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
Sunday 03 December 1995
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.
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