Fernando de la Cruz remembers what it felt like to sleep on cold, hardwood floors. For the first 10 years of his life, the SUNY Cortland first-year student and his mother Rosa lived homeless. They shuttled between her friends’ cramped New York City apartments. Some mornings, Fernando dressed for school in a McDonald’s bathroom.
Rosa, a single parent from the Dominican Republic, told Fernando at a young age that education would be his equalizer. Without a home computer, he spent hours in the library. He started to shadow medical doctors in middle school. And after they eventually settled in Manhattan’s economically troubled Washington Heights neighborhood, Fernando spread his mother’s message through his own actions, by tutoring and coaching younger children.
By the time he was awarded his high school diploma from City College Academy of the Arts this past spring, de la Cruz already had earned more than 60 college credits — essentially completing two years’ worth of college coursework before his 18th birthday.
A week after he started his freshman year at SUNY Cortland, de la Cruz learned of his most impressive accomplishment to date. He earned the State University of New York’s first-ever Carey Gabay Memorial Scholarship, a full-ride award that covers all costs of attendance for five students in the 64-campus system.
Gabay, a top legal aide in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, was killed by a stray bullet when he was caught as a bystander between two rival street gangs during a shootout in September 2015. The award in his memory recognizes economically disadvantaged students like de la Cruz who pair their social justice, leadership and mentoring abilities with academic excellence.
“Whatever it is — my schoolwork, my community or even sports that I play — I just always try to do better for myself and for the people around me,” said de la Cruz, who suffered a concussion in May after local gang members wielding bats and knives assaulted innocent students at his high school.
The similarities run deep between de la Cruz, an exercise science major who aspires to be a physical therapist, and Gabay, a Harvard-educated public servant who grew up in the Bronx.
In middle school, de la Cruz was one of 14 students — out of more than 1,000 applicants — selected for a competitive, six-year medical program at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Later on, as a senior in high school, de la Cruz secured an internship in the office of Rep. Charles Rangel, where he consulted directly on topics such as immigration and low-income housing.
SUNY Cortland first-year student Fernando de la Cruz was one of just five students in the entire SUNY system to earn the Carey Gabay Memorial Scholarship. The award covers all costs of attendance for economically disadvantaged students who exemplify social justice, leadership and academic excellence.
“I am my own father figure, the one who worked late nights packing bags at my local supermarket just so my mother and I could eat,” de la Cruz wrote in his scholarship essay. “I am the big brother, the uncle, the father that many kids in my community dream of having.”
His scholarship requires 15 hours of volunteer work per semester, a number that de la Cruz said he reached weekly during high school. He taught capoeira, the popular Brazilian martial art, to children at a Washington Heights community center. He coached youth basketball in the Police Athletic League’s Harlem Center location. He regularly participated in local walks supporting AIDS awareness and cancer research.
“There are kids younger than me who go through things that are way worse than anything I witnessed,” de la Cruz said. “I want them to choose a different path because they saw me.”
In the classroom, de la Cruz’s high school grades routinely ranked among the best in his class. He was accepted into several undergraduate pre-physical therapy programs, but he said that his college search process became clearer after a presentation at his high school. That’s when de la Cruz met Kharmen Wingard and Michael Johnson, staff members in SUNY Cortland’s Admissions Office.
“Kharmen was like a dad to me, I kid you not,” de la Cruz said. “The day he came to our open house in the city, I fell in love with Cortland. I knew it had everything that I wanted.”
The same energy that lifted de la Cruz through difficult times as a child still carries him today. He shares a room in Bishop Hall with his best friend from childhood, Esteban Arias. He’s only lived in Cortland for a month, but de la Cruz already has joined Men of Value and Excellence (M.O.V.E.), the Caribbean Student Association and a flag football intramurals team. His next goal is to earn a spot on the varsity basketball team.
“When I first came to Cortland, I could tell it was an atmosphere where people enjoy challenging themselves,” he said. “The one thing I knew about Cortland is that everybody is on the verge of doing what they want to do.”
