Features

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

Jules Harris, 35

imageHow long have you been homeless? Six years.

How did you become homeless? Why did I become homeless? It's called crack cocaine. I used to think, "I don't need to pay my bills. I just want to get high." But I've been clean for . . . say, what time is it now? Just kidding. I've been clean for a month.

Where are you sleeping tonight? I'm sleeping in a shelter. But I used to sleep in Central Park back in 1993. And on the streets.

How do people treat you? People look right through me. Look, I'm a six-foot-three 200-pound black man, and people pretend I'm not even here.

What should the city do differently? There should be more specialty shelters. Of course, everyone should have a place to go. But there should be more shelters for people with drug problems, or mental problems, or veterans, or women who have been abused, or raped.


Kristine Cann, 29

imageHow long have you been homeless? One year.

How did you become homeless? I left my house because of a domestic violence situation. I had to leave even though I had two kids.

Where are you sleeping tonight? I'm staying in an all-women's shelter in Jamaica, Queens. I've been staying there since January. Before that, I was on the street.

How do people treat you? People in the shelters are great. They really work hard to help. But other people, especially landlords, are terrible. Especially if you have Section 8 [low-income housing vouchers]. Once they see you have Section 8, they treat you like the scum of the earth.

What should the city do differently? The city should put more money into affordable housing. Most of it's Giuliani's fault. His plan to put people to work for their housing [in shelters] doesn't work. What we need are more and cheaper apartments.


Richard Smith, 42

imageHow long have you been homeless? Three or four years.

How did you become homeless? I had a job in waste management, but I lost it in '95. My landlord was off-the-wall. I had to leave, so I went to a friend's house, and then my uncle's house, but he got evicted too. I have my clothes in storage.

Where are you sleeping tonight? Staying with a girlfriend. How do people treat you? On Ward's Island [a shelter], they treated me really nice. There was no fighting. People have a stereotype of the homeless, that they're nasty, lazy, ignorant. But I've been in two branches of the military, the army and navy.

What should the city do differently? They should renovate old buildings, and then we could live there. We'd have a sense of peace. If they could put you on workfare, they can get you a real job.


Mary Gillette, 50

image How long have you been homeless? I've been at risk for losing my apartment since September.

How did you become homeless? I live in the projects and my daughter's on SSI for a mental disability. I'm being threatened with eviction because we're behind on rent even though I have a job as a home health worker.

Where are you sleeping tonight? At home, but I'm afraid the marshal is going to knock on the door any moment. I only feel safe on weekends and holidays.

How do people treat you? The city is very casual about eviction and hardship.

What should the city do differently? There should be greater consideration for people with jobs who get behind on rent.


Mark Anthony Oliver, 33

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How long have you been homeless? Four years.

How did you become homeless? It's because of drugs. I was living with my sister. She wanted help and I couldn't give it, so she kicked me out. Then I lived with my girlfriend and that didn't work out. Now I live in shelters. Sometimes I do messenger work, sometimes remodeling and construction, knocking down walls. I go to NA [Narcotics Anonymous], church.

Where are you sleeping tonight? The shelter on Atlantic and Bedford [in Brooklyn].

How do people treat you? I like people. I get along with everybody. People treat me nice. Some people consider all homeless people psychos. We're not.

What should the city do differently? Giuliani is trying to make us work. It's really a catch-22. I say give us employment and programs to stay away from drugs.


Gotti, 19

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How long have you been homeless? I've been homeless for a couple of days this time.

How did you become homeless? My father left. I still don't know where he is. So I stayed with my uncle. Finally I just left.

Where are you sleeping tonight? I don't know. If I can't stay in a shelter I'll go to the Port Authority.

How do people treat you? I don't look homeless. Sometimes crackheads come up to me and ask if I'm dealing. People think homeless people dress a certain way or look a certain way. But you can't tell.

What should the city do differently? They need to make more shelters for young people. Bellevue [Hospital] and the others are all filled with old or crazy people.


Wilfredo Fiol, 39

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How long have you been homeless? Six years.

How did you become homeless? I have AIDS and in 1985, when I started to get sick, I approached DAS [Department of AIDS Services]. They sent me to a hotel. Then they sent an investigator out to close the hotel because it was infested with rats.

