trying to determine how the report was shaped, the extent of involvement, if any, of the White House, and whether HUD officials told the truth when they testi­fied about the report after its release in May 1984.


Although administration officials may consider him disreputable, Mitch Snyder has contacts in the White House. Before mounting his war against HUD, he met with one of them and warned that Secre­tary Pierce should be quietly forced to withdraw the report on homelessness. But Snyder realized the administration was committed to defending the report when the right-wing Heritage Founda­tion, the Reagan administration’s private sector arm, tried to bolster HUD with an attack on the report’s critics.

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The Heritage paper, written by Anna Kondratas, seems to have done little to resuscitate the report’s credibility. Local and state officials across the country told the Voice that HUD’s estimates were useless and had not influenced their decisions about aiding the homeless. No one on Capitol Hill, in the press or even in the White House has dared to cite the report as a policy guide. In that sense, Snyder’s war has already been won.

Why then have Snyder and his allies continued to press for withdrawal of the report and investigations by a grand jury and Congress? They are prompted in part by a belief that government shouldn’t lie, and that if government officials do lie they should be held accountable.

Mitch Snyder has taken HUD’s at­tempt to conceal the dimensions of homelessness and used it for the opposite end: to make us face how great a disgrace it is, and how our country is dishonored by manipulations and excuses. Most of all, he feels attention must be paid, not to numbers but to the men, women, and children we forget when we aren’t forced to see them. When the city streets turn to ice, and people we ought to be caring for begin to die, maybe we’ll remember what he tried to tell us.

Research assistance by Ellen McGarrahan.

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The Flatbush Faster

Mitch Snyder has been labeled a “zealot” on the editorial page of the Washington Post, and last year the paper published an op-ed piece which called his threat to fast until he died­ — unless the government provided facili­ties for the city’s homeless — “a fancy form of terrorism.” But on the streets of Washington, where his face is well known, people constantly approach him to say things like “God bless you. We’re praying for you.”

Snyder, 42, is the high school dropout from Flatbush who began what could have been a successful Madison Ave­nue career in the ’60s. One morning in 1968, he woke up and decided he didn’t like his life. Snyder left his fam­ily — he is now on good terms with his ex-wife and two grown sons — and drifted around the country for a cou­ple of years. He was arrested in 1969, under the since-repealed Dyer Act, which made it a federal crime to ride as a passenger in a car rented with a stolen credit card. Convicted in 1970, Snyder spent most of the next two and a half years in Danbury prison, where he met Philip Berrigan, did a lot of reading, fasted for 72 days to protest the Vietnam war, and emerged in 1972 prepared for a life of commit­ment. Snyder says he’s fasted for peri­ods totaling about two years, sometimes for political purposes, mostly just to “cleanse my system and get in touch with those people in the world who don’t have enough to eat.” After one fast protesting the Navy’s plans to name a nuclear submarine “Corpus Christi” — literally, “Body of Christ” — Snyder nearly lost his sight. But surgeons at Johns Hopkins donated their services to save his eyes. The Navy called their sub “City of Corpus Christi,” and Snyder called off his fast.

The Community for Creative Non­violence was founded in 1970 as a pacifist commune dedicated to resistance against the war. By the time Snyder joined them soon after his release from prison, the group had discovered “a direct equivalent at home to the war abroad” — the homeless poor. They opened a soup kitchen in 1972, and over the next couple of years es­tablished a “hospitality house” where anybody could find food and shelter. During the 1975 recession they opened their first shelter, in the living room of the commune’s old house on a run­down street in northeast Washington. In addition to about 1000 volunteers who help when they can, CCNV has 50 members, mostly in their twenties and thirties. About 35 of them, including Snyder, live in the giant shelter on Second Street, which the federal gov­ernment is now trying to shut down.

The confrontation over this dilapi­dated building, formerly Federal City College, began a few hours before President Reagan’s 1983 State of the Union address, when 160 CCNV mem­bers and friends were arrested in the Capitol Rotunda where they were demonstrating to win the use of feder­al buildings to house the homeless. The following month, Reagan ordered HUD and the Pentagon to prepare a list of suitable buildings, but it took until December for CCNV to obtain the use of the empty college, which the feds were planning to sell the follow­ing year. With more than 800 people using the building that winter, CCNV decided that they would refuse to get out when their “lease” expired on April 1, 1984.

Government officials extended the lease, but refused CCNV’s demand that the run-down shelter be renovat­ed to make it decently habitable. On September 15, 1984, Snyder and other CCNV members began a fast that ended on November 4, with a federal commitment to transform the shelter with extensive repairs, thanks in part to the intervention of Susan Baker, wife of presidential aide James Baker.

According to Snyder, the feds have reneged on their commitment to re­build; he wants to hold them to their promise of a “model shelter.” The government says it never contemplat­ed the $10 million worth of work Sny­der has demanded. CCNV has refused to let the government make a partial repair, and the feds have responded by opening a smaller shelter in the remote Anacostia section of the city, threatening to evict the hundreds who live at the CCNV shelter.

Snyder has warned that some shel­ter residents, including a number of Vietnam veterans, might become vio­lent if the government tries to throw them out. He has gone to court to forestall the eviction, which could happen within days after a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals, which now has the case. Like the legal battle over the HUD report, the shelter dispute is, for the moment at least, a stand-off. — J.C.

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The Federal Failure

Getting the Reagan administration to request funds for America’s home­less is an uphill battle, but Represen­tative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, has a strategy. “Per­haps if someone could discover a Com­munist threat among the homeless…,” he said, Washington would be persuaded to take them seriously.

Although the administration is not exactly waging a war on poverty, the United States Armed Forces have al­ready been pressed into service. In fis­cal 1984, Congress gave the Depart­ment of Defense $8 million for the conversion of empty military struc­tures into shelters for the homeless. When the Voice first called the Penta­gon to inquire whether that $8 million had been used for homeless relief, press spokesperson Jim Trimmer said he “personally knew nothing about” that appropriation, explaining, “Eight million dollars is not very much around here.”

In fact, only $900,000 of the con­gressional appropriation was ultimate­ly used to provide shelters; the remaining $7.1 million was “turned back into the Army Reserve funds, where it was used for [military] construction” according to another Pentagon aide, Glenn Flood. The small amount spent as intended created nine shelters in six states. Because DOD had used only $900,000 of the original appropriation, Flood explained, this year Congress appropriated just $500,000 — a far cry from the original $8 million which, although small by military standards, was significant enough to be men­tioned in the HUD report on home­lessness as evidence that “other Fed­eral Agencies have also acted to address the issue.”

But the DOD program is not the heavy artillery in the federal govern­ment’s order of battle for the homeless. Over the past three years, Con­gress has allocated a total of $210 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to pro­vide food and shelter to the homeless. These funds have in turn been distrib­uted through agencies such as United Way and the Salvation Army. The money is spent primarily on cots, blankets and food. This distribution process is the administration’s show­piece aid effort, but FEMA itself has no desire to see the program become a permanent fixture, and has neglected each year to ask Congress to renew the appropriation. So far, no funds have been formally approved to continue the food and shelter program in fiscal 1986.

Indicative of the FEMA program’s makeshift nature and cosmetic intent is the fact that the appropriations have held steady at about $70 million a year over the past three years, de­spite documented growth in the num­bers of homeless. Concern about the size of the deficit is ostensibly what has kept the funding unchanged, but the allocation process itself is arbi­trary. “We determine funds by previ­ous funding amounts rather than by statistics of need, which may or may not be accurate,” said Paul Thomp­son, a staff assistant to the HUD ap­propriations subcommittee of the House.

Given the dubious accuracy of HUD’s statistics, that might seem rea­sonable. Even the House appropriations subcommittee felt compelled to ask for a second opinion on the HUD report’s conclusions and ordered FEMA to prepare its own study last March. FEMA reported back that homelessness had increased by 16 per cent over the previous year. In Sep­tember the same congressional sub­committee that had authorized the re­port ignored FEMA’s conclusions, blindly allocating the same sum as in years past.

Since Reagan took office, his admin­istration has drastically cut the Sec­tion-8 federally subsidized low-income housing program. At its peak Section­-8 supplied $3.2 billion a year to New York State, providing rent subsidies to 47,000 low-income families. The present level of funding is sufficient for only 8000 families — a cut of over three-quarters in the number of fam­ilies aided. Other federal cuts include $5.2 billion from child nutrition pro­grams, $4.6 billion from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, $1.8 billion from housing as­sistance programs, and $6.8 billion from the food stamp program. With the decrease in federal funding for these programs, the states have been hard-pressed to pick up the slack. Ac­cording to HUD spokesperson Peter Centenari, “that’s what the Reagan administration bas been trying to do all along — to drive all of this back to the state and local level.” — Ellen McGarrahan

From The Archives Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

A Report From the Bowery: The Boys in the Bottle

The stomach cramps hit at four in the morning, twisting Bubba out of his sleep. At age 27, Bubba needs a drink every two hours. It was his fourth Good Friday on the Bowery and as he lay in a cubicle at the Prince Hotel Bubba knew that he had slept too long. Unless he got a drink convulsions would soon follow the cramps. Bubba rolled onto the floor and groped for the quart of wine he had bought the night before. He took one taste and flung the bottle against the door. The bartender had sold him water.

Bubba stuffed a sock in his mouth to keep his tongue away from his chattering teeth and stumbled toward the lobby. Groans and cries from other cubicles echoed in the dark hallway. Bubba crossed the lobby to a six-foot window. He pulled the sock out of his mouth and wiped the soot off a few inches of the glass. Vinnie the bootlegger was across the street, in front of the Salvation Army mission. Every morning between 4 and 8, Vinnie stands on the Bowery and sells wine to men who need a drink to keep “well” until the bars open. Vinnie charges $1.25 a pint. Bubba only had 11 cents. He turned away from the window and walked toward the 11 men scattered among the rows of wooden seats that fill the lobby.

“I got 27 cents. Anybody want to go in for a pint'” Bubba asked. Nobody answered. The Social Security checks that support the old men had come eight days before. The catering businesses and temporary-labor companies that hire the younger men had been closed since the beginning of Passover. At 4 a.m., there are no cars or pedestrians on the street to panhandle.

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“This early on a holiday at this time of the month, you’re the richest man in the Prince,” an old bum at the back of the lobby said.

Rube walked into the room wearing a towel around his waist and carrying a paper bag. A pair of BVDs were tangled in the joint of his artificial leg.

“I told them this new leg was too compli­cated,” Rube said as he sat down. Bubba bent over and freed the underwear from the plastic limb.

“Here,” Rube said, pulling a pint of Jack Daniels out of the paper bag. “I owe you from the hospital.” Bubba and Rube had been in the detoxification ward at Bern­stein Institute together. During their first night on the ward, Bubba had produced a smuggled bottle of vodka.

“The nurses never would have found out if you hadn’t fallen out of your wheelchair,” Bubba said as he took a pull from the bottle. Bubba’s cramps subsided a half-pint later.

He borrowed a pencil and drew the outline of an airplane on a week-old copy of the Daily News. Five years ago, Bubba welded patches of titanium on Strategic Air Command bombers for a contractor at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Peri­odically, Air Force technicians checked the welds with an X-ray machine. In February of 1972, Bubba was summoned to his boss’s office. The first thing he noticed was a stack of X-ray film .

“I can take you missing three Mondays in a row,” Bubba remembers the boss saying. “But I can’t take the kind of work you’ve been doing. Look at these X-rays. If we’d let those welds go through, it’d be raining B-52s from here to California.” Bubba took a bus to New York the next day. He signed up for welfare and started drinking at uptown bars. He went for two weeks with­out a bath and was bounced by 23 separate uptown bartenders. It took the more tolerant Greenwich Village saloonkeepers six weeks to bar him. At the end of what he still calls “a record-breaking drunk,” Bubba was on the Bowery.

“It’s the lieutenant,” a man standing by the window shouted. Bubba and three other bums jumped from their seats and ran out to the street. A policeman was frisking Vinnie. The bums rummaged the pile of garbage in front of the mission and looted the bootlegger’s stash.

“Have a good Good Friday,” the policeman said over his shoulder as the bums crossed back to the Prince.

“We call that cop the lieutenant,” Bubba explained. “Whenever he busts a bootleg­ger, he gives the wine to the bums. He’s the only real Christian on the Bowery.” Over the next hour, Bubba killed two pints of wine. The Roadhouse bar opened at 8, and, when Bubba walked in at 8:05, Pete and Harold were already halfway through a quart of white port. Bubba shuffled through the quarter-inch of sawdust that covered the tile floor.