His mother initially worried about her only son attending a college three and a half hours from their Washington Heights apartment. But they took the once-in-a-lifetime scholarship as an affirmation of his decision.
He checks in with his mother every couple of days with a phone call or a text message. Rosa, who exclusively speaks Spanish, will deliver a constant reminder.
Siempre da tu 100% en todo lo que hagas.
“Basically, it means to always place your 100-percent effort in all that that you do,” Fernando said. “She taught me that you can always work hard and have faith, even when you don’t have much else to give.”
For baseball games, Yankee Stadium seats 50,287. If all the homeless people who now live in New York City used the stadium for a gathering, several thousand of them would have to stand. More people in the city lack homes than at any time since . . . It’s hard to say exactly. The Coalition for the Homeless, a leading advocate for homeless people in the city and the state, says that these numbers have not been seen in New York since the Great Depression. The Bloomberg administration replies that bringing the Depression into it is wildly unfair, because those times were much worse, and, besides, for complicated reasons, you’re comparing apples and oranges. The C.F.H. routinely disagrees with Mayor Bloomberg, and vice versa; of the many disputes the two sides have had, this is among the milder. In any case, it’s inescapably true that there are far more homeless people in the city today than there have been since “modern homelessness” (as experts refer to it) began, back in the nineteen-seventies.
Most New Yorkers I talk to do not know this. They say they thought there were fewer homeless people than before, because they see fewer of them. In fact, during the twelve years of the Bloomberg administration, the number of homeless people has gone through the roof they do not have. There are now two hundred and thirty-six homeless shelters in the city. Imagine Yankee Stadium almost four-fifths full of homeless families; about eighteen thousand adults in families in New York City were homeless as of January, 2013, and more than twenty-one thousand children. The C.F.H. says that during Bloomberg’s twelve years the number of homeless families went up by seventy-three per cent. One child out of every hundred children in the city is homeless.
The number of homeless single adults is up, too, but more of them are in programs than used to be, and some have taken to living underground, in subway tunnels and other places out of sight. Homeless individuals who do frequent the streets may have a philosophical streak they share with passersby, and of course they sometimes panhandle. Homeless families, by contrast, have fewer problems of mental illness and substance abuse, and they mostly stay off the street. If you are living on the street and you have children, they are more likely to be taken away and put in foster care. When homeless families are on the street or on public transportation, they are usually trying to get somewhere. If you see a young woman with big, wheeled suitcases and several children wearing backpacks on a train bound for some far subway stop, they could be homeless. Homeless families usually don’t engage with other passengers, and they seldom panhandle.
One Saturday afternoon, I was standing at the corner of Manor and Watson Avenues, in a southeastern part of the Bronx, waiting for a woman named Christina Mateo. I had met her and her then partner on the street the day before. She had said she would show me what a shelter was like—I had never been in one. They were living in a nearby shelter for homeless families. No shelters say “Shelter” on them in big letters. This one looked like an ordinary shabby apartment building, with a narrow entry yard behind a tall black iron grate whose heavy iron door did not lock. People were going in and out. Two young men, one in a hoodie despite the heat and the other in a clean, tight white T-shirt and a black do-rag with the tie ends dangling, leaned into the open windows of cars that pulled up. In between doing that, they looked at me. I am past the age of being a prospect or a threat. I nodded back, genially.
Christina came down the sidewalk pushing a stroller. With her were her nineteen-year-old daughter, her seventeen-year-old son, her fifteen-year-old daughter, and two grandchildren. They had just picked up the younger grandchild from a shelter where she was living with her other grandmother. We all went in, lifting the strollers, and crowded into the small elevator. The security person at the desk asked Christina if I was with her and she said I was. At the door to her fourth-floor apartment, she took out a single key, unattached to any chain, key ring, or other keys, and opened the door.
