Being Homeless: In Their Own Words (Part 1)

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Despite the city government’s efforts to provide affordable housing, NYC is still struggling to provide for a growing homeless population.

In spite of its inhospitable weather and soaring cost of living, New York City is the primary homeless hub in the Northeastern United States. Approximately 64,000 of the city’s 8 million inhabitants are homeless, living in crowded shelters or roughing it on the streets — more than there have been since the Great Depression. Of the city’s homeless, 57% are African-American, 32% are Latino and only 8% are Caucasian. Compared to the city’s overall demographics – 44% Caucasian, 26% African-American and 27% Latino — these statistics paint a picture of persistent social inequality.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has taken steps to build affordable housing, pledging 750 new apartments per year. De Blasio is turning a tide set in motion by his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who prevented the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) from giving priority to homeless families and children and gave preference to for-profit shelters. This had a catastrophic effect on the city’s unhoused population. The year before Bloomberg’s policies went into effect, NYCHA provided 3,500 apartments to low-income or homeless families. In 2013, 95 apartments were provided. Homelessness skyrocketed during Bloomberg’s 11 years as mayor: from 32,000 in 2002 to 52,000 in 2013. Though de Blasio’s efforts are welcome, other elected officials and homelessness advocates are pushing him to increase his quota to 2,500 new units a year.

Despite the city’s efforts to provide housing, most of the homeless men and women interviewed by Fair Observer preferred sleeping outside unless the cold prevented it. Jacob Straus spoke to people living on the streets of New York about the challenges of their daily lives.

A man is sitting on a fire hydrant in front of a barbershop at 39th and 8th. The fire hydrants have spikey metal strips welded to their tops, so he had improvised a cushion from what looked like a bunch of old newspaper. He had a can of orange Fanta with a straw in it and a bag with salad at his feet.


Jacob Straus: Let’s start with your name.

Christopher: Yeah. You ready?

Straus: Yeah, I’m ready.

Christopher: You know my uncle. Christopher Donoghue.

Straus: Your name is Christopher Donoghue?

Christopher: Yeah.

Straus: I know your uncle?

Christopher: I’m making a joke. I was gonna say Phil Donoghue, but he’s not my uncle. I wish he was! (Laughs.) I’d be in California workin’ there.

Straus: Are you homeless?

Christopher: Yes sir, I am. I’m dyin’. You can’t see my eyeball — I’m supposed to have surgery on my eye. I got pneumonia. It’s in my nose. I’m just eatin’ some dinner, I want to see my friend. I got — all these people owe me damn money. Nobody’s paying me. Now I’m gonna go in the hospital ’cause I get SSI [Social Security Insurance] every month. But I don’t want to go in the hospital broke.

Straus: How long have you been homeless, Christopher?

Christopher: About seven years now. I’ve been hiding in the Port Authority.

Straus: Do a lot of people do that?

Christopher: Oh yeah. Well, I got three or four buddies, I can tell you that.

Straus: All in the Port Authority?

Christopher: We move from spot to spot. ‘Cause the police will come one morning, chase us out and then we go and get another spot. Sometimes we’ll sleep outside of Port Authority, in between the tunnel. This building and that building because it’s warm, especially in the wintertime. Man, why am I telling you my life story?

Straus: This is fantastic.

Christopher

Christopher

Christopher: What are you gonna do with this?

Straus: We’re putting it online. It’s part of a series of articles.

Christopher: You’re not gonna put my name on there, are you?

Straus: Not if you don’t want to.

Christopher: Hell no! Put my name on there.

Straus: Do it?

Christopher: Yeah!

Straus: Okay, I’ll do it.

Christopher: Yeah! Because I want somebody to walk up to me and go: “You’re Chris from the Internet! I’ve seen you!”

Straus: I’ll take a picture.

Christopher: “I seen you! Online!” And I’m gonna go “Well, I did that because the good of everybody.” Man, I’m 57, I’m homeless, I’m tired of it. My mother committed suicide; my dad died; my brother, after all that, my brother committed suicide.

Straus: I’m sorry to hear that.

Christopher: (Shrugging) Ehh! It happens all the time in Florida, that’s why I’m here in New York.

Straus: When did you come to New York?

