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Finding Their Own Shelter

JACK STONE TRUITT, HOST On Monday, New York State extended its eviction moratorium again until August 31. But experts are worried there might be an increase in homelessness after the moratorium lifts. Deborah Padgett is a professor of social work at NYU:

DEBORAH PADGETT: we're holding everything together with, kind of with band-aids and rope

and a little electrical tape. I mean, we're facing a potential human disaster.

STONE-TRUITT: COVID-19 has highlighted the health and safety issues of New York’s shelter system. In fact, roughly 4,000 homeless New Yorkers live outside the overcrowded shelters already. Renée Roden has the story of life at the limits of the shelter system.

RENÉE RODEN, BYLINE: Dylan is lounging on the sidewalk on East First Street right outside a park graffitied with murals. A DJ is playing music. Dylan’s wearing sweatpants and a red turtleneck. Sweat is starting to drip down his beard.

RODEN: Dylan is 30, he grew up on the Upper West Side. He’s asked us not to use his last name. Right after high school, he attended Fordham briefly, before dropping out after the first semester.

DYLAN: I'm very into math when I was a kid. There's a program called Mathematica, which was basically a problem solving computer language for advanced mathematical concepts.

RODEN: A team of three people in red jackets approach Dylan. They’re city outreach workers. They hand him lists of soup kitchen and shelters. Dylan has already seen most of what’s on those resource sheets.

DYLAN: I've done the shelter systems before, but they're generally very crowded. I've had experiences in there where stuff got stolen, where I didn't feel safe.

RODEN: Does the shelter model of housing work?

PADGETT: No. And, in one word, no.

RODEN: Deborah Padgett, professor of social work at NYU. In 1979, the New York State Supreme Court established a right to shelter in New York City. Padgett says that means the city and the state are required to provide shelter for every New Yorker. But it's a step short of a solution to homelessness.

PADGETT: It's not housing. It is not housing. It's shelter. It's an emergency shelter.

RODEN: A few years ago, Dylan decided to give a shelter a try. He moved into a city-run dormitory with 40 beds in a room, but one of the other residents threatened him, so he left. In January with the cold weather, he settled into a subway service tunnel.

DYLAN: I just wanted somewhere I could keep my stuff together a little bit and have a roof over my head.

RODEN: Today Gerry Howard, who is 71, lives and works at the Catholic Worker, an organization in the East Village that provides support for homeless people. But twenty years ago, like Dylan, Howard was looking for a respite from the streets, and didn’t want the shelters. One day on a subway platform he noticed a man walking down into the tunnels ... so he followed.

HOWARD: And now you go down on the tracks, and you walk a little ways. You see

that there's an opening, a big space, and you could see people down there,

homeless people, and okay. Your curiosity is always curious. Until somebody call

your name. Yo, Jerry, you know what I'm saying? You look, and it's a friend. You, you

conversating, uh, he gets high, you get high, in other words, uh, he shows you the


RODEN: Howard says, for him, the subway tunnel provided some stability and privacy for the 5 years it was his home. But it still didn’t make up for lack of real housing.

HOWARD: I see the guys going down in the tunnels, it really hurts me when I see that they're young. So that tells me it's another generation, you know what I'm saying? Going sorta like going down the drain.

RODEN: The past year has made life even more difficult for the homeless in New York. The pandemic closed many public spaces homeless people relied on for shelter from the elements.

CHAN: So overnight, right? Bathrooms were taken away. When food courts shut down, when public libraries shut down, when anything where people could congregate and gather...

RODEN: That’s Karl Chan, director of partnerships at the Bowery Mission - a rescue center that connects clients to permanent housing and runs several soup kitchens and emergency shelters. He says they, like other groups, provided emergency support last spring when the pandemic began.

CHAN: So we had mobile bathroom units, We brought in mobile hand washing stations and we even partnered with an organization to bring in mobile showers so people could take showers in a safe, COVID-friendly way.

RODEN: About a month ago, Dylan dropped a cigarette on his pillow in the tunnel.

The flames grew big enough that the Fire Department came and Dylan and his housemates evacuated. He’s been spending less time in the tunnel since, often hanging outside the Catholic Worker in the East Village.

BASILE: I was coming in the house from the outside and Dylan was at the door.

RODEN: Phil Basile is a live-in volunteer at the Catholic Worker. A couple of weeks ago Dylan showed up. He had been pepper-sprayed.

BASILE: And I looked at him and his face was all red and he had snot coming down and, you know, he was, his eyes were shut and tearing and he said, I need a shower. I need a shower.

RODEN: Bud Courtney also lives and works at the Catholic Worker. A large part is running the daily soup line. Every day at 9:30 am, men and women line up for hot soup, sandwiches, and coffee.

GUEST: What do we got here?

COURTNEY: We have peanut butter and jelly and we have bread.

GUEST: Bread and butter?

COURTNEY: Just bread.

RODEN: Organizations that do outreach - like the Catholic Worker or Bowery Mission - say forming relationships is crucial to actually helping their homeless guests and clients. Courtney says his real work is talking to people.

COURTNEY: Everything we do is a band-aid short of establishing relationships.

people keep coming back, hey, for sustenance, for clothing, for food, but, more

importantly, for a little human touch.

RODEN: Dr. Kelly Doran is a professor at NYU, and an expert in medical care for the homeless. She says she considers housing a form of health care, especially during the pandemic.

DORAN: We've seen During COVID-19, that people, the shelters aren't safe from

illness either. In fact, it was in the congregate shelters where people were being

exposed to SARS-COv-2 or catching COVID-19 and dying.

RODEN: Patrick Bonck works at Breaking Ground, one of the organizations contracted by the city to do street outreach to Manhattan’s unsheltered population.

BONCK: When you're street homeless, almost all of your energy is focused on

survival. But when you have a place to sleep, when you have a door to lock, you

don't have to worry about those things. So you can work on other things much more easily.

RODEN: Bonck believes not just shelter, but stable, private housing is key to addressing unemployment, addiction or mental health issues.

BONCK: The key thing is affordable housing. There's not enough. And when there's not enough, people are going to remain homeless.

RODEN: So you were saying it's simple, we just need more affordable housing. And

also it's complex. Because we're dealing with people.

BONCK: Exactly. Yeah. And so, you know, a lot of what outreach does is really just

try to build trust, understand, and then try to work with each individual to find solutions that are going to work for them.

RODEN: Today, Dylan is looking for a permanent home outside the subway tunnels. Bowery Residents Committee does outreach to those staying in the transit system. And he talked with them about finding an apartment.

DYLAN: I've talked to BRC, Bowery Residents Committee, about going into

some kind of safe Haven situation. So I might get that done pretty soon.

RODEN: In the meantime, as the weather warms up and the city re-opens, Dylan is trying to avoid the tunnels at night, sleeping in parks, on the streets, on the subway trains.

Renée Roden, Columbia Radio News.


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