Where are you sleeping tonight? I've been staying in the YMCA, which is being paid for by DAS.

How do people treat you? City workers don't want to help. It's worse being sick.

What should the city do differently? The quality of caseworkers should be improved. People have to actually care about the clients they work with.


Mary Keller, 55

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How long have you been homeless? Three years.

How did you become homeless? I had no place to go. It's as simple as that. My brother wouldn't take me in and my son has his own family to worry about. He couldn't take me in.

Where are you sleeping tonight? I'm staying in a shelter. I used to walk the streets day and night. I used to sleep on the train with one eye open. Sometimes I would sleep in doorways standing up.

How do people treat you? People look down on me. They look at me and say, "You should change your clothes." I have no clothes other than the clothes on my back. No one helps me.

What should the city do differently? They need to renovate all the abandoned buildings and turn them into apartments for homeless people.


Arthur Smith, 49

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How long have you been homeless? Seven years.

How did you become homeless? I'm a vet from the Vietnam era. I first became homeless in Newark when the landlord kicked me out because my benefits, which included rent subsidies, weren't being paid on time.

Where are you sleeping tonight? I just got into housing after being in the shelter system twice for a year and in an SRO.

How do people treat you? City workers give you the runaround.

What should the city do differently? Giuliani wants all minorities out of New York. As of 1998, 98 percent of the people who were in the system had been there since 1960. The system hasn't worked. Fifty percent of the people on welfare are families. We're all veterans of welfare and of the streets.


Washington Limmous, 42

imageHow long have you been homeless? Six years.

How long have you been homeless? Eighteen months.

How did you become homeless? I had a misunderstanding with my family, with my mother. When I got out of prison for drugs and manslaughter, my mother gave me a chance to live with her. But I happened to go on drugs. I got myself kicked out.

Where are you sleeping tonight? I met a Spanish guy who lets me sleep on a sofa chair inside the garage.

How do people treat you? When you're not homeless, people share more things with you. When you're homeless, they put you in the lowest category, like an animal.

What should the city do differently? Mayor Giuliani is a good man, but only for the middle class and rich people. The homeless, he doesn't give a hoot about us. I would build more shelters, homes, and apartments for low rent. Then I'd have people work for the living quarters and money.


Rich, 50

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How long have you been homeless? Three years.

How did you become homeless? Circumstances. I used to work for the government; I was making over $100,000. I got laid off five years ago. I was renting a place on Long Island for $1700 a month. But then you lose everything, your wife, your friends.

Where are you sleeping tonight? I walk during the night, other times ride the subway. There are certain restaurants that let you spend the night on the floor. Don't know about tonight.

How do people treat you? People don't really treat you bad. I notice a lot of times white people give me money without me asking for it. I guess because I'm white. It's much better than you would think.

What should the city do differently? The city should provide more food and more shelters. Everyone talks about how bad they are. Giuliani's theory is to arrest everybody and let God sort it out. It's not a very good idea.


Princess Carr, 19

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How long have you been homeless? Five years.

How did you become homeless? My mother kicked me out of the house because I'm a lesbian.

Where are you sleeping tonight? I'm sleeping in a shelter tonight. But I was sleeping on the streets for four years. Also in buildings and on the street. In the summer I slept on the beach.

How do people treat you? Most people treat me with indifference. When someone says they want to help you, they really want to use you. Men ask me if I want to be a hooker. I remember when I was young, I used to laugh at homeless people when I saw them. But now that I'm in the same situation, I see what it's like.

What should the city do differently? The city needs to have experienced workers in the shelters. Sometimes the social workers make you feel worse because they don't know how to deal with homeless kids. So the streets are better than the shelters sometimes.


Debby Caskey

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Where are you sleeping tonight? A friend's house in Brooklyn, but that's not working out too good. I don't think that will last, so I might return to the men's shelter on Atlantic Avenue.

How do people treat you? They treat you as if you're an animal. If you're staying with someone, you got to do whatever they say. I don't think it's fair.

What should the city do differently? The city shouldn't charge for living in shelters. That's just going to make even more people homeless. Most people who are homeless don't even have GEDs. The city should give them some schooling to help them along their way. We're already poor, we're already homeless, what more do you want?


Beverly Fulce, 38

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How long have you been homeless? Five years.