Christopher: I been here about seven years now. Seven, almost eight years, because I got SSI. People told me what to do. ‘Cause I didn’t know. I never knew how to do it, I worked all my life. I was a tractor-trailer driver for Canada Dry.

Straus: Have you been homeless since you arrived in NYC?

Christopher: Yeah. I stayed, maybe, two weeks or something in a shelter down here. But they do too many drugs. Smokin’ pot like crazy, and I gave it up. Don’t get me wrong, I drink like a fish. But I gave pot up. My wife asked — told me I couldn’t quit for a day, and that was 35 years ago. I haven’t smoked a joint since. But I walk around the corner right now and get a pint of vodka. That’s legal!

That’s what I told the cop one day! He walked up to me and goes: “What do you think you’re doin’?” I said, “Oh, s**t! Um, getting ready to go to sleep.” And he goes: “You got a bottle in your hand.” And I went: “Yeah, I know, I just bought it. I thought it was legal.” And he goes: “Yeah, it’s legal, but not on the street!” And I went, “Well, I got a can of” — I always carry a can of soda. “I got a can of soda right here.” I said: “And now I’m gonna get something to eat.” And he goes: “Well, that’s if I let you go.” (He cackles.)

Straus: Did he let you go?

Christopher: Yeah! You know what he told me? “I’m gonna watch you cross the street, and once you cross the street, get the hell out of here.” I look at him, I said, “See you tomorrow.” ‘Cause when I get off of work, this is where I come every day. After 6:30, Monday through Friday, I’m here.

Straus: Where do you work?

Christopher: I sell newspapers for The New York Times. I don’t get paid for it; I do it for free.

Straus: Really?

Christopher: Yeah. Something to do. Sometimes they’ll throw me a couple bucks.

Straus: How did you become homeless?

Christopher: I just told you. You don’t remember?

Straus: No.

Christopher: Well, my brother died. My mother committed suicide. Then me and my dad lived together for seven and a half years. He got so fat he went from 195 pounds to 300 some-odd pounds. I used to have to drive him to Costco. I did everything. Basically my dad was my son. And I had my own son. My wife divorced me. But I wasn’t gonna give up on my father. And then one morning, I went to wake him up for breakfast, and him and his fat ass in his underwear were dead as a door nail. And I didn’t know what to do! All I could remember was, Oh s**t, I started going through his — ’cause I wasn’t into all his s**t.

My dad had a beautiful house, but I wasn’t into all his s**t, so I started hitting buttons. And I finally got through to my uncle. And he goes, “Can I help you?” “Uncle Bobby, this is Chris.” And he said: “You don’t have to tell me, I already have a feeling.” And I go: “Help me man, I gotta get out of here.” And he goes: “Don’t go nowhere, and don’t touch your father’s car.” ‘Cause he just bought a brand-new Lincoln. I said, “Bulls**t, I’m takin’ a ride!”

And I did. I took a ride. I went and got a cup of coffee and everything. Shaking like a leaf when he got there. And he goes: “Got a problem. I don’t know where you’re gonna live, ’cause we got to shut this place down.” And that’s when I said, “Psh. I’m going home.” I haven’t made it home! I live in New Jersey! But I came here and they gave me SSI, ’cause like a lady said: “Go to Welfare, and just tell them your situation,” and they ended up giving me 200 some-odd dollars a month to start with.

Straus: And you’re still getting that?

Christopher: Yeah. And the cops sometimes, you get a cop that’s a pain in the ass, but sometimes you’ll get a cop that’ll go: “Time to get up Chris, and go to work.” ‘Cause they know I sell the papers for free. And they’ll go, “It’s time to get up and go to work.” I said: “It’s 6:00 in the morning! I don’t start ’til 2!” And they go: “Yeah, but you gotta get up. Sleepin’ in the middle of the Port Authority.” So basically they know me and they work with me. I try to tell my friends that too. I’m lucky as a dog. These guys — half of ’em — well, one of them did throw my ass in jail. But the judge said — he gave me two days for trespassing — “If I see you in the next 60 days, I’ll throw you in jail for a year.” Well, that was over a year and a half ago.

Straus: What did you do to avoid getting caught in those 60 days?