Uncheerful interior, and an air of many people having recently passed through; the floors were like the insides of old suitcases, with forgotten small things in the corners. Bent window blinds; tragic, drooping, bright-green shower curtain; dark hallway opening onto two bare bedrooms. Christina is forty-one and has pained, empathic dark-brown eyes. She wore blue denim cutoffs, a white blouse, sandals, ivory polish on her fingernails and toenails, and her hair in a bun. Sitting on the only chair in the larger bedroom while I perched on the bed, she told me how she came to be here. She was a home health aide. After the deaths of patients whom she had grown close to—one of them a four-year-old girl with AIDS—she had a breakdown and was given a diagnosis of P.T.S.D. In shelters, out of shelters; for a while she enjoyed her own apartment, with a rent subsidy from a program established by Mayor Bloomberg. The program was cut. She lost the apartment, complicatedly, somehow without being evicted right away, although if she had been, she said, she would have qualified for other, preferable housing.
An accordion file of documents leaned at her ankle. Everybody has documents, but the homeless must keep theirs always close by. She showed me letters with letterheads and foxings and pencil underlinings, and a sheaf of certificates attesting to her success in various programs: Parenting Skills, Anger Management, Women’s Group, Basic Relapse Prevention (“I was smoking a lot of marijuana, and this course taught me how to recognize my triggers. Boredom was one of my triggers”), Advanced Relapse Prevention, and My Change Plan. “What I’m waiting for is the paper saying that we have been declared eligible to stay in this shelter. Right now my case is under review. This place is adequate, but it’s not hygienic—but I don’t want to move. Stability is very important. They will decide if we can stay or not, and then they’ll slide the paper under the door.” She pointed to the end of the dim hallway as if this paper might appear at any moment, sliding in silently like the checkout bill in a hotel room.
As it happened, the news Christina was expecting arrived late that same night, in the form of a shelter employee who knocked on the door and presented the paper by hand. It said that she had been declared ineligible for shelter and would have to go to the PATH center before eight-thirty the next morning to reapply.
Some of the things people have said to me outside the PATH center:
“I came here first when I was eighteen, when foster care maxed me out. I been in the system for fourteen years, and I don’t know how many times I’ve had to come back here. When you go to PATH, they always want to deny you. They don’t believe you really homeless.”
“You know what is the best shelter? Covenant House. But it’s for homeless kids, and only has about two hundred beds. There they max you out at twenty-one.”
“This new place, PATH, is better than what used to be here, the E.A.U.”—the Emergency Assistance Unit. “The E.A.U. was horrible.”
“Here they treat you more horrible than a drunk bum.”
“The food here is not too bad, the bag lunches they give you. The baby likes the animal crackers.”
“Hey, yo, you a writer—do you know Denis Hamill?”
“We left PATH at twelve-twenty-six last night and they bused us to a shelter in Queens and we had about three hours of sleep and then they brought us back here at seven this morning to be reassigned, and my kids was falling asleep in the chairs, and a security guard hit the chairs with his radio and made them jump out they sleep, and I told him not to do that because they tired, and he yelled at me and wrote me up, and I filed an incident report, and I’m sure it ended up in the wastebasket.”
“They spend so much money on us. It costs three thousand dollars a month to put one family in a shelter! Why don’t they just give us part of that money so we can afford our own place to live?”
To get to the PATH center, you take the No. 4 train to Grand Concourse–149th Street, in the Bronx, walk two blocks to 151st Street, make a left, and continue for a block downhill, to 151 East 151st. Of all the places in the city’s shelter system (aside from the Department of Homeless Services offices on Beaver Street, in downtown Manhattan), the PATH center is probably the most important. PATH stands for Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing. All families seeking shelter start out here. When their numbers increase, PATH fills up. Night and day, year in and year out, weekdays and holidays, city shutdown or hurricane disaster, PATH never closes.
