Mobile Homeless

For many of New York City's dispossessed, the safest place is on wheels.

"The numbers are back up," says Mary Brosnahan, director of the Coalition for the Homeless, about the recent increase in the street population. Riot police and bulldozers took care of the shantytowns so visible earlier in the decade, though Brosnahan's group found their tactics an extreme approach to the situation. The Coalition does endorse the program known as New York/New York, which since 1990 has provided 5200 units for mentally ill homeless.

The homeless population looks smaller now, says Brosnahan, because "the police are still out there in record numbers— but the housing pipeline has dried up. There are 1000 more people packed into the adult municipal shelter system, and it is patently predictable that they're spilling back out onto the streets."

Things could get worse. New York/New York is up for renewal this month and Governor George E. Pataki is stalling on the state's contribution to the program. A city battle looms in mid March, when the Giuliani administration is expected to challenge the 1981 Callahan Consent Decree, which guarantees a shelter bed to every homeless person.

"Rather than investing in the humane, cost-effective alternative of permanent housing with support services, the administration seems poised to eradicate the most minimal of safety nets for poor people," says Brosnahan.

In the meantime, survival on the streets means disappearing before dawn. "The only safe place for your stuff right now is on your back," says Don Ayers, who once lived in a plywood hut along the East River but now lives with friends. A nightlong journey from the World Financial Center to the Upper West Side revealed many homeless who offered the following advice: Stay alone; companions may provide friendship and security but they attract police attention. Dress well; you might not be identified as a homeless person. Keep moving.

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Lower East Side Edward Caldwell, 44, (above) has no choice but to traverse the city on wheels. He lost his left leg in 1997 when he was pushed in front of an oncoming F train. After six months of rehabilitation, he was sent to the Wards Island shelter but departed within two months. "There was no assistance, no therapy, no support. It's easier to live on the streets." Three times a day he hurls his wheelchair into rush-hour traffic and panhandles from drivers halted at a light on Houston Street. The light turns green, the cars roar towards the city, and Caldwell races for the curb, blessed with a few more coins. A gray wool blanket softens his chair by day and covers a cardboard bed by night. He has no other possessions. "I've been robbed, attacked by kids with knives. I don't even have an ID. This isn't home. Home is a mental picture— of places I've lived and things I've done in the past. It keeps me intact."

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Midtown Selima Fuller, 32, and Fernando Drayton, 40, (above) live out of a shopping cart. The city's construction boom provided six months of stability beneath a scaffold in the West 50s, but late last month it was removed. They found shelter under another scaffold but must depart each morning before the building's occupants arrive. They get water from an outdoor faucet. A glass jar suffices as a toilet at night. Fuller recently checked into a women's shelter after being hospitalized for a miscarriage, but she missed her companion and returned to the streets two weeks later. They work as a team, collecting bottles and cans for redemption. A year ago, they had an apartment in the Bronx but "crazy stuff started happening and we had to leave." Despite these difficulties, Drayton and Fuller gaze at each other with dreamy eyes. Marriage is discussed. As Fuller points out, "They won't let you stay together at a shelter unless you're husband and wife." Until then even the coldest nights find them on the streets.

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Upper West Side Dave Boyd, 44, (above) a veteran of the streets as well as four years in the navy, keeps his possessions in tow. Boyd hit the road on a bicycle in 1990 and crossed 32 states before arriving in New York City last August. The welcome was not warm. He was struck by a cab while riding his bike at 81st and Amsterdam. Then his citizen's band radio and laptop computer were stolen by high school kids. That was the first week. Now Upper West Side doormen prevent him from sleeping on their stoops, and traffic cops threaten to ticket his long, six-wheeled vehicle (below). Boyd's Ryan Recumbent bicycle tows two trailers containing a tent, 12-volt refrigerator, portable television, and power supply. The self-described "tech nomad" says, "I don't need four walls to have a home. It could be a mountain; it could be a bicycle. The world is my family now." Boyd may not have a permanent address, but he is building a Web site.

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Photographs by Margaret Morton

 
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