Christopher: I found a new hiding spot. (Laughs.) I found a new hiding spot. I was sleeping down there. (Points across the intersection to the Port Authority.) You see all the traffic. I sleep between the two Port Authorities, and the cops don’t go down there. Maybe once in a blue moon. And if they do, they usually don’t bother you if you’re lying on a cardboard box and sleeping. If anything they’ll tap your foot and tell you you gotta get up and go. They won’t throw you in jail. I don’t even have ID on me. They robbed my wallet.


Usually, in this time, I’ll sit here ’til 9, 10:00 at night. I have regular people that walk by me. They go, “Here you go, here you go,” throw me a dollar or whatever. Bring me a non-opened can of soda. This is my crowd.


Straus: Someone stole your wallet?

Christopher: Yeah. I gotta go down to 14th St.

Straus: How long ago did that happen?

Christopher: Almost three weeks now.

Straus: Can you get welfare without your ID?

Christopher: Oh yeah, I have a visa card. My visa card, I keep it here (indicating his front left pocket). But my wallet — it has my benefit card in it. That has $200 of food stamps on it, my Medicaid. But at least I got my Visa card, it’s got cash on it. That’s how I get my food.

Straus: You mentioned that you had a couple buddies you used to move around with. My question is about the homeless community in the city. Have you found that there’s any sort of network of people willing to help each other?

Christopher: Definitely. 39th St. It’s called Urban Pathway.

Straus: What is that?

Christopher: It’s a homeless shelter.

Straus: Is that where you stayed?

Christopher: No, not me, no more. Because too many people.

Straus: But that’s where you stayed for those weeks.

Christopher: Yeah. It is — you sit on a chair and sleep on a table.

Straus: Really? They don’t have beds?

Christopher: No. It’s called the Urban Pathway. It used to be up here and they moved down there. I’m not putting them down because they helped me out for years. They give you three squares, sometimes, at 11:00 at night before they turn the TV off they’ll give you a sandwich. They’re good people. Especially if you get SSI. Do you smoke cigarettes?

Straus: No sir, I don’t.

Christopher: Spare a dollar or anything so I can buy one?

Straus: Sure.

Christopher: God bless you.

Straus: Thank you for doing this.

Christopher: Not a problem. Now remember, if you ever need to see me, I’m always here, Dean & — you know where Dean & Deluca is? That’s where I sell my newspapers.

Straus: I actually live in California. This is my last day here.

Christopher: You live in California? What part?

Straus: Berkeley.

Christopher: I’m from Santa Monica! Berkeley — oh, you’re on top! I’m all the way on the bottom!

I’m remembering my days now. When my mom and dad got divorced, she moved to Florida. Or to California. And my dad moved to Florida! And I’m like, okay, I’m in New Jersey. And my dad said: “Here, I’m gonna leave you the house.” And I went, “Okay, cool.” And then I call him up, I say, “I’m selling the house.” He goes “What?” I go: “I’m either moving out to see you, or I’m moving out to see mom.” And he goes, “If you go see your mother” — that’s how much they hated each other — he goes, “I will never give you another dime.” So I look at him, I’m like: “Well listen. I don’t plan on coming for another six months.”

So I went to see my mom. And she was like, “Holy s**t!” My dad was right: she’s a pure alcoholic. She’s a waitress, and when she gets off of work at 4:00, she goes straight to the bar and drinks ’til 11. Goes to work totally drunk. She pulled a knife on me.

And you know what the black and white cars look like in Santa — in Florida — in California? Because I called 911. And they looked at me and they go: “Get in the car. And we’re gonna pay for your ticket home.” And I went, “What about my clothes?” And they go: “F**k your clothes — get in the car. Because we got another car that’s taking your mother away to the psycho ward.” And the guys says: “Don’t ever come back here again.” And I go, “Man, it’s a beautiful state!” And he goes, “Doesn’t your father live in Florida?” And I went, “Yeah.” He goes, “I think Florida’s nicer than California.”

Straus: No!

Christopher: No, it is! It is nicer than California. California, you got too much wind, sand and rain. Florida, you do get rain, but you know when it’s coming. So I went: “You’re gonna pay for my bus ticket?” They went: “Yeah. We’re gonna walk you to the bus. And we’re gonna put you on the bus.” I said, “Well what about my mother?” They said, “She’s going to jail.” She tried to kill me with a knife this big! (Puts his hands about 14 inches apart.) And he looked at me, the officer looked at me, and said: “We can either keep that knife, or you can bury it in your suitcase and take it home with you.” And I did. I buried it underneath my clothes.