Often, it is a parking lot of strollers, a basic part of life for homeless families: these rolling mini-worlds are the single unchanging point of reference that many homeless kids know. The strollers proceed awkwardly through the security scanners, they queue up in a caravan going back and forth in lines in front of the admission desk, they occupy the middle of the floor of the building’s elevators while standees press themselves against the walls. Plastic bags of possessions drape the stroller handles, sippy cups of juice fill the cup-holders, Burger King paper crowns ride in the carrying racks beneath. Kids sleep peacefully while consultations and long waits go on around them. Some lean back and watch with a numbed, listless patience that suggests how much of their childhood has already been spent like this. Others hunch and squirm and scream their heads off.
The old Emergency Assistance Unit, which formerly stood on this site, is remembered fondly by nobody. Staffers, city officials, advocates for the homeless, and clients who had to make their way through it are all glad it’s gone. The E.A.U. was a windowless brick building with small, bare, ill-smelling waiting rooms. Hundreds of people, including the very old and infants, routinely spent the night there. In 2002, a sixteen-year-old boy killed himself when he learned that his family had to go back there. Linda Gibbs, now the deputy mayor in charge of Health and Human Services, which includes the Department of Homeless Services, was Mayor Bloomberg’s first D.H.S. commissioner. She took the new mayor on a tour of the E.A.U. one Sunday morning in 2002. “He was literally stepping over the sleeping kids all over the floor,” she told me.
Bloomberg’s eventual response was to tear down the E.A.U. and build the PATH center in its place. Where the E.A.U. was grim, PATH is gleaming and efficient—if not exactly welcoming. The land it sits on is oddly shaped and comes to a wedge point. The building fits the shape, so that its end makes an acute angle like the prow of a ship. Points and angles and big windows that expedite the sunlight from one side of the building through to the other define this place as a tool and not a zone for relaxation. Even the low walls around the building and next to the long, stroller-friendly entrance ramp are sloped, so that they can’t be sat on. Inside it’s clean and well run, and the social workers I talked to on a D.H.S.-led tour of the place seemed serious and enthusiastic. The Bloomberg administration holds up the PATH center as a rebuke to its critics and as a symbol of its humane yet businesslike approach to homelessness.
The “PA” in PATH’s acronym—Preventive Assistance—comes across forcefully in the Bloomberg policy, which tries hard to keep applicants out of the “TH,” Temporary Housing. PATH will expend great energies in preventing you from being homeless, if other options can be found. If you have no home in New York but own a cabin in Alaska, PATH may give you a plane ticket to Alaska. To save scarce and valuable resources for those who truly merit them, PATH searches out every possible alternative to city-funded shelter. Usually, its efforts focus on finding relatives with whom the family seeking shelter can stay. Patiently and firmly and with endlessly bureaucratized persistence, it makes walking away and giving yourself up to fate seem the easier solution.
The families lining up at PATH, and the single adult men at their intake point, in the Bellevue Men’s Shelter, on East Thirtieth Street, and the single adult women at the women’s intake at the help women’s shelter, on Williams Avenue, in Brooklyn: from a legal standpoint, these people are not asking for charity. They are exercising a right. Since 1938, the right to shelter has been implicit among the rights guaranteed by the constitution of the State of New York (though court action had to confirm it). No other city or state in America offers this right as solidly and unambiguously as does New York.
Advocates love the right to shelter. Most mayors hate it. Referring to it on one of his weekly radio shows last March, Mayor Bloomberg urged the city’s taxpayers “to call their representatives in Albany and say, ‘We ain’t gonna do this anymore.’ ” Had he elaborated, he could have put the blame on literature. New York City has always been a place where reformers have scouted around in poor neighborhoods and written books about what they saw. In “American Notes” (1842), Charles Dickens affectingly described the squalor of the Five Points slum in what became Chinatown. Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant, read Dickens, and later filled his own exposé, “How the Other Half Lives,” with heart-wrenching, Dickensian details, backed up by documentary flash photographs, among the first in history. Teddy Roosevelt read Riis, practically hero-worshipped him, and, as Police Commissioner, set about reforming the city’s housing. Sometimes poetry does make things happen. If you declare, in a famous poem affixed to the Statue of Liberty, in New York Harbor, “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me,” you might consider that a certain commitment has been made.
