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Every weekday, Ken Washington and Jeff Rabinovici drive around the city in a red van, distributing bagels and sandwiches. Much of the time they work undergroundin the PATH station at 33rd Street, in Penn Station, and in the nearby subway stations. They target the people who are most distrustful of the system, the ones who would rather sleep on the streets than in a shelter. Almost all of these people suffer from a serious mental illness.
Washington and Rabinovici make an unlikely team. Rabinovici, a 25-year-old Long Island native, has a bachelor's from the University of Hartford. Washington, 57, is a former telephone company employee who has been living in a shelter ever since a fire destroyed his Brooklyn home. Both men work in jeans and T-shirts. Washington wears a gray braid down his back and a replica of a drive chain from a '52 Harley around his wrist.
Employed by the Partnership for the Homeless, Rabinovici and Washington help people get what they needa shower, a free pair of pants, an application for an apartment. But it isn't easy to convince somebody who's been living on the streets for years to go to a drop-in center or shelter. In some cases, it's impossible. Or it can require many months of workof checking in and chatting, of free lunches, of coaxing and reminding.
By now, Rabinovici and Washington know many of the people living around Madison Square Garden. "A homeless person isn't actually homeless," Washington says. "He has a territory he travels infor lack of a better word, a migratory path. They know the good soup kitchens, the ones that are so-so. They know when the good clothes come in. It's a way of life."
The upcoming Republican National Convention has already disrupted the rhythms and routines of people living in this area. The police presence has increased, and soon the entire area will be locked down, creating a frozen zone. While other New Yorkers have to contend with protest and convention logistics, these are the only people whose entire lives are being uprooted. These New Yorkers include some of the city's most fragile and vulnerable residentsmentally ill senior citizens who have no money, now scrambling to survive outdoors.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Washington and Rabinovici pull up in front of the PATH station at 33rd Street. Washington grabs a bag of bagels smeared with peanut butter and they head inside. It used to be easy to find homeless people here. All you had to do was walk down the steps and you'd see people leaning against the walls or sitting on the ground.
"There were usually 12 to 20 men and women sitting here. This is the spot for users," Rabinovici says, pointing to the wall. Then he gestures back up toward the stairs. "The steps is usually drinkers." Today, the station is empty save for subway riders scurrying by. About all the missing people, Rabinovici says, "It sets us back because we lose our contacts. We have to see the same people over and over to build trust."
One of these people was a woman named Mary, who they had been talking to for months. Every time they saw her, she was in the same spot, seated on a box in the station, smoking a cigarette. She told them she was in her fifties, but they suspect she's at least 70. Many times they invited her to Peter's Place, a drop-in center on West 23rd Street, which caters to people over 55.
"Of course I'll come," Mary always said. But she never showed up. They figured if they kept talking to her, eventually she would give in. That was, until several weeks ago, when they made their usual rounds and discovered Mary was gone.
Rabinovici and Washington have lost track of many clients over the last month. Eventually, though, they did manage to find Mary. They were driving around in the van when they spied her panhandling on a street corner. When they asked her if the cops had ordered her to leave the PATH station, she said no; she'd decided to leave on her own. Washington and Rabinovici have not seen her for a week.
The upcoming convention has been on the minds of homeless people in the area for weeks. Will they be able to get to their favorite soup kitchens? What if they don't have any ID? Will they get picked up the police? Will their bags and shopping carts be searched? What if they're carrying a small knife (to use for protection, or as a can opener)? Will they get arrested? Perhaps the most pressing question of all is: What about check day? Will they be able to get into the post office on Ninth Avenue to pick up their public assistance check on September 1?
Local agencies, city officials, advocacy groups, and the police have been meeting for months to discuss many of these concerns. The Church of the Holy Apostles, which serves lunch to about 1,150 people a day, is making photo ID cards. The food pantry at St. John the Baptist Church on West 31st Street is closing for convention week, but providing double the amount of groceries the prior week. The Olivieri Center for Homeless Women, a drop-in center on 30th Street, is providing extra storage space and encouraging clients to leave their bags inside lest they get confiscated.