I thought I was gonna get busted. Especially when they stopped in North Carolina. And they have to take your bag and put it through the thing. They gave me a piece of paper. And it did. Beep beep beep beep beep! And I looked at the officer and I said: “I got it right here. I’m on my way home. My mother tried to kill me with this thing.” And I showed him the piece of paper. And he goes: “Put it back in your damn bag and get on the bus.” And I went, “Do we have any more stops?” And he goes, “Nah, you’re going straight home to New Jersey.” And I went, “Thank you.” I said, “That’s all I want to do, is get home to New Jersey.” But yeah, it did, it went off like crazy. Oh man. The thing was that big. I’m like, wow.

Straus: A lot of people walk by you. What’s the average reaction? Do you ask people for change, or are you mostly just sitting?


What do I have planned? I’m trying to survive right now.


Christopher: No, I don’t ask! I asked you right now. Usually, in this time, I’ll sit here ’til 9, 10:00 at night. I have regular people that walk by me. They go, “Here you go, here you go,” throw me a dollar or whatever. Bring me a non-opened can of soda. This is my crowd. Up there I work. Here? I have people. These people here? (Pointing to the Mayfair barbershop behind him.) They cut my hair for free!

Straus: That’s great.

Christopher: Yeah, no kidding! He just told me, “Saturday. Shave.” He just came out earlier and said, “Saturday. I can’t do it ’til Saturday. You shave.” They don’t speak much English. “You shave.” And I go, “I be here.” I try to talk like him. I go, (putting on an accent) “I be here.” (Laughing) “I be here.”

Straus: This is the only city you’ve ever been homeless in, right?

Christopher: Yeah.

Straus: Do you have any plans to leave?

Christopher: I have nowhere to go.

(A man walking by leans over and playfully puts the box he’s carrying on Christopher’s head.)

Christopher: Hey! There’s one of my buddies right there. I do have a couple friends! And he runs the liquor store. Well, he either runs the liquor store or he runs the barbershop. He has two shops.

Straus: What are your plans for the near future? What are your plans?

Christopher: What do I have planned? I’m trying to survive right now. I’m thinking about going back to the hospital, because I have COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease]. I don’t know if they’ll take me, but I believe they have to. I hate going to the hospital, but I’m pretty well sick right now. I can’t barely breathe.

You know what? When I smoke a cigarette — I told my doctor, last time I was there, I’m choking and spitting up s**t. I looked at him and I go, “Man, I need a damn cigarette.” And he goes, “What?” I go: “Believe it or not, if I smoke a cigarette, I tell you what, I can breathe like a normal person!” And he goes: “You don’t have to tell me. But I’m your damn doctor, I can’t give you a cigarette.”

So I look at him and I said: “Oh yeah? Don’t you have to make your rounds?” And he goes, “Yeah, why?” And I go, “That’s cool. I’ll sneak outside real fast.” And he goes, “How are you going to get out that door in that gown?” I pulled my gown off, I still had my jeans and my shirt on. He says, “They didn’t take your clothes?” I said, “Nope.” “Where’s your shoes?” I said, “Under the bed.” “Do it man, don’t get caught.” I did it and he came back and said: “That’s the last time. Now you have to quit.” Yeah, and I still got my sneakers on. And I put the gown on, I still got my jeans. He goes, “I want your clothes.” And I said, “What?” He goes, “I want your jeans, I want your t-shirt, I want your socks, I want your sneakers.” I said, “Wow, I’m definitely not going to be able to smoke a cigarette now.” That’s what he said. “I gave you a break.” He said: “I gave you a break. I could be fired. Right now I just said you were in the bathroom.” I went, “Thank you.” I said: “You know what, I don’t need to smoke anymore anyway.” I looked at him and said: “Can I get two cups of coffee in the morning, two cups of coffee at lunch, two cups of coffee at dinner?” And he goes, “Yeah, I guess that’s covering your cigarettes!” And he did. Every meal I got, I had two big — bigger than this! (Indicating the soda can) cups of coffee.

Straus: Is there anything you want to say to summarize your experience? Anything you want to tell people who read this?

Christopher: Just try to take care of yourself the best you can. Everybody will be looking to take things from you, so keep everything in your pockets. And god bless you. I love you.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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