From the Margins Erased

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

There was this one lady named Arlene, and another named Maryann. A shoeshine guy named Jack. A guy named Keith. An elderly woman named Rose sat by the PATH train bathroom. Marvin, a tall, gray-haired man with a dark complexion, stood around tower one every morning, there by the N train, regular as a dripping faucet.

Carlos, a tall Jamaican some called Ras, wore his hair in dreadlocks and thoroughly cursed any social worker who tried to move him. When people asked him his problem, he rubbed his goatee and explained that it wasn't homelessness, it was spiritual. Once in a while, the neatly dressed beanpole Mr. Mann came striding through the concourse. The self-appointed mayor of the World Trade Center, he assigned himself the task of delivering grand, free-floating oratories to passersby. He was scheduled to meet with the president of the United States soon.

They all used the World Trade Center as a place to sleep, panhandle, or pass the time before September 11. They all remain unaccounted for. Their friends and acquaintances fear they died when the towers fell, perhaps only a small portion of the still uncounted street people who perished that day. No one papered the city with flyers bearing their pictures. No family members came in with their toothbrushes to identify their DNA. Maybe their families didn't even know where they were. They died in the anonymous way they lived. Their memories now depend on the informal network of people who saw them every week, yet perhaps knew them only by a nickname, a first name, a familiar face.

Osbie Wiley collected cans at the twin towers for the last five years. He ran a table for the United Homeless Organization at the corner of Liberty and Church streets. When the planes hit, he ran. But he does not think everybody did.

"The public should recognize that homeless people lost their lives at the World Trade Center, too," says Wiley, 47. "I've been going down there quite a long time now, and I have a strong feeling that a lot of people did not get out. An investigation needs to take place, because those homeless people could have left behind survivors, too. A lot of people on the street still got families."

The United Homeless Organization is keeping a tally of the missing, a list that so far contains more than 50 names and whatever descriptions people could provide. They held a memorial service last month in Union Square, where they observed a moment of silence and a minister prayed for the dead.

The towers drew homeless people from across the city. They formed their own culture on the broad, bustling concourse filled with stores. They slept near the E train, in the long hallway that stretched out from the A, in the tunnels of the PATH train. They hung out on the ledge by the Chase bank ATM, in the nook next to Golden Nugget Jewelry, by the phone bank at building five, by the entrance to the 1 and 9. In the summer months, they congregated on the plaza by the fountain. In the early mornings, they crowded the sinks and washed up together in the bathrooms.

The Trade Center had energy to it. It was clean, safe, and warm in the winter. Some old-timers had been there 15 years and knew the place up and down. "They would sleep by our store," says Samuel Benejan, who managed the Ben & Jerry's by the south tower. "We had a kiosk, and it was a warm place to sleep. I'd wake them up in the morning at 5:30 and give them a cup of coffee. You'd see the same guys over and over again, not new people. The guys there knew the routine, where to stop, how long 'til the police came around. Those guys lived there. It was their home."

With all the traders and financiers charging around, some feeling generous after their business lunches, the money could be good. One fellow knew a guy who could clear $50 in a few hours. In large part, though, they came for the same reason they go to the bus terminal on 41st Street—it's patrolled by Port Authority police. Many think Port Authority cops are just plain nicer than city ones. They'd let you sleep in peace at night, and only made the rounds in the mornings, rattling their sticks between 9 and 10 a.m.

But the first plane hit at 8:48 a.m. This worries those who have not seen their friends. They cringe at the thought of them sleeping somewhere in the tunnels when the towers fell, and more than 1500 feet of the 1 and 9 tunnels caved in, and ceilings and steel tumbled to the ground, and the PATH tunnels became so severely damaged the station there won't reopen for at least two years. Sixty percent of the concourse collapsed or became unstable that day. A third of that area is covered in a solid blanket of debris.

A laconic representative for New York City Transit says no riders or workers were hurt or killed in the subway tunnels on September 11. Captain Anthony Whitaker, the Port Authority officer who led the evacuation, said through his spokesman that he is confident his team completely cleared the concourse that morning.

"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."

The Holy Apostles soup kitchen at 28th Street and Ninth Avenue, the city's largest, saw an 11 percent spike in visitors after September 11, continuing an increase that started in early summer. "It was already a bad situation made worse by the economy and worse by September 11," says program coordinator Clyde Kuemmerle, standing by the kitchen of the 19th-century Italianate church on a recent afternoon. "Put all that together and that's a pretty hard time for a lot of folks."

Holy Apostles doesn't keep firm numbers, but something like 40 percent of the guests have a place to live, and a quarter work full-time jobs. At one table a group of bike messengers, all rigged out in expanding fabrics and straps in that wind-riding bike messenger way, lament the state of their profession. September is commonly the month business lifts back up after the summer drag. Instead, it sank. Tightened security slows them down in a job based on how fast you can go, and for weeks the air downtown made it hard to ride.

Although they say business is improving, they're still making as little as $250 a week, when they should be up around $450.

"I've got a family to feed," says Rafael McElrath, 38, who lives in Coney Island with his wife and four kids. "Just before it happened I was getting 18 to 20 jobs a day. On the 11th I had one job the whole day. I stood around till four or five and went home. Now I'm averaging 10."

Out front, Dave Parker says he's already noticed a change on the streets. "Two months ago, we noticed a large number of new people coming in," says Parker, 45. "Now speed up the tape. World Trade Center people were employed, with a nice comfort zone. Now it's hard. A lot of people had a little bit of money in the bank, but if people miss one or two checks, they'll be homeless."

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