Another Riis admirer was Fiorello LaGuardia, by general consensus the greatest mayor the city ever had. He loved “How the Other Half Lives” so much that he put a copy of it in the cornerstone of one of the nation’s original low-cost public-housing projects, part of a series he built downtown and in Brooklyn. In 1938, with the Great Depression ongoing and his mayoralty in its fifth year, LaGuardia persuaded the state’s voters to pass a constitutional amendment to help those in need. The amendment, Article XVII, reads, in Section 1:
The aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions, and in such manner and by such means, as the legislature may from time to time determine.
New York City’s system of housing homeless people and caring for them, as it has evolved, rests mainly on this passage.
The upset-victory story of the Callahan v. Carey lawsuit, the right to shelter’s first landmark case, gladdens advocates’ hearts to this day. Demand for manpower in the Second World War absorbed most of the city’s unemployed, largely solving the problems that Article XVII had addressed. In the prosperous decades following the war, very few in the city were without a place to live. Homelessness meant a small population of older, mostly white men along a few blocks of the Bowery. In 1964, a team of researchers looking for people spending the night in the city’s parks found only one homeless man.
Then, all at once in the mid-seventies, homeless people seemed to be everywhere. Even today, nobody knows for sure why the problem became so bad so fast. Between 1965 and 1977, more than a hundred thousand patients were released from state psychiatric hospitals, and perhaps forty-seven thousand of them ended up in the city. At the same time, hundreds of single-room-occupancy hotels, or S.R.O.s, were shutting down; the S.R.O.s had provided low-income individuals with housing that was a step up from nothing. In 1972, the Supreme Court decriminalized vagrancy. Police became less aggressive about rousting those who were sleeping in public. The number of middle-class people in the city went down, which led to a decrease in the supply of livable and affordable apartments, leaving even fewer available to the poor. Whatever the cause, by the late seventies many thousands were “sleeping rough” (as the phrase had it) in the city’s public spaces.
Robert Hayes was a twenty-six-year-old lawyer who worked for the Wall Street firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. Like others who became involved in advocacy for the homeless, he had a Catholic-school background—Archbishop Molloy High School, in Queens, and Georgetown University. After getting his law degree from N.Y.U., he stayed in the neighborhood, and he began to wonder about all the homeless people he saw around his Washington Square apartment. From personal observation and from conversations with his friends Ellen Baxter and Kim Hopper, students at Columbia University who had spent hundreds of hours interviewing homeless people in the city, he concluded that the city and the state were neglecting their legal obligation.
Working pro bono, Hayes filed a class-action lawsuit in state court in October of 1979 on behalf of three homeless men whom he met at a Catholic mission. These men claimed that they had been given nowhere to sleep but the so-called Big Room, a dangerous, unsanitary, and crowded overflow area in what had formerly been a municipal shelter; and that they had sometimes been denied shelter entirely. The lead plaintiff’s name was Robert Callahan. He was a longtime fixture on the Bowery. His opposite number—the Carey in Callahan v. Carey—was Hugh L. Carey, then the governor. Hayes based his case on one word in Article XVII: “shall.” When I talked to Hayes not long ago, he quoted, “ ‘The aid, care and support of the needy etc. SHALL be provided.’ ” Then he said, “In our presentation before the judge, we simply argued that ‘shall’ means ‘shall.’