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“Have a drink on Medicaid,” Harold said, beckoning from the back of the saloon. Eight weeks ago, 24-year-old Harold had been a patient at an upstate mental hospital. As part of an economy drive the hospital classified him as “stable” and offered him $25 and a Medi­caid card if he would sign himself out. Since then, Harold and his 54-year-old partner, Pete, have been visiting hospitals and clinics throughout the city seeking prescriptions. On Thursday, the pair ob­tained scripts from St. Luke’s Hospital, Roosevelt Hospital, and Veterans Hospital for Elavil, Tuenol, and Valium. That night, they sold the pills on 14th Street for $200. Bubba elbowed his way past the 20 men standing at the bar and grabbed a glass.

Pete took a head of lettuce from under his overcoat and tossed it onto the table. A half hour later, Bubba reached out and squeezed the lettuce.

“It’s lettuce,” Pete said. “I told Harold that he was so smoked on pills that he couldn’t do anything. He told me that he could still buy a head of lettuce. Well, here it is.”

“Jesus,” Bubba said. “I’ve been sitting here all this time thinking that it was a hallucination.”

A fight erupted at the far corner of the bar.

“You’re too ugly to be in here,” Johnny, a former schoolteacher from White Plains, screamed at Liam. Liam’s face had been severely burned in a fire three years ago.

“And you can’t teach anybody anything,” Liam shouted, raising his fists. A one-eyed man named Arthur pushed the two men apart.

“That’s some crew,” Bubba said. “Johnny’s down here because he got caught playing with one of his students. Liam’s here because he got his face burned up and he thinks he’s too ugly to live with regular people. And Arthur, he lost his eye after it got infected by A-200.” A-200 is a delousing agent.

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Harold pulled three dollars out of his pocket and went to the bar for another quart. Red stumbled into the saloon, his bare feet bloodied by the glass that litters the Bowery sidewalks.

“She stoled my shoes,” Red mumbled as he collapsed into a chair. Red had met a 24-year-old woman from Puerto Rico the night before.

“I don’t have any place to stay,” the woman had said when the bar closed.

“I don’t either,” Red had answered.

“I don’t have any money,” the woman had said.

“Well, I sure don’t,” Red had said. “I’m just going over to the empty building and sleep under the stairwell.”

“Can I sleep with you?” the girl had asked. Red woke up without his shoes.

“I need something to calm my nerves,” Pete said. “I’m going to get some more pills.” He left the bar and walked three blocks to visit a doctor on Bleecker Street. The doctor’s “office” was equipped with a desk, a chair, a stack of Medicaid forms, and a prescription pad. He handed the doctor his Medicaid card. The doctor wrote down that he had just given Pete a complete physical, four X-rays, a blood test, a urine-sugar test, and a test for venereal disease.

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“I’ll take 300 Valium,” Pete said after signing the form. On the way back to the bar, Pete met Victor the Driver. Until last month, Victor visited the Bowery only once a week. Every Saturday, he parked his car in front of the Roadhouse and paid bums to fetch quarts of wine. Occasionally, he would invite Pete into the car to discuss women and skeet shooting. On the last Saturday in March, Victor climbed on top of his car and announced that he was holding an auction. A wino named Jumbo got the car for three bottles of port. Victor hasn’t left the Bow­ery since.

“You look tense,'” Pete said to Victor. “How about a few of these.” Pete poured 25 Valium into Victor’s cupped hands. He gobbled the pills and walked into the bar with blue chunks of Valium stuck to his beard and mustache.

“Am I good for credit?” Victor asked. The bartender pulled a thick blue ledger from under the bar and ran his finger down a long list of names. The men listed in the book have their Social Security and pension checks mailed to the saloon. On the first and third Wednesday of every month, the owner calls out the names on the checks. After the men endorse the checks, the owner deducts the bar bills and gives the men the remainder.

“Sorry, Victor,” the bartender said. “You already drank the next check.”

“I did not,” Victor said, pulling a crum­pled piece of paper out of his pocket. “I wrote down each wine and the schoolteacher over there added it up. I only drank $43. My check is for $87.”

“You got some kind of nerve, calling me a liar,” the bartender said, leaping the bar.

“You shouldn’t cheat people,” Victor said. The bartender pushed Victor to the floor and picked up a stool.

“Maybe this will settle the account,” he said, crashing one of the legs of the stool into Victor’s mouth. The bartender picked him up by the collar and shoved him out the door.

“You don’t see much of that,” Bubba said. “Everybody knows that these guys cheat. They always get an extra $40 or $50. But nobody says anything. Everybody down here’s got their hand in somebody else’s pocket. The only honest person I know is Betty. She used to own a bar down here. She wouldn’t steal a dime. She went bankrupt.” Bubba slugged back half a glass of wine and pointed to a gray-haired man and a burly youth sitting at a nearby table.

“Those two are supposed to be best friends,” Bubba said. “The old guy’s buy­ing the drinks for the young guy because he’s a fag. Three-quarters of the guys down here are fags. You don’t see a lot of women in here. So the old guy’s trying to pick the kid up. The kid is just taking the drinks and seeing if he’s going to have a chance to rob him.” The older man handed the youth a five-dollar bill and staggered over to the toilet. The youth went to the bar and returned with a bottle of wine.

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“The kid isn’t going to give him any change,” Bubba said as the old man returned to the table. “He knows that the fella’s forgotten about it. Now, notice that the old man’s missing one of his socks? That means that he took the rest of the money out of his shoe when he was in the toilet and was too drunk to put his sock back on. The kid’ll see that and know that it’s time for him to make his move. The kid saw the old fella take the five out of his left jacket pocket. You can bet that’s where the money from the shoe is now.” The old man leaned forward and vomited on the floor. The youth patted him on the back with his left hand. Then his right hand flashed into the old man’s jacket pocket.

“That,” Bubba said, “is how Social Security benefits get to young people on the Bowery. The young down here live off the old. If the kid hadn’t gotten the money that way, he would have waited till night and then hit the guy in the head. The old-timers are scared all the time. A lot of these young kids get twisted on pills and like to hurt people. We call them jackrollers.”

A tall man in his twenties threw open the door and walked the length of the bar, asking for change.

“Take a walk,” Pete said to the man. “We don’t want you here.” The man glared at Pete and left.

“The guy’s a jackroller,” Pete said. “Something’s got to be done about him.” Something was. The jackroller was beaten to death later that night.

Pete and Harold drained their glasses and left. Ten-Day Red came in with two quarts and sat next to Bubba. Ten-Day owns a dairy farm in upstate New York. Once a year, he comes down to the Bowery with $2000, At the end of 10 days, he gets deloused at the municipal shelter for men on East Third Street and goes back home.

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“It’s only been four days, and I’m down to 90 cents,” Ten-Day said to Bubba. “I don’t know what happened to it.”

“It can get expensive living on the Bowery,” Bubba said. “We’ll drink these, and then we’ll panhandle.” Twenty min­utes later, they were in the middle of the Bowery, hitting cars for change.

“Please, young sir,” Bubba said to a man in a Corvette with a Queens College sticker.

“A nickel, a dime, or a quarter to help us get an Easter jug.” The driver shook his head and rolled up his window.

“Most young guys and all hippies are terrible,” Bubba said to Ten-Day. “The only people worse are the Chinese and the pimps.”

“Please, young lady,” Bubba said to a middle-aged woman in a battered Ford. “I am here with a smile to ask you to help us get an Easter jug. Just a dime with a smile, or a quarter with a frown.” The woman smiled and gave him 50 cents. He moved on to a couple in a Cadillac. The Cadillac’s electric locks clicked down. The driver brandished a sawed-off baseball bat. Bubba approached a truck driver.

“Wish I could get out and join you for a drink,” the trucker laughed, tossing a quarter.

“Unless you get them at the beginning or the end of the day, working people are the best,” Bubba told Ten-Day. “In the morn­ings and evenings they hate you because they’re going to or coming from work. Any other time, they understand a guy on the skid.”

Ten-Day walked up to two men in a Pontiac. The car changed lanes and roared away.

“You got it all wrong,” Bubba said. “Never walk up to a car with your hands in your pockets. And always smile. Other­wise, people get afraid.”

Ten-Day took his hands out of his pockets, put on a smile, and sauntered over to a Cadillac. The driver handed Ten-Day a penny.

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“Your generosity overwhelms me,” Ten-­Day said. The driver produced a .32 calibre automatic.

“Maybe this will overwhelm you, too,” the driver growled. Ten-Day ran back into the bar. Bubba came in an hour later. Red was sitting at a back table with Jimmy.

“I would have stayed out longer,” Bubba said, pouring $7.43 onto the table, “but the rag men came out. I don’t like them. I used to do the rag, but then I learned that people are going to give you what they’re going to give you, whether you wipe the windows or not. You taught me that, right Jimmy?” Jimmy raised his glass and smiled. Jimmy had been Bubba’s “professor” when he first hit the Bowery. He taught Bubba how to panhandle, avoid jackrollers, and frus­trate pickpockets. Jimmy can’t remember who his “professor” was. Jimmy has been on the Bowery for 39 years. Six other men drew chairs up to the table and helped drink Bubba’s change.

“I can’t hold onto money,” Bubba said. “A guy needs a drink, I got to buy him a drink.” At 3 p.m., Bubba went back to the street to panhandle. As he left, two of the bums at the table grabbed for the half-inch of wine in Bubba’s glass. The larger of the two men smashed a bottle into the other bum’s face. The smaller man fell to the floor, screaming.

“It never used to be this way,” Jimmy said, shaking his head. “It just used to be regular bums. You had a bottle under your coat and you slept in hallways. Now you got the young guys and the pills. They go crazy, and they make everybody else crazy.”

Bubba made two dollars in half an hour. He quit when a policeman in a squad car handed him a dollar bill.

“The police are the most compassionate people on the Bowery,” Bubba said. “Now I got enough to pay in for the night.” On the way to the Prince Hotel, Bubba hit a woman pushing twin girls in a perambula­tor for a final 15 cents.

Bubba could hear the shouting from the entrance to the hotel. An elderly black man was standing at the chain-link door at the top of the stairs. A caseworker at the municipal shelter had told him that his “Muni Ticket” was good for any flophouse on the Bowery.

“Get lost, nigger,” the manager shouted at the black man, pointing to a cardboard placard taped to the wall. “The sign says ROOMS FULL.” Bubba walked up to the gate.

“Keep the nigger out,” the manager said as he buzzed Bubba in. Bubba slid $2.25 through the through the six-inch opening in the wall and brass bars surrounding the manager and grabbed his receipt.

“You must be new around here,” Bubba said as he walked past the black man. “Around here, ‘no rooms’ means no niggers and no spics.”

“You want some pink lady?” the black man said, offering a can of Sterno. “I only drank a little bit. Twenty cents.” Bubba he shook his head.

“You just get disgusted,” Bubba said to his friend, Robert, as he walked away from the hotel. “I’ve been to 20 detox centers. I keep trying to get out of here. But they dry you out and throw you back in. You’re like a dry sponge. You just soak up more wine.”

“Let’s go up to Al’s,” Robert said. “Willie’s across the street at the Providence. He’s got my coat and he’s sitting on $500.” Ten years ago, Willie had been an organist at Radio City Music Hall. He was fired when he started mixing Wagner, Beethoven, and white port. On his last day at the organ, he rolled up the rubber mat at the entrance to the theatre and carted it down to the Bowery. Willie’s favorite saloon still boasts the largest welcome mat of any gin mill in the city.

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Robert had gotten work through a temporary labor pool the previous Thursday hauling steel. As they passed Delancey Street, Robert ducked into a liquor store to cash a $20 labor paycheck.

“This is the only place you can cash the check,” Robert explained as he waited for the clerk. “You go to the labor pool and pay 10 per cent of what the job is. You want $20 a day, you give them two dollars. Then when you’re done, you got to come here. The labor-pool people own the liquor store. You got to buy something when you cash the check.” The man behind the counter took the check and handed Robert $14 and a four-ounce bottle of brandy.

“Tell Hanson that he’s behind a payment,” the clerk said. The clerk is also the local loan shark. Recently, a reporter a daily newspaper interviewed him for the workingman’s view of the Bowery.

“You wouldn’t believe all the rip-offs around here,” the clerk said.

“Tell Hanson that I’m going to twist his prick if he doesn’t cough,” he said as Robert pocketed the money.

Bubba was staggering by the time they reached Al’s. He didn’t touch the glass of wine an elderly homosexual poured for him. Bubba was sick. He did not need a drink. He needed food. Bubba had not eaten in four days. Brushing the silk lapels of his secondhand tuxedo, the homosexual prattled about silverware. Bubba fought to keep his head off the table and finally vomited thin stream of clear bile splashed onto floor.

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“You can’t do that in here,” Robert said, slamming his fist onto the table. “Go into the bathroom.”

