A Changing Downtown: Homelessness in the Big Apple

A version of this article was submitted to Professor Paul Glader as a final paper submission in his Introduction to Journalism class during the Spring 2015 semester. For the final paper, students were instructed to compose a long form article about how downtown Manhattan is changing, using statistics from Community Board 1 and conducting interviews. NEW YORK-- For Samuel Thompson, a 21-year-old African American man, the streets of downtown Manhattan are more than just concrete slabs that line up against the bottom skyscrapers; they are his home.

Originally from Mississippi, the gentle-spirited, easy going Samuel Thompson moved to New York in hopes of starting a better life for himself after his mother died of cancer when he was 18. Shortly thereafter, his father died of liver failure.

“First, I lost my mom. Then my dad’s drinking got worse and worse. He died the next year. I had no one left so I took off on my own when I was 19. Left Mississippi with enough money in my pocket for a bus ticket and a couple of meals. I guess I thought I’d come to the city and get famous,” Thompson joked.

Because of the heartache of losing both parents and being jolted from a nurturing home into a concrete jungle, Samuel found it difficult to maintain a steady job. “I got depressed,” Thompson said. “I couldn’t hold down a job and I got involved with a rough crowd."

Samuel paused, and then pointed to a scar on his left eyebrow and nodded, “My mother wouldn't be too proud of this story, but she’s not here, so I’ll tell you. This is from when I was mugged late one night in Brooklyn after I had just moved to the city. I had been sleeping in the subway, woke up, and was trying to see if I could get something to eat. Some guys saw me, broke a bottle over my head and took my money."

"I didn’t even have more than a dollar to my name. I guess you could call it my right of passage into the city, but boy, you should’ve seen the other guys. I really did a number on them,” Samuel said with a proud, toothy grin.

According to the Coalition for Homelessness and the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE), the epidemic of homelessness in New York City is at an all-time high since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It is estimated that about 1 in 2,642 New Yorkers are currently or have previously been homeless.

Since March of 2015, there have been 60,067 homeless living in the New York City municipal shelter system. That number includes 14, 245 homeless families and 24,704 homeless children. Since 2014, there have been over 116,000 men, women, and children in and out of this system. As of February 2015, there were 3,182 individuals living on streets, parks, subways, etc. About 56 percent of New York City homeless shelter residents are African-American, 33 percent are Latino, seven percent are white, and four percent are of another or unknown ethnicity. However, about 60 percent of the homeless who are not in shelters live in midtown Manhattan.

In May, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he and his team are working towards improving the homelessness epidemic in the city by donating $100 million in annual spending, including funding for rental assistance to more than 7,000 new households and funding for efforts such as anti-eviction, according to the New York Times.

“We will be deploying hundreds of special SWAT teams to accelerate critical repairs at homeless shelters all over the city. We want to help ensure every shelter is safe and healthy for all its residents. This is going to be an all-hands-on-deck effort,” said Mayor de Blasio during a press conference outside the Corona Family Residence, a Queens homeless shelter.

The mayor added that most problems would be easy to address quickly with the new system changes. “Typical violations that we encounter can and will be fixed within seven days of being identified; that will be the most common category," he said.

Others are not confident that the mayor's plan will work or that change will occur. Ritchie Torres, chairman of the City’s Council’s public housing committee, said, “The city is choosing to do less than what it can do. We should make the best possible use of every tool that we have, including public housing.”

New York City has spent $241 million in putting the homeless in housing with horrible conditions such as lead paint and vermin, according to an investigation by the New York Daily News.

The Daily News reports that “inspectors found dead rats and mice, bunk beds and cribs jammed up against windows leading to the fire escape, and numerous non-functioning smoke detectors. At one fleabag, staff claimed they weren’t allowed to turn on air conditioning without a doctor’s note.”

Regardless, there are still shelters that make it their mission to help the homeless community get back on their feet through a supportive community and a clean, warm environment. One of the shelters Shelters that Mr. Thompson says he has visited often is The Bowery Mission, located at 227 Bowery and 45-51 Ave. D.

According to their mission statement, Bowery “is called to minister in New York City to men, women, and children caught in the cycles of poverty, hopelessness, and dependencies of many kinds, and to see their lives transformed to hope, joy, lasting productivity and eternal life through the power of Jesus Christ.”

“I like Bowery because they make me feel like I’m going to be okay. They give me hope. I like knowing if Jesus were walking these streets, he’d come hang out with me. He’d ask me about my day. He’d see me as a human, not as a homeless. I like knowing that Jesus is my friend and that with him, I’m always going to be okay. Makes me feel good knowing I’m friends with a prince,” Thompson said.

Mr. Thompson says that he plans on joining one of Bowery’s recovery programs for men over the summer and is hopeful that this time he will be ready to go back to work full-time. “I look at my homeless community. I got lots of friends I’ve met in shelters and on the streets. I look at the older ones and it scares me. They’re stuck in a vicious cycle. It scares me because I know I may never have a future. I may never get back on my feet, but hell, that won’t stop me from trying. I don’t wanna be just another black guy living off Obamacare,” Samuel said. “I don’t even like asking for money. I don’t like people feeling sorry for me. It’s embarrassing and it just gives me an excuse to feel sorry for myself. People think all the homeless people are the same. They think we all want their hand-me-downs or want to spend their money on drugs or booze. Some do, but I don’t,” Thompson said.

When asked about how he is treated on a day-to-day basis, Thompson sighed, shrugged his shoulders, and looked down, seemingly flustered with the question.

“You know, I see people walking these streets. They got cigars hanging from their teeth and they never wear the same suit twice. Their ties probably match their socks, too. People look at them differently than they look at me. They get looked at like they’re the kings of the world and I’m just some crackhead bum. It’s like I’m less human than those Wall Street wolves. I just wanna be seen as people, too. You know? I think to myself sometimes, ‘It must be nice to be someone,” Samuel said.

Samuel’s advice to people who want to help the homeless is to give them a chance and not stunt their growth by making them dependent on charity. “If you really want to help someone, give them an odd job around your apartment. Put them to work. If that makes you uncomfortable, then food and clothing is always nice, too. The good ones don’t want your money really, they just want their dignity and to see their lives restored. The bad ones don’t need your money ‘cause it’ll only enable them to get deeper into trouble. If you don’t have anything to give us, ask us our names. If you’ve got time, ask us to tell you our stories. All we want is to be seen as one of you,” Thompson said.

So, what’s Thompson's dream?

“What’s the dream?” A shy smile crept across Samuel’s face and his eyes twinkled with tears. “Man...hm. I don’t know.” He tore off a piece of bread and chucked it to a pigeon sitting at his feet. “I want a check with my name on it. I want money I earned with my hands. I want clothes I bought with my own money. Maybe, I’ll even treat my friends to a big steak dinner once or twice a year. Most of all though, I know I want a family. I want a family, a big one, that I can support on my own. I want them to love me and be proud of me. Like I said, I just wanna be someone.”