“I dug around in the N.Y.U. law-library basement and found speeches given by the amendment’s supporters and drafters back in 1938 that showed the intent,” he went on. “These proved that the amendment was supposed to apply in hard times as well as in good. I kept the story simple because I’d never tried a case before and didn’t really know what I was doing. Sometimes the judge had to instruct me in the rules of evidence.” Arguments ended in late October, and the plaintiffs asked for an expedited verdict because winter was coming on. While awaiting the decision, Hayes let Callahan stay at his apartment; with some companions they made a big Thanksgiving dinner. Later, after Callahan moved out, Hayes noticed that his Archbishop Molloy High School class ring was missing.
On December 5, 1979, Justice Andrew Tyler, of the New York State Supreme Court, issued a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. Finding that the state and the city were not in compliance with state law, he ordered them to provide emergency shelter for homeless men immediately in consideration of the weather. Attorneys for the state and the city were stunned. Plaintiffs had requested seven hundred and fifty beds; the city, caught short, asked that the number be left flexible. Plaintiffs willingly agreed. Hayes knew that city officials had no idea how many homeless men there actually were. Soon, more than a thousand men were seeking shelter every night, and the city had to scramble to keep up. The judge’s ruling was of small use to Robert Callahan, however. He was found dead of alcoholism on a street near the Bowery not long afterward.
The decision that bears his name created the right to shelter, based on state law that had existed for forty-one years. In practical terms, Callahan v. Carey also established the courts as the de-facto overseers of the city’s shelter system. Dozens of court proceedings having to do with city shelters and their management followed, until details as small as the acceptable distance between beds and the prescribed amount of toilet paper in the bathrooms became the subjects of court orders. A consent decree in 1981 between the state and the city and the plaintiffs agreed on guidelines to manage the requirements of the Callahan decision, but other suits continued, including those which eventually confirmed the right to shelter for women, families, and people with AIDS.
Another result of Callahan was the beginning, in 1981, of the Coalition for the Homeless, founded by Robert Hayes, Kim Hopper, and Ellen Baxter. Relying mostly on private donors for financial support, the C.F.H. disturbed and enraged the mayors of the nation’s richest city regularly from then on.
On a recent Saturday, I set out to see how people were doing at some homeless shelters I knew about, and on the streets. First, I took the Lefferts Boulevard A train to the end of the line and walked three or four miles to a shelter called the Saratoga Family Inn. It is on Rockaway Boulevard by J.F.K. Airport, across the highway from one of those long-term parking lots which elevate cars two- and three-deep. The shelter used to be a Best Western motel, and it houses about two hundred and fifty families. Fencing topped with barbed wire surrounds the building on several sides, and large banners advertising a slip-and-fall attorney and an auto-leasing place hang from its windowless six-story front.
Two women were talking by the main entryway. Shirley, the older one, sat on her walker, while the younger, Diana, leaned against the wall. “We are living out in the boom-docks here,” Diana said, when I told her I was a reporter. Breakfast had just ended and a smell of syrup lingered in the air. “I been in this shelter three years, and I don’t care if I never see pancakes, French toast, or waffles again for the rest of my life,” she remarked. “I don’t even eat the breakfasts here no more. My stomach is too precious to me. And those artificial eggs—what do you call them—Egg Beaters.”
“The food here ain’t even real no more,” said a woman named Kiki, who was returning with breakfast from a nearby deli. “Hey, y’all, this man is from the newspaper!” she called to some people coming out the door. Kiki had many long braids and an antic manner. People gathered around, and at each new complaint—playground is closed too much, kids have nothing to do, out here the travel is so long you have to get up at five in the morning to get your kids to school, kids see too much when they live in a single room with their parents, kids get sick more here, the eight-dollar-an-hour wage for in-house work will never get you out of here—Kiki whooped in affirmation. “Bloomberg put us in a corner and said fuck us!” she whooped. Pointing at the long-term lot across the highway, she said, “Those are parked cars, and we are parked people!” She let out a wild laugh.
“Every month, I get a paper from Welfare saying how much they just paid for me and my two kids to stay in our one room in this shelter, and I can tell you the exact amount,” Diana said. “Three thousand four hundred and forty-four dollars! Every month! Give me nine hundred dollars of that every month and I’ll find me and my kids an apartment, I promise you.”