Robert leaned back and explained his theory about the Bowery’s social strata. “Delancey Street is an invisible border. Bubba hangs out in the Roadhouse. You can do anything up there. You spit up on the floor here, you’re out. The Bowery’s divided into three social groups. You got the blacks up by Houston Street. Then you get the panhandlers and lunatics. Then, below Delancey, you got the minority of bums that work the labor companies and the caterers.”

“Out,” the bartender growled as Bubba returned from the bathroom. Bubba stumbled back up the Bowery. A block beyond Delancey, he ran into Rosemary. Last ­February, Rosemary had found him asleep in her hallway. Bubba had awakened with a pillow under his head. She gave him a glass of wine and told him that he could continue to sleep outside her door if he agreed to sweep the stairway. Then, in March, one of Bubba’s friends defecated in the hallway.

“It’s a holy day, and if you didn’t have such dirty friends, I would take you back,” Rosemary said. “You look bad, Bubba.”

“The Italians around here were always kind until the jackrollers and the wild ones started to come in,” Bubba said as he slid into a chair in the Roadhouse. The nausea passed, and, by nightfall, Bubba was drinking port again. By 8 o’clock, he was out panhandling.

“You don’t look like you belong on the Bowery,” a man in a station wagon said to Bubba.

“Why don’t you let us adopt you?” a woman sitting next to the man said.

“Not even for money,” Bubba said.

“At night, you get couples coming down,” he said as the car drove away. “You get gays. You get lonely women. They all want to pick up a young bum. They think they can just give him a shower and do whatever they want with him. One time a guy came back with brands on his ass.”

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By midnight, Bubba was in the Road­house with $11 in his pocket. Jimmy was standing on a chair with 16 hours of drinking behind him.

“I’m Mrs. Wallace’s boy, Jimmy,” he exulted. “And I’d rather drink wine here than be governor of Arkansas.”

“Shut up and sit down,” the bartender shouted.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I played marbles in Brooklyn?” Jimmy asked. The saloon closed at 2. Jimmy went up to the dormitory above the bar to sleep. Bubba and Big Bill went on to the Follies Saloon.

Sitting at a side table, Bubba watched the bartender shortchange the men who or­dered bottles and pick the pockets of the men who fell asleep. Big Bill shot pool for an hour and a half. He failed to sink a single ball. By 4, Bubba was lying in a cubicle at the Prince Hotel with a quart of wine under his cot, hallucinating B-52s.

He was sick again at 6. It took the entire quart of port to quiet the muscle spasms that gripped his chest, stomach, and legs. At 8, he was across the street at the Roadhouse. Jimmy came down from the dormitory.

“I was real scared,” Jimmy said. “I was lying up there and I ached in my arms and my legs and my stomach. I got to stop drinking. Yesterday was Good Friday and I’m going to die by Easter.”

Robert took Jimmy into the bathroom for a shave. “I had to use six blades,” Robert an­nounced as he came out of the bathroom. “But look what I did for Jimmy.”

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“Robert doesn’t care about Jimmy,” Bubba said to a newcomer. “He’s just always got to be the big brother. He’s always breaking up fights and settling arguments between old men. He’s got to be where he’s the strongest. Outside, he’d just be another weakling. Everybody’s got a fantasy that they let loose down here. And it’s hard not to fall into it and never come out.”

“I’m sick,” Jimmy moaned. “That Fri­day wasn’t so good.”

“I’m sick, too,” Bubba said. “I’m going to the holy mountain. They’ll let me in now. It’s been a year.” “Holy Mountain” is the detoxification camp at Graymoor, run by the Franciscans in Garrison, New York. Bubba had enrolled in the 21-day program a year ago. On his way through town to the camp, he spotted three saloons and a liquor store. The following morning, he stole a set of monk’s robes and stood outside the church that adjoins the camp, asking the local citizens for “alms for alcoholics.” He had $65 in his cup when the camp officials spotted him. Bubba was back on the Bow­ery the next day.

Bubba gave Jimmy a hug and left.

At 3:50 Saturday afternoon, Bubba boarded a train at Grand Central Station bound for Graymoor.

“The young and the old,” the bartender said back at the Roadhouse. “I’ve been down here 43 years. We always get a crop of new ones after a war. If there isn’t a war, what else is there for a lot of young fellas to do?” The bartender carried a case of eggs into the kitchen. On Easter morning, each bum at the Roadhouse receives a colored Easter egg and a glass of wine.



Once a Woman of Quality: Portrait of a Survivor

There was one painting that Nancy was hoping to find. And that was, as she described it, a small Watteau in which the painter had created a forest of gigantic trees, then placed in a clearing at their base a tiny man playing a violin. Her recollection of it was vivid, although it had been many years since she first saw it hanging here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So we circled the corridors of European masters, checking this canvas, then that one, like a pair of darting fish.

In doing so, we drew curious stares from other browsers who must have concluded that Nancy was an eccentric old aesthete with her niece in tow. Had she been alone, she might have elicited a more reproving scrutiny from the guards because her ap­pearance was odd, like that of a gnome from a New Yorker cartoon. She was bun­dled in a fake mouton coat tied with a maroon sash from some unrelated gar­ment. Pulled down around her ears was a peaked red wool cap and from under its edges extended an unruly haze of hair brindled from tinting. The sourness of her face, which bore a general disgruntled expression, was quite unintentional and de­rived from the mouth, which had sunk over toothless gums. She was shy and smiled infrequently. She also had a nervous habit of squinting, but when she was at ease those muscles relaxed, revealing a most remarkable pair of blue eyes. She was old, in her mid-sixties, but her cheekbones were still high and round, her skin still Celtic pink, hinting at some beauty that this strange ruined woman must have been.

Earlier she had listened while I told her of my own fondness for museums. Nothing changes there. While friends and lovers pass in and out of one’s life, the marbles and oils ensconced in the halls of a well­-endowed gallery are constant. She did not reply to that. So I felt a little embarrassed when at length we could not find the Wat­teau. (There is, I later learned, a canvas picturing a clown playing guitar in the forest, but it has been retired to storage.) Nancy took the disappointment with equanimity, as though finding it as it had been pinned in her memory was too much to expect. And in letting go of that she went on to cultivate new favorites, particu­larly Rodin’s bronze Adam, whose neck was arched in a most excruciating posture of guilt. Nancy loved Adam instantly and ardently. It is this quality in her that I most admire, the capacity for spontaneous pleasure. And I suspect that it has been the secret of her survival.

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That Nancy has survived at all, let alone with sensibilities intact, is amazing. That she has gone through some hell is clear, though the full scope of it is not. The details of her passage are blurred by her own imperfect recollection. Some episodes are quite solid, others smoke. Some, I suspect, she obscures intentionally be­cause she does not want me or anyone else to think she was a “bad woman.” From time to time throughout her 60-odd years, Nancy has lived on the streets of New York, in doorways and train stations. She has spent time in public and private shelters and she now lives on federal as­sistance in a charitable SRO on Times Square. It is a most precarious existence, since any change in her circumstance — a small increase in rent, a lost check — would send her back to the streets.

I met Nancy at a shelter called the Dwelling Place near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I was there doing research on the homeless — more particularly look­ing for one old woman who had, I was told, studied music at Juilliard and still played classical piano. My intent, partly profes­sional and largely personal, was to discover how a woman with considerable gifts could end up on the streets. I never did find her. She did not exist or she had disappeared in the flux of women who wash in and out of the Dwelling Place.

The Dwelling, a five-story walk-up, is run by four Franciscan sisters whose char­ity is boundless and whose resources are limited to 14 beds for homeless women. About 12 more can sleep sitting up in the living room, if they prefer, and many do. Beyond that the sisters offer breakfast and dinner to anyone who needs a free meal. The Dwelling’s founder, a casual blue-­jeaned nun named Sister Nancy, helps them fill out forms for welfare.

The sisters’ facilities are nearly strained to bursting, particularly at the end of the month when government checks have run out. Then one sees in this tiny microcosm the entire range of homeless women. It is something one does not find in the city’s shelters, where paperwork bewilders and frightens the most disturbed women, who prefer to hide from society in corners of Penn Station. Those same women, how­ever, seem to gravitate naturally to the Dwelling Place, which keeps no records and allows them to rest undisturbed. They sit side by side: the filthy deranged who mutter lunatic monologues to the air and an assortment of more composed, de­pressed, and embarrassed women, some in their twenties or younger, who for some reason have found themselves needing a bed or a meal.

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The more ordinary the reason, natu­rally, the more unsettling. One heavy Ital­ian woman in her mid-thirties professed to be a schoolteacher who took her dinners here because she was having trouble making ends meet. She discussed Italian li­queurs with a strong-willed blonde woman in her early forties who said she had spent some time in Rome when she worked on a NATO base in southern Europe. She was receiving a welfare check now and her check had been interrupted. She occupied a bed at the Dwelling until she could untangle the red tape.

Sister Nancy pointed out to me the elegant old women whose careful grooming and alert kohl-rimmed eyes indicated they must at one time have been women of quality. They had lived in expensive old hotels and been pushed out by con­versions. Now, unable to accept the com­paratively shabby accommodations at the Times Square Motor Hotel, where the sis­ters try to place their chronic homeless, they will check into an expensive hotel and spend their entire Social Security checks during the first few days of the month. Then for the next few weeks they must check into shelters or sit up in stations, postures erect, trying to maintain the il­lusion that they are still ladies of quality waiting for a train.

What is strange is that these women in their helpless confusion can be so frighten­ing. One can’t approach them easily. The classic “bag ladies” hovering in doorways might prick the conscience, but they can be dismissed as the Other, species of subhumans who must somehow have brought about their own decline. When they are en repose at the Dwelling, they must be reckoned with like Ghosts of Christmas Future who presage something menacing — that one could end up just like them, elbows resting on oilcloth in the Franciscans’ kitchen. I am afraid of it. And in the weeks surrounding my visits to the Dwelling several well-fed, well-clothed, and safely housed women I know confided that they too fear ending up homeless and broken. It comes, I think, from a feeling that everything is ephemeral and that no matter how one tries to build a dike against chaos, everything — a good marriage, a bank account, friends — may be ripped away. That in the end, one is really entitled to nothing. It is probably a middle-class indulgence to ponder so excessive a ruin. During the Depression there were people who lost everything but did not lose their faculties and disintegrate on the streets. One psychiatrist who had studied the women at the Dwelling Place observed that many prisoners in Nazi concentration camps were stripped of everything and still managed to maintain their essential hu­manity. It is difficult to distill those quali­ties peculiar to survivors. But they exist in the complex person of Nancy Pomeroy.

Nancy came to the shelter in the spring of 1978 looking for a bed. After a time she was resettled in a cheap hotel room on Times Square. She now comes only for the free dinner, generally macaroni and peas or hash and eggs. It was after the paper plates had been cleared away one night that Nancy, whom I had not noticed, leaned across the table and said to me, “I’ve been admiring your beauty.” She went on to clarify that it was my hair, the angle it made at the jaw and the auburn color that she liked. Tendered as it was so matter-of-factly, the compliment was af­fecting. It was a rare overture in a milieu where I had been struggling to elicit revel­ations from women too damaged or embarr­assed to speak. So I turned to study Nancy Pomeroy. She wore an immaculate black tent dress with red and white daisies on it, neat nylons, and little black shoes with tassles. She was smoking a small Dutch Treat cigar. I asked her where she had come by this critical appreciation for color and line.

Nancy replied in precise declarations. She was not quick but deliberate. (She is a Libra, she explained, and Librans always aim for balance, although they might never achieve it.) Many years ago as a girl of 17 she had studied art, she said, at a place called the Grand Central Palace School. Her first semester they had given her a black portfolio with white paper and char­coal and set her to drawing figures of clas­sical statues. She had not realized that art might involve some tedium, and she grew bored with the white torsos. Had she stuck to it she would have moved on the next semester to oils, where the colors might have held her interest. But she dropped out after two months. She recounted this with some disgust and reviled herself as a dilettante. The outlines of Nancy’s past emerged gradually, from anecdotes drop­ped by her in conversation. She did not like to be questioned too closely. Later I found a few people who had known her family. Their memory of her was not dis­tinct but helped somewhat to flesh out her origins.

Nancy was born October 15. She will not divulge the year, but events she claims to have witnessed would place it around 1916. There is no birth certificate on rec­ord under her name. She was apparently adopted and grew up as an only child in the Queens suburb of Forest Hills Gardens. The Garden, as it is called, was a self­-consciously quaint community of English Tudor buildings modeled after the London suburb of Kew Gardens. Conceived origi­nally as an experiment to house blue-collar workers in comparative elegance, it was quickly taken over by writers, artists, and wealthy professionals. During the early part of the century it was a stronghold of Republicanism, where denizens were al­ways on guard against the twin evils of communism and flapperism. In the Gar­den a few old families comprised the aristocracy: Stowe, Marsh, Keller. The Pomeroys apparently were not part of the inner circle although the family was said to have had a good deal of money. One neigh­bor recalls them as “splashy.” Nancy’s father, who had been an officer in the war, returned to civilian life as a copywriter for an ad agency. Nancy recalls that when the war ended her father’s men gave him a silver tray with his name on it because, she said, they loved him so much. Neighbors said he died when Nancy was in her teens. Mrs. Pomeroy, who had a rough time ad­justing to widowhood, became a successful real estate agent. She and Nancy moved into one of the Tudor houses in a place called Pomander Walk.

