Wilson Dizard

No place like home for the holidays: NYC’s homeless endure the winter

Al Jazeera America spent a night with some of New York’s homeless as they sought shelter from the cold

“There’s no place like home for the holidays,” sings Perry Como in music piped through New York City's Port Authority Bus Terminal. Played at a low volume the late crooner’s voice does little to stir the slumber of dozens of homeless New Yorkers who camp here overnight. They're used to it — for some, the transport hub is the nearest they have to a home during the cold nights of the holiday season.

Deborah Absalam, who said she has lived on the streets since 1997, has come to rely on the bus terminal for shelter and other facilities.

The 55-year-old woman describes sneaking a wash in the Port Authority bathroom each morning. It’s prohibited, but can be done. “If nobody sees you, it’s allowed,” she said standing in the basement of nearby Penn Station, where Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, the Long Island Railroad and city subway lines converge.

Her daily routine — sleeping on trains, bathing in public bathrooms, relying on about $5 worth of panhandling change to buy breakfast — is all too common for those down on their luck in New York City.

The charity Coalition For The Homeless estimates that as of September there were 58,000 people in the city shelters. But shelters can be dangerous for vulnerable members of the homeless community, according to those who opt to stay away.

According to a New York City census conducted earlier this week,(PDF) "Of the 58,913 individuals in shelter there are 12,316 families with minor children and 2,135 adult families. There are 11,357 single adults."

The city's Deptment of Homeless Services said that according to an annual estimate  last conducted in January 2014 about three to four thousand people sleeping outside each night in New York. The agency said it could not respond to "anecdotal" accounts of dangerous conditions at indoor havens for the homeless, adding that many families sleep each night at public facilities.

“In New York City, there is a legal right to shelter all eligible families and individuals in need," the DHS said in a statement. "This mandate requires us to provide a comprehensive system of services to homeless New Yorkers, treating them with dignity and respect.”

“It’s OK if you like playing razor tag,” said Joe, 25, a young man who begs to feed a heroin habit that he says he’s trying to quit. Razor tag refers to the slashing of someone with a razor, then running away. Afraid of violence, Joe said he only stayed a few nights at a shelter before he selected to sleep on the sidewalk instead. 

With holiday shopping season at its height, Joe makes about $200 a day, but he spends half of that on heroin.

His family and girlfriend don’t know where he is. He tells them he’s in a “nice shelter,” and not sleeping on the street living out of a black duffel bag. For this reason, he didn’t want to give his full name. 

Those who choose not to sleep in shelters, sleep wherever they can. The subway serves as an alternative for many, some lying across the seats, others slumped sitting as the morning commute begins.

Back at Port Authority, the Christmas hits provide a background as police prepare to close the transit hub. “There’s always home, sweet home,” Como sings.

Alexander Tanansescu, 71, sits in a pedestrian plaza in Herald Square. He sleeps at a nearby McDonald's, but that's a privilege management can revoke at any time.
Wilson Dizard

After midnight, no one can enter the terminal, but most of those sleeping there or waiting for an early morning bus can stay — unless officers for whatever reason decide otherwise.

Finding a warm place to spend the night is crucial during the winter months. Every year, around 700 people experiencing or at risk of homelessness in the U.S. are killed from hypothermia, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

It is a serious concern for Alex Tanansescu, a 71-year-old Romanian immigrant who came to America as an asylum seeker in the late 1970s and now spends his nights in and around the streets of midtown Manhattan.

“Who knows? Maybe I will die,” he said as he sat in the relatively mild 40 degree weather with his belongings at a pedestrian plaza at the crossroads of Broadway and 6th Avenue. 

He has been homeless about five times over the last 30 years, he said, but never for more than a few months. This is his longest stretch on the streets.

It was 10 p.m. when Al Jazeera spoke to him, and late-night shoppers and vendors still hustled all around. Along the famed Macy’s department store front on 34th Street, the word “Believe” shines in cursive letters.

But Tanansescu knows holiday jingles serve as harbinger for the coming winter, and the last one he remembered with dread.

Friends have helped with food, he says, but there is no permanent place for him to stay.

Tanansescu says a manager at nearby McDonald’s lets the homeless catch some sleep in the early morning hours. But even that is subject to the whim of late-night janitors who have the right to throw him out whenever they see fit, he said.

In the Port Authority, homeless people talk of an informal agreement with police: Stay away from the areas where tourists gather, and officers will stay away from you.

At the nearby Penn Station — a major rail terminal servicing New York — Amtrak officers enforce strict rules on where the homeless can congregate. There aren’t many places to sit in the main concourse aside from the floor. Rows and rows of seats are in a waiting area, but an Amtrak ticket is needed for entry. 

Joe William, 25, doesn't want to reveal his identity because his family thinks he's in a shelter. His girlfriend, on Long Island, doesn't know he's living on the streets, failing so far in a fight against heroin addiction.
Wilson Dizard

Amtrak’s long list of what is unacceptable behavior makes it unlawful for anyone to “block free movement of another person or persons, sit or lie on the floor or occupy more than one seat” or “panhandle or solicit money.”

Homeless people tell Al Jazeera that different police forces apply the rules in distinct ways. The New York Police Department (NYPD) got good reviews as they take a more hands-off approach. Port Authority police, responsible for the bus station, and Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) cops, responsible for some portions of Penn Station, both got so-so reviews. No one had anything pleasant to say about the Amtrak police.

Amtrak, Port Authority, the MTA and the NYPD did not reply to a request for comment by time of publication. 

“They don’t want us near the tourists,” said “Bishop” Burg, 45, who stays around Port Authority. Their presence could signal to out-of-towners that New York is not a pleasant place to go, Burg says.

“The commuters have seen this a thousand times,” Burg said as he gives a brief tour of the transit hub, referring to homeless people sleeping in chairs just as Thursday's commuters on NJ Transit buses started to trickle into the station as the sun rose on the city. 

Wilson and Maria Maldonado, who first spoke with Al Jazeera in January 2014 during record cold temperatures, are still homeless a year later. Wilson broke his leg in September. It’s still healing, and he gets around with a donated wheelchair. Diabetes adds to his health woes.

For the moment, the Maldonados have managed to find a reliable place to sleep at a hospital, but they can’t stay there during the day. As a result they head back to Port Authority in the morning, where they say they spend their time helping other homeless people. 

Many homeless in the city suffer from isolation, not having talked to their families or friends in years. 

Absalam, at Penn Station, said she hadn't seen her two children since 2006. She doesn't know where they are, but she knows what she would say if she saw them again. 

"I would tell them 'I miss you,'" she said. "And 'I love you.'"

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series being published by Al Jazeera America to highlight different aspects of the Homeless Bill of Rights and the plight of those living on the streets in the U.S.

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