How did you become homeless? It all started when my mom passed and I wasn't on the lease. I went through the grief of being alone. You can't just jump up out of that. Mainly I've stayed on the streets in Brooklyn.

How do people treat you? People think it's mental, but it's emotional. Sometimes we feel like the bottom of the barrel, sometimes not. We have our ups and downs like them with their white-collar jobs.

Where are you sleeping tonight? I can't say off hand. I spent last night in an abandoned building.

How do people treat you? I socialize with the same people as before I was homeless and they treat me the same.

What should the city do differently? I would set up rooming houses. Shelters are too crowded. People need to be treated on an individual basis. Also appoint someone to deal only with this.


Israel Cortez, 42

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How long have you been homeless? Three years.

How did you become homeless? I was living at my sister's apartment, but I couldn't stay there any longer. I wasn't getting along with her or her husband. And after one argument I left.

Where are you sleeping tonight? I'm sleeping in the veterans' shelter in Queens. I'm just staying here until I can move into an apartment in the Bronx.

How do people treat you? People are nice to me and help me out, but that's because I help myself. I show by example. I help other people out by volunteering at the veterans' shelter and by coaching my nephew's football team.

What should the city do differently? The city should send some people down to the VA hospitals and to the veterans' shelters. These are all vets, and they're living in homeless shelters. The mayor should come down and talk to us.


Robert Green, 56

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How long have you been homeless? Ten years.

How did you become homeless? I spent six months in jail for beating up my old lady. When I got out, I couldn't go back there because she was afraid I'd beat her up.

Where are you sleeping tonight? I don't sleep in the shelters. In the shelters you wind up getting hurt or hurting somebody. The parks are dangerous too. I just try to find an abandoned building.

How do people treat you? I'm treated like dirt. If someone has to deal with you, then they will try to exploit you. I don't have a regular job, but I work. And whenever someone puts me to work, they exploit me. It's a financial rape situation.

What should the city do differently? You ever see all the scrap metal laying around the city? The city should pay some homeless people to ride along on sanitation trucks and pick up all the scrap brass and copper and steel. Then they could sell it and make a profit and get enough money to buy a place.


Sharlene Drayton, 21

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How long have you been homeless? Two weeks.

How did you become homeless? I have three kids and a husband. We can't stay with my mother-in-law but they keep saying that we don't qualify for housing because my niece told their investigators that we could sleep there. I know she didn't understand what they were asking her. Now it's in my records that I have a place to sleep and they won't give me my eligibility. Now they want a letter from her saying we can't stay at her house.

Where are you sleeping tonight? They'll send us to Powers [Hotel).

How do people treat you? I can't tell you about the public, but the people who work for the city give you the runaround.

What should the city do differently? If the city is so concerned about children that they'll take them away from you and put them in foster care, they should make a bigger effort to get housing for families with kids.


M.T.K., 34

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How long have you been homeless? Five years.

How did you become homeless? I'm mentally ill, schizophrenic, and, what's it called, bipolar. I've been drinking since I was three, addicted since I was 14. I smoke crack. I'm an inventor. I just need someone to invest in my ideas. I know how to make things to stop airplanes from falling out of the sky.

Where are you sleeping tonight? I don't know. I can't be around other people in the shelter. Really.

How do people treat you? People treat you like you's a dog. If you're in a shelter, people want to jump you and rape you and rob you. The security guard looks the other way.

What should the city do differently? They should have programs inside the shelters, build schools. Get us grants, not loans—for education, to buy books. If the mayor can pay 2 million for a ticker tape parade, he should pay for us.


Louis Navarette, 63

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How long have you been homeless? Six years.

How did you become homeless? My house burned down in 1993. I have diabetes and high blood pressure and can't work. I was assigned to group homes. Finally, they sent me to the YMCA. I've been on welfare and can't afford to move out and get out of the Y.

Where are you sleeping tonight? The Y. It's not too bad. It's better than sleeping on the streets. I've gotten used to the place.

How do people treat you? People at the shelters and at the soup kitchens are always very helpful. I've never had any problems with the police or people living on the streets. We try to stay together. Like we always come to the soup kitchens in a group.

What should the city do differently? Get people apartments. I can't afford to live in one. Besides, there aren't any apartments available.

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