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Nancy invokes the name of Forest Hills as though it were Eden. Before her fall from grace, she grew up there in comfort among “nice people.” She was, by her own account, a “passable” beauty with clear pale skin. One of her contemporaries, later the wife of the local Episcopal canon, re­calls that she and Nancy were in early grades together at what was known as the Little Red School House. They took danc­ing classes in the foyer of the Forest Hills Inn.

She was not an extrovert but was in­trigued by “glamour.” She admired the great screen stars of the era, chiefly Joan Crawford. Every Saturday she would come into Manhattan with her mother to shop at B. Altman and Lord and Taylor. Then after “luncheon” they would catch the vaudeville show at the Hippodrome. Shapely swimmers dove into a pool sunk in the center of the stage. It was all so lovely, she told her mother she wanted to become an actress. Mrs. Pomeroy said that was fine but it took discipline.

Nancy never understood discipline. She seems to have wandered through events as a sightseer, stopping now and then to focus upon some exquisite oddity. That was apparent in her recounting of a trip she took to Europe when she was 23. Mrs. Pomeroy, having apparently despaired of persuading her dreamy daughter to go to college, thought she might benefit from travel. Nancy had come into a small inheritance when one of her aunts in Massachusetts died. So Mrs. Pomeroy booked Nancy on a tour of Europe for young ladies escorted by two old dowagers. Europe itself was in the earliest throes of World War II, but the dowagers’ tour was a civilized affair con­sisting of playgoing and teas in London townhouses. Nancy allowed herself to be carried along, not much impressed by the ostensible highlights. The passion play in Oberammergau she found a tedious spec­tacle. All that stood out to her of Venice were the orange peels in the canals. The thing that excited her was a boat excursion on Lake Como in Northern Italy to the chateau of Carlotta, Empress of Mexico. In one of the upper rooms was a glorious orchid and chartreuse rug. She stood look­ing at it for as long as time allowed. It was the high point of her trip.

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She did regret never having made it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and that is how our excursion came about. I asked her if she had been to the Metropolitan Mu­seum of Art and she said once, 10 years ago. (Nancy, I learned, had no accurate sense of time’s passage. She pegged every salient event at multiples of five years.) I asked her if she would like to go with me to the Metropolitan. The prospect of that excursion to the museum aroused con­siderable anxiety in her. She was eager to go, but impediments loomed in her imagi­nation. She did not have the “car fare.” That, I assured her, was no problem. I could take care of it. But that offer struck her as charity, and she was very proud. She insisted that she would pay me back when her check came in.

But the real barrier was less material. The Metropolitan, only a 20-minute ride by subway, must have seemed as distant and unapproachable as did Moscow to Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Nancy is at­tached to her territory and apparently ven­tures infrequently beyond Times Square. She shops for sundries at the Walgreen in the Port Authority. She will browse through the bookstores in the terminal, Sister Nancy told me, putting art books on layaway. Sometimes, particularly at night, she will just sit in the terminal absorbing the scene and waiting for a “fiancé” to whom Nancy claims she is to be wed next year. No one seems to have seen this man, and Nancy herself confesses she does not know where he lives. At any rate, Times Square is Nancy’s world, and for her to venture beyond it took some courage.

On the day we had set for the excursion, I went to the Woodstock Hotel where Nancy now rents a room. The Woodstock, once an elegant old hotel with an ornate stone facade, had fallen to ruin and was inhabited by pimps and prostitutes until the mid-’70s when it was taken over by a private nonprofit charitable corporation called Project Find. It is one of the few remaining single-room occupancy hotels left in New York, and certainly one of the few where the elderly poor can find a room for $150 a month, the maximum their fed­eral entitlement checks allow them. But there is no place for the Woodstock or its fragile tenants in the grand development scheme of Times Square. It is, in Nancy’s words, “not much of a hotel.”

Nancy does not have a phone in her room so I could not ring up from the lobby. Curious at any rate about her accommodations, I took the elevator to her floor and knocked on her door. She opened it a crack and I could see nothing of the room, only that she was pale. She had an intestinal ailment. A friend had told her that it was probably because her room had been without heat for three days. Anyway, she could not get out and about.

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I asked her if there was anything I could get her. She said she would like some Kaopectate but that she had no money. So I went to Walgreen and bought Kaopectate, stopping on the way back to pick up black coffee with sugar and some hard rolls. Nancy seemed pleased with the coffee but said she would have to soak the rolls in water or they would hurt her gums. The following morning I went to see her again, and this time she was bundled up and ready to go. Her jaw was set and she was very quiet on the subway.

Once inside the museum, she needed a cigarette. I cringed at the thought of her smoke permeating the canvases of the Eng­lish masters before whom we happened to have parked ourselves. I was also embarrassed at the thought of being chastened by an unimposing female guard standing at one of the doorways. But I said nothing. Nancy shrewdly noted the guard, weighed the risks aloud, then decided the prospective pleasure was worth taking a chance on. She lit her Salem and drew a blissful puff before the guard moved in with an admonishment to snuff it. Nancy did so without resentment. I felt a little embarrassed at having been cowed by the authorities here, and figured that in this respect, at least, Nancy must have an ego made of rawhide.

Once she had relaxed, she was drawn naturally to certain pieces. Her observa­tions revealed a considerable amount of reading. She had read Hendrik Van Loon’s fictional biography of Rembrandt and a couple of “scholarly works” besides. She had bought books on Gothic architecture and antique glass, but a malicious couple who lived across the hall from her in some SRO long ago had broken into her room and thrown her books out the window. It was raining and the books lay wet and ruined in the alley below.

Beyond whatever eclectic expertise she had gleaned from books, she responded instinctually to various works. She sur­prised me, while gazing at human figures on the bas-reliefs of an Egyptian tomb, by observing that the sculptor had not learned to portray his subjects in profile. And that was true. The rows of rigid courtiers were cut with faces in profile, but their bodies were shown straight-on because artists of the time, Nancy explained, hadn’t learned to foreshorten the shoulder.

In the gallery above, she made a beeline for a marble sculpture of children lan­guishing around the feet of an old man whose face wore an expression of anguish. She discovered from reading the inscrip­tion at its base that the man was a Pisan Count named Ugolino who was imprisoned and left to starve with his sons and grand­sons. At learning this Nancy recoiled and muttered that she wished she had never seen it. Being hungry was an awful thing.


It was not until this Ugolino episode that Nancy had made such a visceral re­sponse to privation. She had alluded to living on the streets and mourned the loss of “good food” she had known as a child, but the dark side of her experience she considered a private and shameful thing and she kept it to herself. I could not really grasp the fact that this woman, who could be such a perceptive and enjoyable companion, might have lived without shelter and food. She had known something frightening, something that was not civ­ilized.

To my chagrin I had taken a voyeur’s peep at her unsettled interior the day be­fore. Nancy was in the bathroom down the hall taking the Kaopectate I brought her. And I, left alone in the hallway, pushed the door of her room open to take a look inside. What I saw frightened me so badly that I quickly shut the door. Nancy’s little room was awash with clutter. Shopping bags, newspapers, old magazines, old clothes covered everything. The bed was so laden with this monumental debris that it could not have been slept in for some time. There was no clear space on the floor where one could safely tread. When Nancy padded back down the hall, her lips chalky from the Kaopectate, she found me looking guilty and anxious outside her door. As she did not invite me in I could not ask her about the chaos. I was not, at any rate, eager to talk about it, as it seemed danger­ous.

One night about a week later I went up to Nancy’s room. I knocked and there was no answer, but the light was on and I heard a soft rustling of papers. I called her name but there was no response. I imagined her treading back and forth across the debris, doing what she called “involved thinking” and surrounded by dark memories.

It is not clear how Nancy first came to be beleaguered by the Crooks. They did not exist in Forest Hills, that’s for certain. But she holds them responsible for her fall from the Garden. From comments she dropped over successive encounters, I surmised that her descent was gradual. She did not get along well in grammar school because she never understood math. Her father assured her that she was “not stupid, just slow,” but she was so in­timidated by algebra and terrified by the thought of being left back that she drop­ped out of high school after her freshman year. Later she dropped out of art school and, abandoning notions of becoming an actress, she decided she wanted to become a singer. So she auditioned for a big band leader at one of the Manhattan hotels who told her that “with training” she could amount to something. He gave her a letter of introduction to a voice teacher, a bald­ing, brown-eyed man named Raul Querze (she took pains to spell his name for me) who had a studio at Carnegie Hall.

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Querze agreed to teach her at reason­able rates and Nancy, who had apparently determined to make it on her own, got a job in stenography at the McAlpin Hotel. She was embarrassed by this menial work. Throughout her studies with Querze she did not learn to read music and was plagued by terrible stage fright. After a year, she became ill. “Just an illness” — that’s all she will say about it. She had to enter a hospital. When she got out, the house on Pomander Walk had been sold. That sale was recorded in 1944, around the time, says a neighbor, that Mrs. Pomeroy, who had been suffering from a palsy, died.

Nancy does not believe her parents are dead. She concedes only that they were “sick.” As years went by, however, she came to believe that they had been kid­napped by ubiquitous scoundrels whom she called the Crooks. One of them, it turned out, was the man with whom she had lived for many years. She met him, she says, in the hospital. He was a rogue, a “nut,” whom she later came to “cordially despise.” But at the time she thought she loved him and she agreed to live with him because he said he wanted to marry her. He broke that promise and many others. She was so ashamed of living in sin that in corresponding with a friend, a Spanish woman living in Atlanta, she maintained the fiction that she was happily married.

He worked intermittently as a carpen­ter and sign painter. But when his asthma flared up, he was more often than not unemployed. She worked as a salesgirl in the basement of Macy’s, selling cheap net gowns. Then she sold jewelry at Korvettes and later designer dresses at an expensive boutique. But those jobs were apparently short-lived because she didn’t move fast enough. She was a very deliberate person. And her man was jealous of her working. He couldn’t control her, Nancy surmised, if she had money of her own.

They never had a proper home. They would check into a hotel, then be kicked out because he got into a fight with man­agement or because they couldn’t pay the rent. Then they would spend nights on the streets in doorways. Next morning they would get coffee at a restaurant and she would use the bathroom to discreetly wash herself in the sink. She was a very clean person. They were together for many years. Nancy says 10, it may have been longer. I asked her why she didn’t just leave and she said she tried. But some­times when you’re right in the middle of a situation the answers don’t seem so clear. She left him several times but always re­turned because she had no money except the dividends from a small trust fund her mother had set up for her. That was next to nothing, and being with him was all she knew.

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Her man became involved in increas­ingly nefarious dealings with some blacks in Harlem. Nancy professes not to know the nature of it, but it apparently had something to do with shaking down prostitutes. Then one night he abandoned her in Peon Station with only 10 cents to her name. She never saw him again, and al­though she had warned him to leave her parents alone, he joined the Crooks who had kidnapped them.

So in the spring of 1978 — she was in her early sixties — Nancy Pomeroy took up res­idence in Penn Station for three weeks, not as a festering grotesque rolled in rags on the restroom floor, but as one of those women of quality sitting up all night wait­ing for mythical trains. The dignity of these women often fools passersby. It isn’t apparent how many “normal” people mil­ling and sitting about the stations are ac­tually homeless until one studies the crowd. I went out one night to the termi­nals with the city’s pick-up van. One of the social workers said, “You can always tell by the shoes. They are run down because they always have to be on the move.” The police, of course, can spot them and prod them to move along. So not even a lady of quality can get a good night’s sleep. Just an hour here, two there. Pretty soon a narcotic confusion settles over the senses and even those whose personalities were whole begin behaving strangely. If this goes on long enough they lose their pride and slip into purgatory, retrieving bagels out of trash bins to survive.

Nancy had begun to slip into a stupor. The police harried her, one rapped her on the hand with his club, so she found a place near Madison Square Garden where she could hide and sleep uninterrupted. She was vulnerable to muggers; she has been robbed 14 times over the years, she says. She put aside her pride and began to beg — she never took money, she said, without promising to pay it back — and when she had enough she bought bagels and cream cheese. She had already begun to de­teriorate physically and life in the terminal hastened it. The clear skin she had been so proud of as a young woman became in­fected. It had become a problem sometime earlier when “the nut” had checked them into a room where the sink was clogged and there were no handles on the shower so she couldn’t bathe properly. In Penn Station she would go into the restroom at some early morning hour, pull her dress and slip off of her shoulders, and try to wash the sores that were ulcerating her arms and chest. But an attendant once threatened to call the police so she abandoned her toilette.