By foot, bus, and subway, I backtracked to Brooklyn, changing at outlying stops. Broadway Junction, near the Queens-Brooklyn border, was jumping like Times Square. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, I got off a C train at Nostrand Avenue and walked a few blocks to the vast old armory building that is now the Bedford-Atlantic men’s shelter. People in soup-kitchen lines have told me that this is one of the worst shelters in the city. Sunlight glinted on its acres of gray slate roof, and its crenellated tower stood out against the sky. The guy I met here is Marcus (Country) Springs, originally from Lake City, Florida, who prefers to sleep on the street near the shelter—“Under that pear tree,” he told me, pointing to a Callery pear up the street.
“In this shelter they treat you like an inmate,” Springs said. “I stay in it only in inclement weather. It is not doing me no good, being in there. In a shelter you get what they call situational depression, but if you remove the person from the situation sometimes the depression goes away. These other guys you see on the corner are like me, hoping to meet someone who can help us. Sometimes contractors or movers come by with day jobs. Families visit and bring food. But the D.H.S.—man, they have forgot us. The last person from this corner that got housed was like two years ago.”
Next, I made a stop at the Bellevue Men’s Shelter. For gloominess of aspect, Bellevue is unique, with its high columns near the entryway surmounted by the words “Psychiatric Hospital” (the building’s original function). Bellevue has eight hundred and fifty beds and is also called one of the worst shelters in the city; in general, the smaller shelters are said to be much less bad, and some are even nice. Ellis, the dollar-apiece Newport cigarette seller on the street out front, suggested I go to Intake and register myself if I wanted to see what the place was like; I took his word for it instead. Then I subwayed up to 103rd Street on the Lexington line and walked across the footbridge to Wards Island, where a three-hundred-bed men’s shelter occupies another former psychiatric hospital. That shelter, called the Charles H. Gay Building, is a lonesome place; constantly you hear the tires bumping on an approach ramp to the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge up above it. I asked a guy sitting on the curb in front of the shelter what he thought of it. He considered for a moment and said, “Jail’s worse.”
Nearby, a young man named Angel was helping a woman from Access Wireless hand out cell phones that were paid for by Medicaid. He called them “Obama phones,” because they were free. A man in the background was being evicted from the shelter, cursing out the D.H.S. police all the way. Angel told me that he had lost his job in a towel and linen warehouse about six weeks ago and that he wanted to get a job more than anything. He was wearing a pair of trousers that appeared to be riding very low, as the style now has it, but actually they were an optical illusion. The boxer shorts at the top of the trousers were a part of the garment itself.
An M-35 bus from Wards Island dropped me off at 125th Street in East Harlem along with a lot of guys from the shelter. Almost none of them paid their fare, but the driver looked the other way. Police had just concluded a sweep of makeshift dwellings under the Metro-North bridge at 125th and in front of a clothing store on Lexington between 125th and 124th. Cardboard lay scattered here and there and some ring-billed gulls were picking up French fries. A young policeman whose name tag said “Chan” told me that some of the homeless who congregate here smoke a synthetic marijuana known as K2, which is sold as incense and causes lots of trouble. Just then a bearded guy ran up shouting, “Arrest that bitch!” He pointed at a woman. The cop asked what he should arrest the woman for and the guy said, “She just worked some voodoo on Maria’s cart!”
As darkness fell, I took a bus downtown and looked for a man named Rick, who has slept on or near the steps of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, at Fifty-fifth and Fifth, intermittently since the Giuliani administration. Rick has told me that he prefers the streets to any shelter. Throngs of people were passing in the rush of a midtown Saturday evening, but Rick was not around. In the Village, I found a few small homeless encampments under construction hoardings, but the only person I recognized was a guy who used to attend a writers’ workshop I taught a few years ago at a soup kitchen in Chelsea. The guy had been a problem because he would come to class and then just stand there and look at people. Tonight he was among all his stuff and reading a very small book held close to his face in the dim light. I tried to get his attention but failed.
