A walk through homeless New York


New York, NEW YORK -- As the Super Bowl came and left the New York City area, the homeless in Midtown had to make a decision: brave the crowds of tourists and police, with hopes of making a little extra cash, or head to a shelter, in hopes of a room, despite a lack of sufficient security.

Hoping to understand this dilemma better, I bought a pack of cigarettes (Marlboro Reds), got on a bus and headed east to the 30th Street Men’s Shelter, also known as “Bellevue.” As I walked up to the building, I thought to myself, “This can’t be the place, can it?” A frightening, ivy-covered brick building (once called Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital), surrounded by a big black metal fence, is the largest homeless shelter in New York City.

As I approached, I came across Charlie. At first he didn’t want to talk to me, but that’s why I bought the cigarettes. I had already smoked one, they were packed and I had turned over a lucky cigarette. He would know I was a smoker too, not just trying to get him to talk.

As we smoked together, Charlie told me about the shelter and the friend he was there to meet. “This place is like a prison, man.” He told me about the security and how he feared for the safety of any smaller people residing there, because of theft and sexual assault.

Then he started talking about the other dynamic for homeless men and women who consider all of Manhattan their home: migratory patterns based on popular events, weather patterns and city policing priorities. “During the Super Bowl, they [the police] won’t make you leave Midtown, but they just about scare you out.”

I had noticed this myself a few days earlier, when I got to the Herald Square subway station and saw that my friend Donald, who is homeless, was missing from his usual bench.

When I asked a young policeman in the station about my friend, he said, “Yeah, we try to move people out of here, we have a Homeless Outreach Unit. You’ll probably see your friend when the Super Bowl is over.”

No other policeman I talked to would tell me the same. Instead, I received the simple and forceful reply: “We won’t force people to leave.”

After speaking to Charlie, I walked to the entrance of the shelter. I passed a sign, “Intake & Vacancy Control Entrance.” At the door of the shelter, I spoke with Officer Morales, who told me that the shelter was very safe, and if I had any questions, to call the business office or walk to the nearest precinct, to which she gave me directions (I did end up heading to that precinct later, but surprise, surprise, it was out of the jurisdiction of Super Bowl Boulevard, Herald Square, and Bellevue Men’s Shelter). I walked back out through the gates, and the last I heard from Officer Morales was “Sir?!” as I took pictures of the front of the building.

As I walked back to the corner of 30th and 1st, I met John and Eric, two other homeless men. John let Eric go ahead, as he and I smoked together. He told me how he would never stay in the shelter again, after the theft and disrespect he had encountered before. But he and Eric take care of each other, each evening picking a time and place to meet the next morning. Charlie came back around the corner; I gave him a second cigarette and walked to the precinct that would provide me with no answers.

The next day after The Big Game, I found Donald again, posted up in his usual spot. I gave him a cigarette, as I always do when I see him, and as he smoked on the bench inside the train station, he told me that he had been at Bellevue Men’s Shelter during Super Bowl weekend, when I wondered where he was.

“They gave me some medicine, but I have to be back here. The people who I see every day, like you, who give me things, they’re the ones who keep me alive.”