Out of sight, out of mind in New York

John Carlin on a solution to 'bums on streets': send them somewhere else John Carlin on a way to get homeless off streets: send them somewhere else

EARLY IN October, a few days before the Pope was due to deliver an address before the United Nations General Assembly, the New York City authorities were embarrassed to discover that in the shadow of the UN building, along the shore of the East River, there lay a grubby little shantytown.

So they sent in the police and the city refuse collectors, drove off 30 or so down-and-outs and cleaned up the mess that, for years, they had called home. After the Pope had left, some of the down-and-outs returned. What they did not know was that two weeks later the UN was celebrating its 50th anniversary and scores of foreign heads of state were going to be in town. So once again they were turfed out - this time, it seems, for good.

Steve Hoffman, a marketing manager at a Manhattan toy company, is a volunteer at New York's Coalition for the Homeless, an organisation funded by private charities. Every Thursday night for the last four years he has toured the city in a van delivering food to those without shelter. "The UN was always one of the points where we'd make a stop," he said. "On the Thursday after the 50th anniversary we went by, waited and, instead of the usual lines, there was no one there. We've stopped going now. The place is empty."

It is a pattern that has become familiar to the handful of philanthropists who make it their business to feed the poor of the world's most affluent city their one square meal a day. For mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, has come up with an imaginative solution to New York's homeless problem. Following with redoubled energy in the footsteps of his Democratic predecessor, David Dinkins, Mr Giuliani has set about a campaign to clear away the "bums" from the city's more prestigious streets and force them out to the edges of Manhattan island, to the northern slums or to the rivers.

The problem has not gone away, but for the shoppers on Fifth Avenue, the tourists in Central Park, the wheeler-dealers in Wall Street, it has become, as if by sleight of hand, invisible. You will stumble across the odd bag-lady now and again but homeless people are no longer a defining feature of the New York landscape, a phenomenon which took root in the early 1980s and grew rapidly as the US evolved to become what it is today, the country with the widest gap between rich and poor in the industrialised world.

On Thursday night Mr Hoffman and two fellow volunteers, Catharine Way and Kathleen Howard, stood at the back of their van handing out meatball soup, sandwiches, muffins and milk to a dozen men. It was bitingly cold. The men stood in line, obedient as schoolchildren. They all said "thank you" upon receiving their packages and then trotted off furtively, as if fearing they might be robbed, to eat alone at a park bench.

The oldest man in the group, for whom the others made way so he could get his meal first, expressed delight when told that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were included on the menu. His name was Edward Radu. He was 75, wore a grey raincoat and walked with a metal stick.

"From Britain, are you? I love that country," he said. "I was over there - '42 to '44. Beautiful!" He had been in the army. Took part in the Normandy landings. What went wrong? "I screwed up." Drink? He shrugged, smiled apologetically. Behind the old soldier stood City Hall, basking, gleaming white, in artificial light. Four blocks down the road, Wall Street, where the Dow Jones had just registered another in a succession of record-breaking days. "After I've eaten I'll move on from here. They're sons of guns here. They won't let you sleep. So I'll walk over to the ferry. There they're OK."

"The ferry" was the next stop for Mr Hoffman's crew: the embarkation point for the commuter boats to Staten Island. At 11 the ferry shuts down and the homeless settle in for the night. A bigger group was waiting here. Black men, white men and three women dressed like Eskimos in rags.

Foster, a large black man who went to pieces four years ago after he started using drugs, chatted absently with a white man in a wheelchair called Frank, who said he had lost a leg and a foot a year and a half ago when he fell off the platform at Penn Station.

"I used to have a job as a manager at a small clothing shop," he said, brightly, eager to talk. "But the business went bust, I was unemployed for a couple of years and then I had the accident." Why did he live out on the streets? "Because housing for the disabled is almost non-existent. It's difficult to find a place that's wheelchair-accessible. But, listen," he grinned, "I'm alive, aren't I?"

A quarter of a mile down the road what looked like two giant glow-worms, or reclining Pilsbury doughmen, lay perpendicular to the river, each a hundred yards long. Mr Hoffman explained they were two rows of heated indoor tennis courts and drove on, without comment, towards Brooklyn Bridge, which was prettily illuminated. He stopped the car in darkness, under the bridge's vast steel girders, at "Homeless Hills": disorderly rows of plywood shacks the size of doll's houses; rusting supermarket trolleys; bicycle wheels; hubcaps; fires emitting rancid smoke. A burgeoning community of single men dwell here, safe from the police and dementedly at peace with one another.

One man with a grey, knotted beard said he had been forced to move over from Central Park but he did not mind because his "research" consumed him - a 20-year mission to uncover a CIA plot in Cleveland. A young, intense man with a foreign accent who said he was half-German and half-French sought to extract from Ms Howard a philosophical explanation of why she did what she did.

A muscular black man in black-framed glasses capered and joked manically, like Robin Williams. He picked up an enormous Stars and Stripes and waved it above his head, playfully, not with ironic intent, not as if to make the point Saul Bellow made when he wrote Herzog 30 years ago, but all the more appropriate now: that poverty has to be ugly in America in order to serve a moral purpose, otherwise it would be subversive.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
News
i100
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
News
A rub on the tummy sprang Casey back to life
video
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little