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It is difficult to imagine that there is no one from her privileged past upon whom Nancy could call. If there were relatives who had escaped the clutches of the Crooks, they were not in evidence. She had briefly checked in to the city shelter on Lafayette Street, but she became fright­ened when they proposed sending her to an adult home in Far Rockaway. As she was unmarried and had worked so erratically, she had no apparent claim to Social Secu­rity. The city sent her uptown to apply for SSI, a federal entitlement for the poor and unemployable, but she made a mistake on the forms and her benefits were delayed. She could most likely have prevailed upon the officers who held her small inheritance in trust at Citicorp Center to give her a loan on the dividends, but in her confusion she could not figure out how to get across town. She did not understand the protocol of dealing with banks and governments. The logistics of helping herself were too abstract.

Nancy cannot be coaxed to reflect on Penn Station except to say she thought she might go insane from the shame. Her de­cline was checked by a suggestion from one of the other “ladies” at the terminal that she might try the Dwelling Place. The nuns took her in and gave her a bed, and one Sister Liz, fearing that Nancy’s lesions might be scabies, undertook to supervise her bathing and massage her afflicted flesh with calomine lotion. The sainted Sister Liz eventually left for Bolivia to work with the lepers. But not before she got Nancy set up in cheap room of her own on Times Square with a small income of federal as­sistance and dividends that came to less than $300 a month.

The nuns continued to give her what help they could. And two years ago when a Hollywood casting director called the Dwelling Place looking for a street woman to work as an extra in a feature film, the sisters suggested Nancy, because they knew she could use the money. Fifty dollars. So she went to Soho one cold night, stood on a street corner before whirring cameras and pretended to be in love with a shabby middle-aged man smoking a cigar. I asked Nancy and the sisters the name of the film, but no one had bothered to find out. Shortly thereafter I was invited quite by chance to the screening of a silly romantic comedy called Soup for One. Nancy’s gnomish form appeared on the screen in a wordless sequence of short takes. Her name did not appear among the credits.


I invited Nancy to dinner at Stefanos, a basement restaurant with a deluxe diner menu several doors west of the Woodstock. She appeared in the lobby turned out in an amazingly chic maroon felt hat. Its brim dipped over one eye à la Garbo. I admired it enthusiastically and she seemed at once bashful and pleased. As a girl she had been a stylish dresser, she said. Back then she had had more money and more time. The parts of her arms and chest left exposed by the immaculate tent dress showed faint rosy scars of the now healed sores.

There was a chance, Nancy said, that her fiancé would join us at Stefanos. He was a psychologist, she said. They had known each other for about six years. So we took a booth that would admit at least one more and ordered seafood. I, red snap­per and Nancy, deep-fried scallops. She ate slowly, savoring the food with the same submissive bliss as she did the cigarette at the Metropolitan museum. We had white wine, which she sipped moderately. And for dessert she ordered ice cream, which she spooned into our respective coffees.

I noticed on the third finger of her left hand a jade band. She said it was a gift. From previous conversations I knew that “gifts” were not something given her, but rather tokens she had purchased for her kidnapped parents. She had an odd idea about sacrifice. In fact she once had a vision in which Christ appeared to her, his brow covered with a blue drape, and he whispered “sacrifice.” She had taken to buying and hoarding gifts — rings, per­fume, portable radios — to bestow on her parents when they were finally released. She felt guilty because of the money they had spent on her and she, after all, had wasted those opportunities.

Nancy was plagued by mischievous per­sons who masquerade as her mother or father. She once ran into one, it’s not clear which sex, in a coffee shop, and she was duped into paying for its meal before she realized the fraud. This obsession under­standably wreaks havoc upon her delicate circumstances, as her entire monthly in­come — dividends and government check­ — leaves her about $140 after rent. The nuns once tried to help Nancy manage her money but she declined. Sensible budget­ing didn’t accommodate her obsession with sacrifice.

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Nancy therefore spends most of every month with no money, bumming cigarettes and taking her meals at the Dwelling. There is an unfathomable gulf between having no money and one dollar, as Nancy herself revealed to me in a dispassionate recounting of what had happened before she found her present room at the Wood­stock. Late one afternoon she was thrown out of her room at the Times Square Motor Hotel for nonpayment of rent. She bought coffee in one restaurant, nursed it as long as she could, then bought hot chocolate in another and drank it until dawn.

As I could not imagine the prospect of being even without one dollar, the inequity of our positions was embarrassing. I gave her a bill I had in my purse. At first she demurred, saying she could not pay back, but I told her that it had been a good year for me. Perhaps next year I would be broke, and she would be on a streak and she could help me out. It was a feeble little fiction but if there was anything Nancy could understand it was the fluctuating nature of fortune.

During that meal at Stefanos, her fiancé did not materialize. We did not mention it. “Nancy,” I asked her, apropos of nothing. “How did you get to be so tough?” She was offended by “tough” and I had to amend it to “resilient.” “Well,” she replied in her deliberate way, “I went through hell but I loved beauty.”

When I asked Nancy to accompany me once more to the Metropolitan so that she could be photographed among the art, she agreed, seduced by the anticipation of see­ing her beloved bronze Adam. But Adam was no longer there. He had been taken off his mounting to be prepared for an imminent exhibit called “The Gates of Hell.” Not even marble and bronze stay constant. They go the way of the Watteau. ❖


‘Raise the Age’ Vote Raises Hopes of Homeless Youth

Three weeks ago, about a dozen young New Yorkers gathered near City Hall. Their plans to rally on the steps had failed because they didn’t have a permit; instead, they set up shop outside the metal barricades that surround the building.

The group — there to advocate for legislation that would alter the experience of being young and homeless in New York — was used to improvising. The members each had their own stories of homelessness, which they shared with the crowd and then repeated inside City Hall, as testimony for local officials.

And for the first time, it seems like local government might be listening.

Following that hearing, the New York City Council will vote today on “raise the age” legislation to increase the maximum age for access to the youth homeless shelter system to 24. Currently, the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) funds youth-specific shelters for young people between the ages of 16 and 21. Once they turn 21, however, they’re expected to transition into the adult shelter system, run by the Department of Homeless Services.

While the three-year age extension might sound trivial, a dedicated group of advocates has spent a decade pushing for it after watching countless clients struggle to adapt to the city’s adult shelters after turning 21. They believe homeless youth between 21 and 24 years old — many of whom were kicked out of their homes due to their sexuality, or experienced homelessness as children — are young enough to need specialized services but “are treated like the unwanted, unloved stepchildren by the city,” says Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center, which provides LGBTQ-centered youth shelter and services.

“The hesitation of young people transitioning to an adult shelter begins at the intake and assessment phase,” says Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Youth. “They see these shelters are intimidating places. They’re large, there’s less support, there’s less proactive engagement in case management.” Most youth shelters hold around twenty beds, she says; the majority of adult shelters begin at fifty.

New York’s youth shelters also cater better to LGBTQ needs. It’s estimated that up to 40 percent of the runaway homeless youth population in New York identifies as LGBTQ, and Siciliano points out that in adult shelters, they often become targets for sexual harassment. He has watched these young homeless adults turn to sex survival work, couch surfing, and sleeping on streets and subways to avoid the system altogether.

The youth who testified at the City Council hearing attest to the dread that comes with your 21st birthday when you’re homeless in New York. “I only lasted a few days,” Alexander Jacobs, 22, tells the Voice of his attempt to enter an adult shelter. He moved to New York in the wake of Hurricane Harvey “to build up my life,” but found himself unable to afford housing. Inside an adult shelter, he says, he felt targeted and threatened because he is gay.

Kaashif, 31, identifies as gay and has struggled with mental illness. He estimates he has cycled through as many as five adult shelters, as “I’ve been threatened, sexually harassed, several times.”

Alexander Rey Perez, Testifies During City Council Committee Hearing on Runaway and Homeless Youth, Feb. 13, 2018

Alexander Rey Perez, 23, decided he couldn’t live with his mother after coming out as transgender, then found he was not allowed to stay at a youth shelter because of his age. His attempts at entering the adult system only added to his anxiety — identifying as trans, he says, complicated placement in a gender-based shelter. When he did visit a men’s shelter, he suffered a “full-blown panic attack” facing a metal detector, fearing he’d get patted down. “For a person of trans experience, that’s like your worst nightmare,” he says.

This year has brought political changes that promise to address such fears. The 2018 state budget included reforms that will allow counties to increase the maximum age for youth housing to 24 years old. Then Corey Johnson became Speaker of the New York City Council in January and turned his attention to the issue. He and other legislators sponsored a bill, introduced to the City Council last month, that would allow adults up to age 24 to be eligible for youth housing. Two other bills were introduced, one that would extend the length of time a homeless youth can stay at a crisis shelter, and another that would require the DYCD to develop a plan to provide shelter to all runaway and homeless youth who request it.

According to a study by Legal Aid, young people given unlimited stay at youth shelters, with access to specialized services, have a better chance of gaining the confidence and skills they need to transition into adulthood, which includes the ability to find long-term housing. Advocates also watched the “raise the age” matter gain attention as our understanding of youth shifted, with research showing the adult brain is not fully developed by 21 but continues to grow into individuals’ late twenties.

“For a long time, these teens were not seen as sympathetic as young children,” says Kate Barnhart, executive director of New Alternatives, an organization that offers case management and other services to homeless LGBTQ youth. “There was a stigma they are difficult to work with, they might have mental health or behavioral issues.”

Barnhart continues, “There’s been a change in the culture, where people are realizing — due to the employment situation in the country, also the lack of affordable housing — a lot of people are at home, being youth, well into their twenties.”

Still, the city has been slow to turn its attention to homeless youth, even as New York’s homelessness crisis has intensified. The DYCD has no clear data on how many youth age out of shelter and decline to transition to the adult system. At February’s hearing, a tense exchange came when Speaker Johnson asked if DYCD representatives knew how many homeless youth lived in New York City. The agency’s best estimate was “a couple hundred,” according to deputy commissioner Susan Haskell. (The DYCD did not respond to numerous requests for comment.) For the youth present, it cemented a familiar feeling — that they had fallen through the cracks.

Speaker Corey Johnson During City Council Committee Hearing on Runaway and Homeless Youth,Feb. 13, 2018

DYCD reps also testified to concerns of budgeting for more youth beds if the bills pass — though the state budget included reforms for the city to raise the youth shelter age, it did not allocate any money to do so. Speaker Johnson committed to budgeting city funds at the hearing, but did not return requests to confirm this. “I want you to have the resources you need to reach these young people,” he told DYCD reps. “I don’t really care what amount of money it is — City Council will push for it in the budget.”

If City Council votes in favor of these bills, the young people’s fate will then rest with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who would need to sign the legislation into law. A spokesperson for the mayor, Jaclyn Rothenberg, says “we are reviewing the bills, but remain deeply committed to supporting runaway and homeless youth, which is why we’ve invested over $20 million to keep them safe,” referring to funding for enhanced services for drop-in centers, an increase in supportive housing for young adults, and other new programs under the city’s NYC Unity Project. She points out that the mayor’s office is on track to triple the number of beds available to runaway and homeless youth (up to age 21) by 2019 and is working on a streamlined transition process into the adult shelter system.

Still, the majority of young people aware of the bills worry that they won’t pass, and are concerned that city government doesn’t appreciate the unique struggle that comes with a 21st birthday. “It feels like DYCD has a lot of excuses…like it involves too much work to deal with us,” says Perez, who secured supportive housing in Brooklyn after declining to stay in an adult shelter. Since he became involved with Ali Forney Center to advocate for raise the age legislation, he has dreamed of working in advocacy full-time while saving enough to rent his own apartment.

In his City Council testimony last month, Perez read a poem. “One of the lines in my poem was that ‘you can’t meet me where I’m at if you don’t know where I’m from,’ ” he says. “I wrote the poem on the subway, outside, in different places.” He continues, “I didn’t want to deliver a prepared speech. I wanted people to hear that this experience is real, these are issues me and my peers think and talk about, and we’ve suffered together.”

UPDATE 3/8: Powlovich reports that all three Raise the Age bills passed the council unanimously on Wednesday, and now head to the mayor’s desk for his signature.


The Man Who’s Been Sent to Rikers 100 Times

“I’m tired of it,” Victor Alvarez says regarding Rikers Island, the 85-year-old jail complex that City Hall has slated for closure by 2027.

Such a sentiment is not surprising, given that by his own count, Alvarez has been sent to Rikers 102 times, mostly in the last fifteen years.

