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Beggars Can Be Choosers

A makeshift homeless family searches for love, food, a cell phone, and a city that will let them be.

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Gary at his usual spot, the southeast corner of 51st and Park.  

Homeless though he was, Kenny was a lord-of-the-manor type, the leader of the pack. You had to be good at something, and he was good at being homeless. He would tell you that he could build a home out of anything, almost anywhere. Kenny had “32 years of road, street, and freight train,” had lived in “homeless circles and hobo camps in well over 30 states.” And when he showed up at the Chess and Checkers House in Central Park this fall announcing that New York was dead—that a homeless man could no longer live here—people in his social set took notice.

It was late afternoon, still too early for chess, and about six of them were gathered around a table strewn with newspapers, Styrofoam cups, packs of cigarettes, and the remains of Kenny’s meatball sandwich. They had been talking politics again, about all that the rich had done to the poor: taken over the Alphabets, gentrified Harlem, and next—who knows?—maybe Chinatown. Gary, the only grayhair aside from Kenny, leaned in to say he had read in Forbes that Mayor Bloomberg was worth “like, $5.3 billion! . . . Or $3.5 billion, something like that.” In any case, the man was rich, and it was generally agreed that Bloomberg owned the city now and was converting it into a playground wholly for his rich friends. Someone mentioned that you might soon need a Certificate of Wealth even to enter New York. Others believed a campaign to end homelessness was under way and that the NYPD had a military tank for just that purpose.

Then Kenny, rolling a cigarette, his little eyes magnified by big, round glasses, said he was convinced a “sweep” was going down. He told of an encounter with police, his second in a week. He and his girlfriend, Frenchie, had been sitting that morning on Fifth Avenue, just enjoying their coffee, when members of the NYPD’s Homeless Outreach Unit spotted them and reached out. The officers approached gingerly—“We’re not here to hurt you; we’re here to help”—but Kenny saw the guns and knew what they meant. They would put him in one homeless shelter, Frenchie in another, and would probably euthanize “the children,” their dirty little dog and trembling cat. “Thanks anyway,” Kenny told them, and the officers withdrew, but only after promising to arrest him for “anything you do wrong.”

That was it. New York was out of love with homeless people, Kenny was sure of it. He was leaving this town and taking Frenchie and the children with him. Cambridge, Massachusetts, is where you want to be, said Kenny. Lots of homeless there, plenty of free food, good social services. Maybe best of all, cops who don’t hassle you. Kinder, gentler Cambridge—Kenny made it sound like homeless nirvana.

And then he turned to the only other old man in the group, the other great survivor. Said Kenny to Gary: “So if I make arrangements, do you want to get out of here?”

“I don’t know,” Gary answered. “I got to think about it. I just had it thrown at me. I got to think about it.”

New York was out of love with homeless people, Kenny was sure of it. He was leaving this town.

The plan to escape New York was hatched not long after Mayor Bloomberg announced a plan of his own: to “make the condition of chronic homelessness effectively extinct.” His goal was as grand as the problem—with more than 36,000 people in the shelters each night, homelessness is at one of the highest points in city history. But while Bloomberg’s plan is being celebrated in press releases and panel breakfasts, homeless advocates say it’s more conservative than compassionate. The city will have a more comfortable receiving unit for homeless families, but one that will turn away two-thirds of those who are currently seeking assistance. Those already in the shelters now have less hope of coming out, since the city is replacing its generous rent-voucher system with a program designed to wean people off subsidies. As for a concerted, citywide police crackdown, Christopher Dunn, of the New York Civil Liberties Union, was not aware of one, but did say, “There’s a constant problem of police officers harassing the homeless on the streets,” particularly in midtown, where Gary and Kenny liked to hang out.

It felt to them like just another get-tough policy, and Kenny at least had had enough. The decision to leave was easy for him, because that is what he did. He was the wanderer, the cynic, the panhandler who confessed to needing nothing from nobody. When a place disappointed him, as every place always did, he would simply pack and go. That was not Gary's style. He had lived in New York for fifteen years, had a mate here, a survival system here, people here he trusted. Gary was a homeless man with roots, and the thought of leaving seemed never to have occurred to him until Kenny proposed it.

“Oh, man, Kenny really hit me with a bombshell on that one,” said Gary the next morning. He was in his usual place, where he has sat every weekday for the past year, at the corner of 51st and Park, in front of St. Bartholomew’s Church. Sometimes a very pretty Asian woman sits beside him, but Song had gone missing again, so here he was, alone—a gaunt face, a white beard, a pile of blankets on the rush-hour sidewalk.

This vision of himself, sitting beside a box that read THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP, was more or less what Gary imagined years ago, the last time he moved. Becoming homeless then seemed more an alternative to death than a fate to be avoided like death. Gary’s mother had died and a lady had broken up with him and his boss at the barbecue restaurant in Vero Beach, Florida, had asked him to shave his beard. No one was going to tell Gary what to do, at least not anyone who didn’t really care. The people who cared were gone, so Gary told his boss to “stick the job up his ass.” And he hit the road.

He left with almost nothing, and where would he go? Common sense would tell you, he patiently explained, “that a large city with a large population of homeless people is going to have more benefits for the homeless than a small city.” The choice, even then, was between Boston and New York. Gary couldn’t decide, so he left it to the fates. “I flipped a coin,” he said, “and it came up New York.”

The city never had much to offer him, but Gary had not come to set it afire. He collected cans, picked up trash, raked leaves, sold newspapers. And played a lot of chess. He shared an apartment in Queens, lost it; found another and lost it too. In his last job, five years ago, he was working with the homeless through a church when his boss decided he’d make a better doorman. Gary found the move “demeaning,” and rather than accept it, he quit and became homeless again.


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