In the warm Saturday-night air the city was hivelike, humming, fabulously lit, and rocking with low, thrilling, Daisy Buchanan-like laughter. A young couple slept under a blanket beneath the hoardings at the Twenty-fifth Street Armory; the boy still had his baseball cap on. Meanwhile, attendees at a gala going on inside the armory took breaks on the sidewalk just around the corner and smoked and made phone calls. I ducked into the subway and rode a crowded No. 4 train uptown and went back to the PATH center. I had never seen it after dark. Up here, the night was quieter, and the building with its pointed end and five brightly illuminated floors rose up like an ocean liner, or the yet unsunk front of one.
Two school buses and a black van waited by the building’s sidewalk-level door. A PATH employee in a blue T-shirt swept up under the street lights and by the curb, and a guy wearing a fringed scarf wandered around muttering. The vehicles started up and began to idle and a narrative of nighttime journeys seemed to take hold. For a while nobody came from the PATH building’s door. Then a few families emerged with strollers and suitcases. Sleepy kids held pillows and stuffed animals. A tall woman with a shorter man and a teen-age girl came to the van, and the tall woman asked me if I was the driver. The actual driver came up and opened the van’s back doors and began to stow the family’s stuff, quietly and taking care with it.
The van’s interior light shone on him. A young mother with a baby in one arm had some trouble folding up her stroller and the driver helped her fold it and then he put it in the back. “We’ve been here at PATH since ten-thirty this morning,” the tall woman told me. “Twelve and a half hours. Now we’ll go to a shelter for ten days while they decide if we’re eligible. I don’t know how this all happened. We were staying with my sister. Now we’re wondering what this shelter we’re going to will be like. A year ago we had to stay in a shelter for a week and it was kind of bad.”
More families came out, accompanied by a woman with a clipboard. People got sorted out into the right vehicles. Kids slept on people’s shoulders, except for a toddler named Jared, who was stagger-walking to and fro. He bumped against the legs of the man who was sweeping and a woman watching him picked him up and said to the sweeper, “Sorry—my bad.” Soon all the passengers were aboard, the vehicles’ doors closed, and the red tail-lights came on. Slowly the buses drove off, followed by the van. Nighttime departures and arrivals occupy the subbasement of childhood memory. The guy sweeping and the muttering man and the woman with the clipboard and the reporter taking notes existed in a strange, half-unreal state of being part of someone else’s deepest memories a lifetime from now. An orange had fallen from a bag lunch and lay beside the curb. The muttering man picked it up and looked at it and rubbed it and put it in his pocket.
Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs, the Bloomberg administration official most significantly involved in its policies for the homeless, is a trim, gray-haired woman in her mid-fifties whose father was the mayor of Menands, a village north of Albany. She grew up there and came to New York City right after getting her degree at SUNY Buffalo Law School. Intricate questions of public policy that would confuse and baffle most people intrigue her. Her blue eyes often have an expression that can only be described as a twinkle. I’ve seen this look in other Bloomberg staffers’ eyes, and in photos of the Mayor himself. It reminds me of the twinkle in the eyes of the Santa Claus in the Coca-Cola ads from the nineteen-fifties (inappropriately, given the Mayor’s feelings about soft drinks).
I think the contagious Bloomberg twinkle comes partly from the Mayor’s role as a sort of Santa figure. He works for the city for a dollar a year, he gives away his money by the hundreds of millions, and he manifestly has the city’s happiness and well-being at heart. Every rich person should be like him. His deputies and staffers twinkle with the pleasure of participating in his general beneficence, as well they should. “You can’t make a man mad by giving him money”—this rule would seem to be absolute. And yet sometimes people in the city he has done so much for still get mad at Bloomberg and criticize him. At the wrong of this, the proper order of things is undone, and the Bloomberg twinkle turns to ice.