Vladimir Rene, the court-appointed attorney for Alvarez’s most recent case (for trespassing, resolved this past October), cannot recall the exact number of times Alvarez has been shuttled to Rikers, because he no longer has a copy of his rap sheet. But the number is vast, he says. And many of those stays have been for thirty days or more.

Among the throngs of clients sent his way, Rene says, Alvarez stands out. “He struck me as someone who is trying [to stay out of jail], but who just cannot catch a break.”

Almost 50, homeless, and Puerto Rican, Alvarez, who grew up in Brooklyn, represents several leading demographic groups that keep sending bodies to Rikers. According to the 2017 report of the Lippmann Commission (formed by the City Council to study the jail complex’s possible closure), 41 percent of the city’s jail population is age 36 or older, 34 percent is Latino, and 22 percent is from Brooklyn. Alvarez has also been subjected to a series of low-level misdemeanor charges that, according to the commission, end up clogging the courts with defendants “stuck in a cycle of arrests and short jail sentences.” The report also noted that many of these people are, like Alvarez, dealing with homelessness and substance abuse.

Alvarez’s preferred surroundings are Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill and Gowanus, where he collects cans and bottles to scrape by. He knows the terrain well, but cops in the area also know him as a drug user with a long record of petty misdemeanors, and the result is an endless game of cat and mouse, with Alvarez frequently getting pinched on his home turf.

Alvarez grew up in nearby Park Slope, at Bergen Street and Fifth Avenue, which in the Seventies and Eighties wasn’t home to boutiques and wealthy white people. Fifth Avenue then was a Puerto Rican strip, with migrants from the island living above bodegas and dime stores. Here’s how Jimmy Breslin described it in the summer of 1969:

Fifth Avenue was hot and ramshackle and dirty and crowded with Puerto Ricans who carried a can of beer and drank it while they walked. They are the first people since the Irish to drink beer this way, and I have to love them for it. But when they stand on their street corners, their beer held up like brown trumpets, and you look at them, the amusement turns to sadness because their visible surroundings seem so hopeless and the invisible walls they face each day are so much thicker and higher and permanent than anything the Irish, who were on these streets before them, were asked to overcome.

Drug dealing provided the easiest way for Alvarez to make money in the Eighties, and it was a path that led upstate. Two separate drug trafficking sentences meant he spent most of his life from ages 18 to 35 at prisons as storied as Sing Sing or as nondescript as Mid-State Correctional Facility.

Alvarez returned to Brooklyn in the early 2000s hoping to put the electrician skills he learned at Mid-State to work as a handyman or in building management. But his past convictions limited his options, and he has since survived on the margins, picking up scrap metal and recyclables or doing odd jobs for childhood friends who still live in the area.

By the early 2000s, Alvarez’s network of family and friends had been gentrified out of Park Slope, with many relocating to New York City Housing Authority buildings on the other side of Fourth Avenue. When Alvarez returned from prison at that time, he lived with family at NYCHA’s Wyckoff Gardens in Boerum Hill, and it was there that Alvarez’s regular trips to Rikers began.

The NYPD during the Bloomberg-Kelly era was obsessed with numbers, and people with drug convictions like Alvarez were easy targets. In 2004, soon after Alvarez had returned from prison, the NYPD launched Operation Safe Housing at NYCHA, which targeted drug dealers “by banning them from public housing grounds and arresting violators for trespass[ing].” Alvarez’s prior drug convictions and own substance abuse made him an immediate suspect.

Alvarez initially began to rack up arrests (and visits to Rikers) for low-level possession, but it was his proximity to a stash of drugs found in a Wyckoff Gardens hallway that proved most momentous. “The cops said the stuff was mine, but it wasn’t,” he insists. The Brooklyn D.A.’s office offered a plea deal whereby Alvarez would avoid a prison sentence if he agreed to a twenty-year ban from NYCHA grounds.

Given that prosecutors in Brooklyn and elsewhere typically respond to rejected plea offers with harsher sentences upon conviction, Alvarez reluctantly accepted the deal. But the ban meant that he was now homeless — and even worse, any visit to his family or friends at NYCHA would leave him vulnerable to trespassing charges and a trip back to Rikers.

All the cops in Boerum Hill and Gowanus know him, Alvarez says, and he recalls seeing his picture on the wall (identifying him as a NYCHA trespasser) at the 76th Precinct, which serves parts of Gowanus and its surrounding neighborhoods. Alvarez keeps his belongings in a shopping cart, and says that one day a cop told him, “If I see you without your cart, I’m gonna arrest you” — simply on the assumption that by enhancing his mobility, Alvarez intended to steal something.

The officers at criminal court in downtown Brooklyn know Alvarez by sight as well. “Man, you should have a pension by now,” he recalls one saying in an attempt to be friendly.

Each time Alvarez returns to Rikers, the corrections officers welcome him back, putting him to work in the mess hall or sanitation — a privilege not accorded to most of his peers. In Alvarez’s view, “90 percent of the guards are assholes,” but he survives by staying on good terms with the rest. “I don’t make trouble,” he says.

New York City comptroller Scott Stringer recently calculated that it costs nearly $750 per day to hold someone at Rikers, not including police and court costs. The enormous sums of public money spent on Alvarez have produced no visible results — other than keeping the criminal justice system afloat.

By day, Alvarez can be found at the office of VOCAL-NY, an advocacy organization that works with people who use substances, many of whom are also both formerly incarcerated and homeless. The storefront office is on Fourth Avenue, where Boerum Hill meets Park Slope — a block or so from where Alvarez grew up.

At night, his routine changes. Alvarez is small, able to sleep in the back of friends’ vans or sometimes on their couches. He has no desire to spend the night in the city’s homeless shelters, which even Alvarez, a seasoned vet of Rikers, considers to be too dangerous. “Even if it’s 5 degrees out, I ain’t going there [to a shelter],” he says.

Alvarez gets spending money by redeeming recyclables from one of the new condo buildings in the Gowanus area. Meanwhile, he’s also trying to evade the long arm of the law. In mid-August, he was nailed for trespassing at NYCHA. He insists that he was on the sidewalk outside of the Wyckoff Houses picking up a bottle, but cops claimed he was on the property. His lawyer, Vladimir Rene, says that the boundaries in such trespassing cases are “often vaguely defined.”

Alvarez pleaded not guilty — his preferred m.o. when he denies the charges — resulting in $1,000 bail from the Brooklyn D.A.’s office, a standard practice when someone has so many arrests. Devoid of resources, Alvarez spent two months back at Rikers while awaiting his day in court.

In mid-October, the case was resolved with an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, meaning that if Alvarez avoids getting hit with another infraction between now and mid-February, the trespassing charges will be tossed. Otherwise, it’s back to the mess hall at Rikers.

In terms of criminal justice reform, the new year has gotten off to a promising start, with Governor Andrew Cuomo vowing to end cash bail for misdemeanors and Mayor Bill de Blasio beginning to downsize Rikers. According to Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY, what people like Alvarez need is expanded funding for supportive housing, which provides addiction services on-site.

The solutions to Alvarez’s problems are complex, and costly, but they are ultimately much less wasteful than sending him back to Rikers. “I just want to be able to go home, and go to work,” Alvarez says. Perhaps in 2018, he will finally catch a break.


No Room at the Holiday Inn

In a city not known for peace and quiet, walking the streets of Maspeth, Queens, can feel almost surreal, as if one has somehow turned a corner into a faraway suburb, a neighborhood that resembles the south shore of Staten Island more than it resembles neighboring Woodside. American flags hang on doors and flap above manicured lawns. On Sundays, a few people gather outside family restaurants with signs advertising “Pasta Night”; popular country songs play from passing cars, softly. Flyers notify passersby that the precinct needs more police officers. The few residents one sees on the street, whether they’re walking their dogs or washing their cars, are reluctant to talk to strangers about the place where they live.

“I’m good,” one man told me on a recent afternoon. “Fuck off.” He declined to give his name.

Maspeth has long prided itself on preserving a “friendly small-town atmosphere” in the big city; for decades the neighborhood has remained insulated from the hubbub of metropolitan life and from the city’s politics as well. Residents here are hesitant to describe themselves as Democrats or Republicans — first and foremost, they’re people who live in Maspeth. The only political trends they care about are the ones that have the potential to affect the neighborhood, so in recent years the most prominent concerns have included street improvements, littering, and noise generated by the Long Island Expressway.

When it comes to larger issues like poverty and homelessness, Maspeth has historically averted its eyes. But as a brutal housing market has forced more residents across the city to seek shelter, the de Blasio administration is seeking to distribute homeless services more equitably throughout the boroughs, which means building shelters in predominantly white middle-class neighborhoods that have never had them before. In Maspeth, which was intended to be a prototype for this initiative, news of a shelter has generated months of venomous protest and political upheaval, pitting residents against homeless men and throwing a councilmember’s future into question. And with nearly a hundred more facilities slated to open over the next five years, the events of the past year seem to signal that the worst is yet to come.


Maspeth has always seen homelessness as somebody else’s problem. In 2012, as the city’s shelter population was skyrocketing, Community Board 5 (which includes Maspeth and two neighboring majority white communities) stated in an annual report that “any plans to build large facilities to house the homeless in residential communities is [sic] unwise.” The report went on to suggest that homeless residents could build their own homes on some of the neighborhood’s many vacant lots: “Why not hire professionals to teach people who are without a stable place to live to renovate and/or build housing for themselves? This would provide more housing at a lower cost while teaching people a skill.”

Last summer, though, the de Blasio administration put an end to Maspeth’s days of shoulder-shrugging. In August 2016, the city’s Department of Homeless Services announced it would turn a Holiday Inn Express near the Long Island Expressway into a shelter for the homeless. The decision was a precursor to Mayor Bill De Blasio’s larger Turning the Tide plan, which aims to get a handle on the growing homeless population (it currently stands at 60,000) by opening nearly a hundred shelters over the next five years. The city plans to distribute these shelters in proportion to where people in the shelter system list their most recent address, which means that while many of the new facilities will be built in the Bronx and central Brooklyn, where there is already a high concentration of shelters, some will be built in middle- and working-class neighborhoods where there have never been any resources for the homeless until now. DHS says 330 people in the shelter system list their most recent address in Queens Community Board 5, which currently has no shelters.

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The mayor’s announcement sent Maspeth residents into overdrive. Hundreds of residents turned out in front of the Holiday Inn to protest the decision in an unprecedented display of community opposition. At a series of hearings held by the city, they showed up with shirts and signs reading “STOP DUMPING ON MASPETH” and “MASPETH LIVES MATTER,” with one shouting, “This is not East New York!” They took buses to picket the Brooklyn home of Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Steven Banks, threatened to vote city councilmember Elizabeth Crowley out of office if she did not stop the shelter, and accused the city of fabricating the number of homeless people who claim to be from the neighborhood. In the Facebook community group Maspeth 11378, residents raged about the negative effects the hotel conversion would have on their neighborhood, with a “110 member crime wave” foremost among their fears.

In response, Crowley, along with State Senator Joseph Addabbo and State Assemblymember Margaret Markey, filed a lawsuit against the city to halt the use of the Holiday Inn, alleging that the hotel could not legally serve as a homeless shelter because its rooms lacked proper kitchen setups. Although DHS plans to phase out the use of hotels as shelters over the next few years, it has housed the homeless in hotels throughout Queens for years without legal incident; the lawsuit was tossed out by a judge as baseless less than two months later.

Following the extreme reaction of Maspeth residents, DHS initially indicated it would cancel plans to turn the hotel into a shelter, saying it would house only some homeless men there. But then, in a reversal of the reversal, De Blasio and DHS announced in February that the city would open a new full-service homeless shelter in Community Board 5 whether residents liked it or not. Community groups greeted the announcement with renewed furor.

DHS has provided no further information about the proposed full-service shelter. A spokesperson for the agency would not go into detail about DHS’s long-term plans for homeless services in the neighborhood, but told the Voice the agency is “committed to completely ending the use of all cluster and hotel sites citywide—and that includes the commercial hotel” in Maspeth, where there are presently 57 homeless men residing in half of the hotel’s 115 rooms.

Interviewed outside the hotel, two homeless residents said staff are rude and unfair to them, describing their treatment as “fucking horrible.”

“They don’t help us like they’d help someone who was just staying here,” one said. “If we’re walking down the hall and we see someone who’s a tourist, we’ll nod and smile and everything, but if a manager sees you doing that, they’ll pull you aside and tell you you’re not allowed to talk to them.”

The residents, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from the staff, also said that Maspeth residents they encounter in the corner store or the nearby McDonald’s regard them with fear and suspicion.

“It’s just because we’re not white,” one said, “they’ll give us weird looks, they’ll cross the street to avoid us.”  These men said they understand why some people wouldn’t want a shelter in their community, and said the animosity of Maspeth residents wouldn’t bother them so much if their situation in the hotel were better. They also both said the city should simply be providing housing to people experiencing homelessness instead of expanding the shelter system.


