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Interviews by Dave Kihara, Sharon Lerner & Coco McPherson. Photographs by Hiroyuki Ito, Mayita Mendez, Michael Schmelling & Michael Sofronski


Debby Caskey

How long have you been homeless? About three weeks.

How did you become homeless? This is my first time in this situation. Where I'm from, people aren't homeless. They told me here that if I'd been on welfare my whole life, I'd have a much better chance of getting help.

Where are you sleeping tonight? We don't know where we're going to be tonight.

How do people treat you? You get a lot of attitude from people because they know they're going home at night to their own homes.

What should the city do differently? Kids are sitting in these agencies all day long with their families waiting to be placed somewhere. You have to be physically present to get processed. Nothing is set up to make this process work well.


Darren Owens, 29

How long have you been homeless? One month.

How did you become homeless? We were living with my girlfriend's mother. We all lost our home when she messed up.

Where are you sleeping tonight? I don't know. Every 10 days I have to come back here for housing eligibility. When I'm here, I can't work. I haven't been to work this week at all. I'm also trying to go to night school. My wife's leg was amputated below the knee and they won't even give her priority as a disabled person.

How do people treat you? The people who work for the city act like you're lying.

What should the city do differently? The process of obtaining housing is inhumane. Every 10 days they want you to come back and get recertified. They want to know what trains we took, what soup kitchens we ate at, the name of the pastor of the church we went to for a meal. They don't believe anything you say.


Joaquin Umpierre, 35

How long have you been homeless? Six months.

How did you become homeless? I worked for 15 years as a bookbinder and then the company moved to Hackensack, New Jersey. I couldn't afford the commute, so I lost my job there. I applied for public assistance but because my wife works for the Board of Education, I wasn't eligible. We really can't survive on one income.

Where are you sleeping tonight? We're waiting to find out. They sent us to a shelter in Queens, which is about as far from anything we know as it can be.

How do people treat you? It's crazy because I've worked all my life and we're homeless. They tell us the system will work better for us if she quits her job.

What should the city do differently? For instance, it's set up now so that to qualify for emergency housing, we have to be present at the center so it doesn't look like we have a place to live. That makes no sense.


Tonya McIntosh Owens, 26

How long have you been homeless? Four weeks.

How did you become homeless? We were living with my mother but we can't be around her. We all got thrown out and now they want a copy of the eviction notice to prove we have no place to live.

Where are you sleeping tonight? They've been putting us at the Allerton Hotel at 22nd Street and Eighth, but it's filthy and the bathrooms for everyone are in the hallway. The elevator shuts down at night and because I'm on crutches, I'm trapped there.

How do people treat you? They want to find out that you're making things up. Now they keep saying that the address we use for mail is actually the place we're living. We've been declared ineligible [for housing] three times.

What should the city do differently? They make you jump through hoops. My kids are in ACS and I have to make all my meetings or I could lose them. If they have all this money to throw around—they spend $2100 to put someone in a hotel room for three weeks—how can they give you only $250 a month for housing and expect you to find a place?


John Summi, 52

How long have you been homeless? Two years.

How did you become homeless? The housing department condemned the building I was living in. The city put me in a hotel, then they put me in the YMCA. Where are you staying tonight? I'm staying at the YMCA. It's really run-down. They let the place get run-down. There is no phone service and I can't call anyone.

How do people treat you? People are very helpful. Like when I'm trying to get social security or disability, people always help me. And everyone at the soup kitchens and pantries [where free food is distributed] is nice. I didn't even know anything about these places until I became homeless.

What should the city do differently? If they are going to spend money on sports stadiums and high-rise buildings, there shouldn't be any people living on the street or in a shelter where you can be stabbed.


Mack Williams Jr., 37

How long have you been homeless? Twelve years.

How did you become homeless? I lost my job loading trucks in the garment district. I was living alone in Brooklyn at the time, making $150 a week. My apartment cost $250. After food and transportation, I just couldn't afford it.

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