Homeless for the holidays

On 22nd St. and Seventh Avenue, the tidiest homeless encampment in Chelsea. Photo: Deborah Fenker

Complicated stories that defy expectations — and resources to help the most desperate in their times of need

by deborah fenker

“Can you spare some change for the homeless?”

It may be the most oft-heard plea on city streets, but just as shelling out coins won’t change most people’s status quo, no single individual’s experience defines “the homeless.” It is easy, maybe automatic, to lump all the homeless souls we encounter across the city — the addicts, the mentally unstable, the poor, the scammers — as one massive, baffling problem. And while those labels might apply to a portion of the growing homeless community, there are complicated stories among them that sometimes defy expectations.

Drew, just 28, is not the face we normally associate with homelessness. When I met him recently at the Muhlenberg Library’s Coffee and Conversation meet-up in Chelsea, Drew (who did not want to use his full name) was wearing a coat that looked clean, natty. His hair was trimmed stylishly, the result of a salon-school cut that had begun to go awry in the hands of the student, so the instructor took over, giving Drew a professional-quality crop for just $4.

The Muhlenberg Library program, held on the third Thursday of every month, is part of a greater initiative by the New York Public Library that aims to provide homeless individuals like Drew with vital resources. These include mental health care, job assistance programs, information about public assistance and even appropriate interview attire.

Drew is clearly driven, but some unfortunate curveballs left him to his own resources at a vulnerable age. He started with nursing school, but suffered some mental health issues that spiraled into what he deemed a “psychotic breakdown.” With no money saved and no one to rely on but himself, he turned to whatever he could to get by: “I was hustling,” prioritizing survival over playing by the rules. He got himself into a little trouble with petty theft and some drug use, all of which is over now, he says, but which tarnish his record. He had been working retail, but lost the job during some cutbacks.

Now with those pockmarks on his record and a competitive job market, he has been living in the Schwartz Assessment Shelter on Ward’s Island (the south end of Randall’s Island) for about a month and a half. The shelter maintains strict regulations along with its programs designed to encourage residents (who must be approved) to eventually achieve independent living. Residents receive three meals a day, but must be up and out by 9 a.m. Drew says the shelter meets his immediate needs, but “There’s no reason to be where I’m at right now.”

No neighborhood is untouched by the city’s homeless problem. In Chelsea, a neglected, unoccupied building on the corner of 22nd Street and Seventh Avenue complete with a sheltering scaffold, has attracted an array of homeless. One man has a mattress and bedding, neatly stacked bags of what are apparently donated or collected provisions, toys and food. Sometimes he’s alone, often with a cigarette dangling from his fingertips, a potential fire hazard both for him and the dilapidated building. Other times, two or three people huddle on the mattress in various states of consciousness.

More than 60,000 individuals stay in city homeless shelters each night, a number that includes thousands of families, The shelter population has increased 75 percent over the last decade. To determine how many people are living outside the shelter system, the department will conduct its annual homeless count, known as HOPE (Homeless Outreach Population Estimate), next month. This massive effort enlists volunteers to canvass 1,500 survey areas into the wee hours of the night (10 p.m. to 4 a.m.) to assess the number of homeless living on the streets.

The sheer number of affected individuals compounds the problem, even with the extensive resources available in the city. In addition to city-funded programs, there are private efforts, such as the Holy Apostles Church at 296 Ninth Ave. in Chelsea, which serves 1,000 meals to the homeless and hungry every day. The church also provides haircut vouchers, entertainment, meditation, discussion groups and writers’ workshops, all aimed at maintaining a sense of normalcy and providing a sense of community. For Drew, and for all those who come for a free meal, there is a story behind their situation. Hopefully, they find solace their time of need.