Even as Maspeth community groups have continued to fight the Holiday Inn shelter — suing for the release of related public records and arguing it’s illegal for homeless people to stay there because the industrial zoning permits only short-stay hotels —  infuriated residents have sought to hold someone accountable. So far, their ire has been directed at Crowley, a well-connected Democrat who unseated her Republican predecessor in 2008 on a wave of turnout for Barack Obama.

Crowley is a Middle Village native, but the progressive positions she’s taken since her election have caused some locals to sour on her. Despite Crowley’s lawsuit and her stated opposition to the shelter, many locals see her as a pawn of de Blasio and of the Democratic machine (her cousin is U.S. representative and career politician Joseph Crowley), too willing to cave in and let DHS’s shelter plans proceed. (Councilmembers have no official power to influence such matters, which is why Crowley turned to the courts.) On the Maspeth 11378 Facebook group, a number of outraged locals residents have described her as a pawn of the mayor, hissing that “a vote for Elizabeth Crowley is a vote for De Blasio.” Another wondered, “Is it Cronyism or Crowleyism?” And sure enough, a challenger has emerged just in time for this year’s city council election, hoping to capitalize on residents’ near-universal anger by staking his campaign on opposition to homeless services in Maspeth.

Bob Holden is president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, an influential community group representing Maspeth and nearby Middle Village. Though he’s never served in an elected office (he teaches graphic design at a CUNY school in Brooklyn), he has the status of a de facto spokesperson for the neighborhood. He has been quoted in dozens of articles over the past decade raging against anything that disturbs or annoys locals: LaGuardia noise, a nearby hipster event center, exclusion of Catholic kids from a local school, and, yes, any attempt by the city to provide homeless services to residents who live nearby. In his capacity as leader of the civic association, he formed a task force that downzoned significant portions of Maspeth and other nearby neighborhoods and aided the police in, as his website puts it, combating “drug dens and prostitution.”

Holden’s platform certainly sounds like a Republican’s: He calls for increased police presence in the precinct, vigorously opposes closing Rikers, and wants make it harder for kids from other neighborhoods to attend Maspeth schools. Earlier this year, though, he ran against Crowley in the Democratic primary. After she defeated him, he switched to the Republican ticket and vowed to “take on the Democratic machine.” Crowley accused him of pulling a bait-and-switch on voters, running in the Democratic primary just to give him another chance to beat her.

Holden’s campaign website cites his opposition to homeless services in the neighborhood as one of his main credentials, and more than a few Maspeth residents may be willing to follow him into battle as a result. In a recent article, he complained that the men staying in the Holiday Inn were being “let loose on a middle-class, a working-class neighborhood with literally no services.”

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Crowley beat her last Republican challenger by almost 20 percentage points, but she’s also the first Democrat to hold the seat. Her campaign has collected more funding than Holden’s so far, but it’s difficult to overstate the extent to which the shelter controversy has influenced public opinion of Crowley. Even if she is re-elected, the comparative success of Holden’s candidacy will probably show that a large proportion of residents now view her as a traitor to neighborhood interests.

At press time, Holden could not be reached for comment. Crowley responded to emailed questions about the city’s shelter plans by saying that shelters generally are “not cost efficient and [do] not address the root causes of homelessness.”


Maspeth is not the first neighborhood where DHS has awoken a sleeping dragon, and it will probably not be the last neighborhood to see significant political upheaval as a result of the mayor’s plan.

Two years ago, in the adjoining, predominantly white neighborhood of Glendale, residents came out in full force to oppose the conversion of a disused factory into a homeless shelter. First they argued the building was unsafe for reuse; then, when it was deemed safe, they argued it would be nobler to reuse it as a factory. In Bellerose, Long Island City, and most recently Riverdale and Sunnyside — all majority-white neighborhoods — there has been similar protest and outcry over DHS’s decision to house homeless individuals in nearby hotels. Some protesters make a show of saying that hotel shelters are unfit places to house the homeless (de Blasio’s plan calls for their elimination by 2023, and DHS insists they’re temporary “bridge” measures) or lamenting the lack of opportunity for community input; others announce their fears of being “inundated” by people from other neighborhoods who will make their community “unsafe.” 

“We do find instances of opposition like this to be somewhat disturbing,” says Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, “especially because we would argue these residents’ fears about crime and property values are unfounded.” Routhier adds that the city has the upper hand in legal battles like the one over the Holiday Inn, and individual community areas can’t stop the city from providing services on their turf.

The opposition to homeless shelters in these neighborhoods mirrors the racially charged opposition to affordable housing that has appeared across the country. In the past few years, such cities as Houston, Chicago, and San Francisco have seen majority-white homeowners lash out against initiatives that have sought to spread affordable housing around different neighborhoods. Perhaps because of New York’s long history of rent control and presently vicious housing market, there has been comparatively less outrage here over affordable housing. In homeowner communities, however, people experiencing homelessness have become the outsiders du jour. Residents have blasted de Blasio and DHS for “dumping” on middle-class communities, while Long Island City councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer has complained that his “community now houses more homeless individuals than it produces.”

In fact, the city’s plan is specifically designed to give people who enter the shelter system a chance to stay in their own neighborhoods. The Coalition has cautiously supported the plan on these grounds, arguing that people who are sheltered near their home neighborhoods have an easier time getting back on their feet.

Fewer people enter the shelter system from Maspeth than from most other city neighborhoods, but residents’ flat-out rejection of any and all shelter plans seems to indicate an unwillingness to reckon with the fact that homelessness can befall anyone at any time. Rather than accept that their neighbors may need support, these residents would rather hold on to the notion that poverty and homelessness happen somewhere else. In viciously opposing any kind of shelters, they’re showing what’s underneath Maspeth’s “friendly small-town atmosphere,” and revealing that the neighborhood’s sense of community is only skin deep.

An initial version of this story repeated earlier reports that Maspeth protestors had shouted “Go back to East New York!” in response to the homeless shelter. In fact, video of the protest shows that the actual words were “This is not East New York!”


What de Blasio’s ‘Paying the Homeless to Leave Town’ Program Is Really About

“Get the fuck out of here!” exclaims Anthony Cepeda. “That is so awesome!”

Cepeda is one of the dozens of mostly homeless people streaming out of a Chelsea church’s soup kitchen one morning in mid-October, bearing paper-wrapped buttered bagels and Styrofoam cups of tea. He’s just been told that the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has a new pilot program that will help pay homeless people’s rent for up to twelve months if they find housing outside the city.

The unnamed program, which began quietly on September 1, drew public attention in late September, after DHS sent a group of shelter residents to look at seventeen apartments in Newark, New Jersey. Republican mayoral candidate Nicole Malliotakis called it an example of the failure of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s policies on homelessness, accusing him of spending “the taxpayers’ money” to subsidize out-of-town rents. For others, paying for poor people to leave raised the specter of the Louisiana segregationists in the 1960s who bought public-assistance recipients one-way bus tickets up North, or the Trump-mouthed provincial executive in Alberta in the 1990s who sent them to British Columbia.

New York’s relocation-aid program is much more benign, according to both city officials and homeless advocates. For ten years, the city’s Project Reconnect has paid transportation expenses for people living in city homeless shelters who are looking to move outside the city; under the new pilot, the city will subsidize rents as well — for housing either in the city or elsewhere.

“It’s brand-new, so we don’t have a lot of on-the-ground feedback,” says Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless. “We haven’t seen people in our office who’ve been through it.”

The Coalition, the court-appointed monitor of city homelessness policy since it won a case establishing the right to shelter in the early 1980s, learned about the program last month in a meeting with the DHS. For eligible households, DHS will cover the amount by which their rent exceeds 30 percent of their income, up to the same maximum rent as in other city rent-assistance programs for homeless people: $1,213 a month for a single person and $1,515 for a family of four. To be eligible, individuals or families have to have spent at least ninety days in a city homeless shelter and verify that they’ll have a job or be able to afford their rent in the place they’re going. They are ineligible if they have open arrest warrants, open child-welfare cases, or untreated mental health or drug- or alcohol-use problems.

“For decades, the city has helped our homeless neighbors seek housing where they can best get back on their feet — sometimes that includes outside the five boroughs,” says DHS press secretary Isaac McGinn.

With the city in a never-ending housing crunch, looking for homes outside the five boroughs has become a last resort to avoid homelessness for many. The city has recorded more than 60,000 people living in homeless shelters every month since December 2015, the most since it began tracking them in 1983, and an increase of more than 50 percent in the last six years. About three-fourths are families, and the average stay is fourteen months. Those numbers do not include the unknown thousands sleeping on the street.

The reason, says Routhier, is that there is essentially “no housing” affordable to the poor. For someone making $25,000 a year, even a rent of $700 a month would be more than one-third of pre-tax income — and about the only place you can find apartments that cheap in the city is in public housing, which has 257,000 families on the waiting list for its 176,000 apartments.

Since Project Reconnect began providing transportation assistance in 2007, it has helped about 4,000 households move out of the city, according to DHS figures. The most common destinations are Florida and Puerto Rico, which together with Georgia and the Carolinas account for the bulk of all relocations.

For both the homeless and their advocates, the new rent-subsidy program is just an extension of that Bloomberg-era initiative.  “I don’t know to what extent this represents a significant break,” Sam Miller, a spokesperson for the homeless people’s organization Picture the Homeless, says of the new relocation-aid program. “We as an organization support anything that pays for homes instead of shelter.” However, he adds, a year of housing aid isn’t a long-term solution: “What happens when you move to North Carolina and the voucher runs out, or the job doesn’t pay enough for shelter?”

This is the long-standing catch-22 with temporary housing subsidies: People are likely to end up homeless as soon as the rental assistance runs out. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s two main initiatives — Housing Stability Plus, which gave families on public assistance rent subsidies that were scaled back by 20 percent each year, and Advantage, which offered subsidies that ended after two years — both failed dismally and were canceled, largely for this reason. More than 60 percent of the programs’ recipients wound up back in shelters, says Routhier. The city currently offers temporary rental-assistance programs for working families eligible for public assistance, long-term shelter residents, domestic violence victims, elderly and disabled individuals, working individuals, and people who have a relative or friend they can move in with.

There is one program that offers permanent rent subsidies: the federal Section 8 voucher program. But the maximum rents it will subsidize are less than what most vacant apartments in the city rent for: $1,460 for a studio and $1,768 for a two-bedroom. In any case, funding for the program is so limited that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which administers it here, has not accepted applications since 2009.

Those at the Chelsea soup kitchen like the idea of rent subsidies for housing outside the city, but are quick to point out its likely shortcomings. “It’s good for people who have a place to go,” says James Brown, a former taxi driver who’s been in and out of city shelters for the past ten years, as well as shelters in Dallas and Miami. “If you don’t have family, you’re just going to be wandering around, and they’ll put you in jail.”

Mohamed, who has been in the shelters for a bit more than a month and prefers not to give his last name, calls it “innovative,” but adds that “it seems very specialized. It’s not going to be a lot of people who’d know somebody outside, and you have to hear about it.”

Homeless advocates say that helping a relatively small number of people relocate doesn’t address the underlying causes of the city’s continuing affordable-housing crisis. Picture the Homeless cites a 2016 audit by Comptroller Scott Stringer that said the city owns more than 1,100 vacant lots that could be used to build 57,000 apartments. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) countered that most of those lots are not viable locations for housing; for example, some are in hurricane danger zones in the Rockaways. The actual number of vacant lots is murky, and HPD has refused to release its list. A package of three bills called the Housing Not Warehousing Act would require the city to conduct a census of all vacant land, but the City Council has not taken any action on it since a hearing in 2016.

Another possibility, says Routhier, would be for the city to reserve a larger share of vacant apartments in public housing for homeless people leaving shelters; it currently sets aside about 1,500 of the roughly 4,000 annual vacancies. On the other hand, providing a greater share of the minuscule number of public-housing apartments to shelter residents would leave fewer available for the city’s non-homeless working-class and poor people.

At current rates, it would take more than sixty years for all the people on NYCHA’s waiting list to get apartments, and a 1998 federal law, the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, generally prohibits cities from using federal funds to build new public housing if it would “result in a net increase” in the number of units. Mayor de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, which relies on enforced trickle-down from luxury development to create new “affordable” housing, will cater mainly to New Yorkers who make more than $40,000 a year. There have been numerous calls to create more housing for lower-income people, most recently by the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, but the mayor’s plan is the main one in effect.

DHS acknowledges the problem. Roughly 40,000 people in families with children live in the shelters, a spokesperson says, and more than one-third of families “include a parent that is earning income but cannot make ends meet — underscoring the economic factors, namely rents rising far faster than wages or incomes, driving homelessness.” On that basis, the spokesperson adds, if even one family participates in the relocation program, “it is a successful tool for that family.”

