From the Margins Erased

When the Towers Fell, Homeless People Disappeared. Their Friends Are Still Searching.

"We're not saying there weren't any people there," says spokesman Dan Bledsoe. "We're not aware of anybody. And we don't want to speculate."

Timothy Augustus began to frequent the trade center about seven years ago, soon after he arrived here from Illinois. He narrowly avoided getting caught up in the tragedy because, for a change, he started that day at the Port Authority. He'd planned to head downtown afterward.

"I didn't know it had blown down 'til they evacuated the bus terminal," he says. "They said, 'Two planes hit the World Trade Center.' I said, 'Oh, man.' "

Since then, he has rapped on doors at the shelters and combed the park near City Hall, to no avail. "There are 20 to 25 people I haven't seen since," says Augustus, 38. "Every day I go around asking about all my friends."

Social workers from Project Renewal, the service agency that had an outreach office on the World Trade Center concourse, don't think the number of those lost could be nearly that high. "I don't think we had 50 to 100 clients there in a three-week period, much less in an hour and a half," says Scott Williams, who was director of outreach for their World Trade Center office.

Three Project Renewal staffers started working at the Trade Center that day at 7 a.m. They escaped after the first plane hit. Team leader Walter Brown says the numbers of homeless people on the concourse had been down that week because nicer weather drew people outside. After the attack, Project Renewal scoured the city for the people they saw regularly. Slowly, they started to turn up. Ruth was walking down Houston Street; Rich found his way to the John Heuss House, his regular cantankerous self. Eventually they saw them all, except for Mr. Mann and Carlos.

Mr. Mann doesn't worry them so much. They think he had an apartment somewhere. He visited the trade center more sporadically than the others. Carlos, the man with the dreadlocks who always wore the same sheepskin coat, worries them more, although he'd never talk to them without a fight. He had taken to hanging out in the train stations around the time of the attack, particularly the number 2. Still, Williams has the sense that he's all right.

"I'm almost positive he got out of there," he says, sounding like the families who conjured hope in the days immediately following the tragedy. "Carlos is too ornery to allow that to stop him."

Homeless men who knew him, though, have not seen him since September 11. "Being homeless, you usually see people a lot," Wiley says. "You just don't see these people anymore.

"There was this one old lady who sat by the bathroom, and she sat there all day long, so much that the Port Authority cops never bothered her. I always spoke to her, but she was very quiet, a lady who never spoke much. I'd always give her food, money, stuff like that. I just haven't seen her since."

The UHO is planning to collect information about the missing on their Web site at www.unitedhomelessorganization.com.


Meanwhile, the situation deteriorates for the living. Immediately after the attacks, a new crowd of homeless people seemed to take to the streets. One idea has it that rigid new security measures sealed off the nooks where they slept, and sent them footing it around town. The attacks also shocked the dreaming city conscious of an already disturbing trend.

As the economy sputtered in the months before the attacks, the number of homeless New Yorkers using the shelter system hit 29,000, an all-time high and an increase of 8000 over 1998. The numbers regularly receiving food assistance reached 1.6 million a month, more than twice those of four years ago. Many advocates attribute this, in part, to the Giuliani administration's obsession with pushing people off the welfare rolls and into the insecure, low-wage, or informal jobs that evaporate first during hard times. In October alone, some 79,000 jobs in New York City disappeared.

This happened even as the steady current of funding that supports programs for the poor began to be diverted to the direct victims of the September 11 catastrophe. Private donations dropped, at the same time that more people needed help. A recent Food for Survival survey found that 64 percent of those visiting food banks this fall did so for the first time, many of them single mothers who recently lost jobs.

But the problem is not now. The problem is three or four months from now. The bruises from the brunt of vanished work will show then, the evictions will go through. Unless the city delivers emergency rental assistance and protects the working-class from losing its grip, the homeless population could explode.

"We're not going to know the long-term impact until a few months out," says Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless. "That impact is going to be pretty severe. Homeless families are driven out by high housing costs and cutbacks in housing assistance. The Giuliani administration for seven years has been slashing the budget for affordable housing, while market forces drove up rents. What's frustrating is that the general public is sympathetic now for people who have been affected, but will that last until the spring? That's tough."

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