Anthony Cepeda would seem to be a perfect candidate. “I come from Nashville, Tennessee, and I’d like to go back,” he says. “I’ve got someone in Tennessee who wants to take care of me.”

But the requirement that participants have to have lived in city shelters for ninety days would trip him up. He was placed in a shelter in Brownsville — one where a resident was seriously wounded in May when he was stabbed with a pair of scissors — but left because it was “really horrible.”

“I didn’t feel safe,” Cepeda says. He’s now back on the street, along with thousands of others — in a city where rents keep going up far faster than people’s ability to pay them.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect DHS’s clarification that its new rent subsidies can be used for housing within the city, not just outside of it.


Mayor de Blasio Levels With New Yorkers on Homelessness Crisis: “I Today Cannot See an End”

Mayor Bill de Blasio struck a somber tone as he unveiled his newest plan to mitigate the city’s homelessness crisis on Tuesday, lowering expectations for making a dent in the intractable issue he pledged to tackle when he campaigned for mayor more than three years ago.

“I’m going to say some things that are hard to hear,” the mayor announced at the beginning of his speech, telling reporters and homeless advocates that the city’s skyrocketing shelter population was the result of thirty years of ineffective policies, and that just keeping the population from exploding even further was an accomplishment his administration took pride in.

De Blasio’s plan, his third comprehensive initiative to address homelessness since he took office, aims to close all of the city’s “cluster sites” shelters and replace them with 90 new shelters based in communities closer to where the homeless originate from.

Yet even this new strategy would only reduce the city’s record homelessness population by 2,500 over a five-year period. There are currently just under 60,000 people sleeping in NYC shelters every night.

“It will be a long, long battle. A tough battle. We will be at this a long time. If I told you anything more pleasant it wouldn’t be the truth, de Blasio, who is on his way towards probable reelection, said during the announcement. “We’ll make progress, but it will be incremental.”

Under current procedure, families are often sent miles away from where they used to live, where their family is based, or where their kids go to school.

“The numbers speak so clearly. Right now, 70% of the shelter population are families,” the mayor said. “This is very different than what we’ve had in the past.”

Advocates for the homeless have chastised de Blasio for announcing another new plan so close to his last one, which was delivered last year. But the mayor said that this new plan was based on experiences he’d had over the past three years in trying to deal with the shelter system.

De Blasio has also pledged to curtail the use of hotels, which his administration has resorted to as shelter populations continued to rise. Earlier this year, after announcing homeless New Yorkers would be moving into a hotel in Maspeth, Queens, locals erupted with dissent, convening a nightly vigil castigating the mayor and his commissioner of Human Resources, Steven Banks, and going so far as to protest outside of Banks’s home.

“I today cannot see an end. I can see improvement and constant progress if we all do things right,” the mayor said. “But again, I am not going to lie to people New York City and say I have defined end in sight.” Instead the mayor opted that he wanted to “break a pattern,” where homelessness has risen year after year.

While the plan will eventually open 90 new shelters, the overall footprint of shelters in the city will be lowered by 45%. Still, the mayor conceded that his plan would not be popular politically, as it asks more neighborhoods to accept the construction or conversion of buildings into shelters, something that many community board across the city have resisted. The new plan also calls on the governor and state legislature to support a pledge it made last year to free up more than $2 billion for new supportive housing in the city, something that it has not yet done.

Many advocates of the homeless were not enthusiastic about de Blasio’s plan, which directs money to go towards more shelters instead of creating more affordable permanent housing.

“Any comprehensive plan to address homelessness absolutely needs to include housing and it needs to address a bold plan to address the housing needs of the record number of people that are in shelter now,” Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, told the Voice. “Housing has been proven to be the best way to stabilize people that are homeless. The only way to address this issue is to provide stable, long-term housing.”

The Coalition for the Homeless also pointed out that it was in de Blasio’s power to give homeless families priority for NYCHA housing, something he has not done.

In the 128-page report outlining the new plan, the de Blasio administration claims to have helped more than 51,500 New Yorkers pay their rent or move out of a shelter through some sort of subsidy, but his larger housing plan has not yet seen results in helping low-income New Yorkers find more affordable housing.

“Literally no one is asking for more shelters,” Jose Rodriguez, a member of Picture the Homeless, told the Voice in a statement. “Homeless people don’t want to be warehoused in these demoralizing institutions that break up communities and families. Bill de Blasio can’t keep letting the real estate lobby set his agenda. He needs to create real housing for the poorest New Yorkers, not bogus so-called affordable housing that doesn’t benefit the people who need it most.”

The mayor declined to do a question and answer after the announcement, and has not answered questions from his press pool since his meeting last Friday with federal investigators over his fundraising tactics (though he did appear on NY1).


To Understand NYC’s Homelessness Crisis, Look Beyond de Blasio

New York City is facing a debilitating homelessness crisis. Try as he might, Mayor Bill de Blasio alone can’t keep tens of thousands of people off the streets and out of substandard, temporary housing. As mayor, de Blasio has been forced to own this disaster — he’s the executive, after all — and the media’s ire has been aimed solely his way.

But it’s time to dispense with the fiction that this is entirely de Blasio’s fault. Were the state more supportive and local elected officials less obsessed with guarding their turf from the homeless and the new developments that could house them, progress would be possible. Instead, New York City has 60,000 homeless people, a record high, and it’s entirely unclear how this number will significantly decline in the near future. Certainly not in time for de Blasio’s re-election campaign next year.

The crisis is not unique to New York City. As urban centers across America grow more desirable for the wealthy, rents and property values skyrocket — and the working class can’t afford what they once could. The working poor and unemployed are fast running out of options. Thank Michael Bloomberg, de Blasio’s billionaire predecessor, for that.

Though he’ll always be too beholden to real estate interests, de Blasio recognizes this problem. It was at the heart of his campaign. Build more housing, increase density, and hope the market slowly corrects itself. He’s trying and running out of time, and privately he probably could admit it. Manhattan rents, still comically astronomical, are cooling off, but now the outer boroughs are bastions of privilege too. Soon, the South Bronx and East New York will gentrify. His rezoning plans, if well-intentioned, will only entice developers to create new enclaves for the affluent.

Ideally, de Blasio would move faster and his plans would call for far more housing affordable to the shrinking middle class and poor of New York than the mandated 25 percent for new developments. In the meantime, homeless shelters are overtaxed — more than 42,000 people now live in them. More and more hotels are converted into shelters, an expensive solution that can threaten the safety of families and force children to live many miles from their schools. Housing families in hotels costs the city $400,000 a night, according to a recent report released by Comptroller Scott Stringer.

To house everyone, de Blasio must contradict himself and continue to jam the homeless into so-called “cluster” sites, privately-owned buildings with disreputable landlords. An exploding radiator at one such site in the Bronx killed two infants this month. Converting apartment buildings into temporary shelters also takes housing stock off the market, an untenable proposition in a city with such low vacancy rates.

What should be done? The elephant in the room, which even the most liberal Democrats won’t approach directly, is that mass homelessness is one symptom of our version of capitalism. A system of mass rent-regulation — or a law forbidding all landlords from raising rents beyond a certain number or above a certain rate — could solve this problem quickly, but would cost landlords and developers a lot of money. And it would be antithetical to the free market values cherished by the political class.

In the short-term, realistically, the city must build more shelters and the state must do more to more to keep people from losing their homes. Queens Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi is pushing a laudable plan to create a new rental subsidy; whether Republicans in the State Senate, who are hostile to the city’s interests, and their off again, on again benefactor Governor Andrew Cuomo see fit to usher it into law remains to be seen.

When Cuomo, without hardly a thought, shot down de Blasio’s ambitious proposal to erect more than 11,000 affordable housing units over Sunnyside Yards (which are partially owned by the state-controlled MTA), he ensured at least one serious answer to homelessness crisis would never see the light of day.

The city is still reeling from Bloomberg’s decision to end Advantage, a program that offered subsidies for up to two years to help people in shelters afford their own apartments. Bloomberg made the decision, in part, because Cuomo’s government cut off its share of funding. Austerity measures undertaken when David Paterson, Cuomo’s predecessor, governed during a recession have never been fully reversed. Cuomo’s office believe it’s doing plenty, though: they point to their five-year, $20 billion plan to build 100,000 affordable housing units, and the overall increase in state support for emergency shelters and rental supplements since 2012.

“The Governor is committed to providing every New Yorker with a safe, affordable place to call home,” said Abbey Fashouer, a Cuomo spokeswoman, told the Voice.

The other necessary component is the construction of many new shelters to house this increasingly permanent class of homeless. Here we find the virus of NIMBYism that won’t die. City and state elected officials have disingenuously lamented the surge in homelessness while doing everything they can to ensure the problem isn’t solved in their neighborhood. City and state elected officials — State Senator Joe Addabbo, Assemblymember Mike Miller and Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley — teamed up to torpedo a shelter in Maspeth, Queens, bowing to furious community opposition. Maspeth residents even harassed Steven Banks, de Blasio’s commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, at his home.

A plan to convert an East Elmhurst hotel into a homeless shelter met with misguided resistance from Rep. Joe Crowley, State Senator Jose Peralta and Assemblyman Francisco Moya. Christine Quinn, the former City Council speaker, now runs a shelter provider trying to open a homeless shelter in Coney Island. The local councilman, Mark Treyger, is predictably not thrilled. But maybe he remembers how Quinn once gutlessly battled a homeless shelter in her own district.

Where, then, are all these homeless supposed to go?

No elected official will wholeheartedly endorse a new shelter in their district because the people who vote — those who have homes, a savings account, and the time to engage with their local government — don’t like them. Excuses are concocted. Short-term gain trumps long-term wisdom.

Shelters must be spread equally across the city, with wealthy neighborhoods doing their share too. Queens shouldn’t be the only front for this war. Elected officials should stand aside for once and allow the city to build shelters fit for their fellow New Yorkers.


Homeless New Yorkers Say NYPD’s ‘Move Along’ Rule Is Cruel and Illegal

The NYPD’s practice of forcing homeless New Yorkers to “move along” violates a city law that prevents the police from singling out marginalized groups, advocates say.

In a press conference outside One Police Plaza on Wednesday, the group Picture the Homeless decried the NYPD’s so-called “move-along” orders, which are being used to disperse homeless individuals from city streets. Homeless individuals said that after giving these orders, the NYPD has often failed to offer any other alternatives like stable housing or access to mental health care, services that Mayor Bill de Blasio promised would be delivered when he initiated a crackdown on the city’s street population in the summer of 2015.

“We’re here to let the mayor know that illegal ‘move along’ orders are still continuing and that the NYPD is directly violating the Community Safety Act, which labeled the homeless as a protected status,” said Nikita Price, an organizer with Picture the Homeless.

While shelter populations are at record highs in excess of 60,000 people, the city’s street homeless population remains above 2,500, with the majority residing in Manhattan. If homeless New Yorkers refuse to “move along,” as directed by the NYPD, they’re subject to arrest, an act that costs the city an estimated $1,750 per person. For the same amount, the advocates and street homeless argued, the city could easily afford to provide them with safe and stable housing options.

The Community Safety Act, which was passed into law in 2013 (over the objection of then-mayor Mike Bloomberg), enforced a ban on profiling by the NYPD against anyone based on disability or housing status, among a litany of other protected groups. Earlier this year, Picture the Homeless pursued the first ever legal action against the NYPD for violating the Community Safety Act, when it, along with the New York Civil Liberties Union, filed a complaint with the city’s Human Rights Commission.

“Just as we’re able to stand on a sidewalk without being discriminated against, homeless people have the same rights,” said Jordan Wells, a staff attorney at the NYCLU. Once the complaint was filed, the NYPD responded with several legal arguments against it, and it continues to fight what the NYCLU believes to be violations of the Community Safety Act.

Speakers at the press conference described a deteriorating relationship between the street homeless and the NYPD, which was exacerbated after a 2015 early-morning raid in East Harlem where the NYPD destroyed the possessions (including birth certificates and medications) of numerous homeless individuals. According to Price, the NYPD has changed tactics from targeting not only homeless encampments, where several homeless individuals have clustered, but also what he described as “hot spots,” or places where just two or more homeless people are together.

“Not having a home does not mean you deserve less dignity,” said Jarquay Abdullah, a member of Picture the Homeless. “Public spaces are meant for the public.”

Abdullah pointed out that the city owns hundreds of properties that are sitting vacant throughout the five boroughs. These properties, he argued, could be turned into permanent low-income housing to help combat the city’s affordability crisis.

An audit earlier this year by Comptroller Scott Stringer showed that the city had over 1,100 plots of land that could be turned into affordable housing.