The Ghosts of Penn Station


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 underground—in 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 need—a 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 work—of 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 in—for 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 residents—mentally 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.

After looking around the PATH station and finding nobody they know, Washington and Rabinovici leave, cross Seventh Avenue, and head down the escalator into Penn Station. The dozen or so people who used to sit along the perimeter of the Amtrak waiting area are not around. Even the three old ladies who were a fixture here, always standing near the Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street exit, have disappeared.

Of all these missing people, Washington and Rabinovici are especially eager to track down Charles, who is halfway to getting his own home. It took them four months to convince Charles to go to a drop-in center, and eventually they helped him fill out an application to get an apartment through the Street to Home Initiative. Charles just needs to sign a form to complete this process, but now they can’t find him.

After an hour underground, Washington and Rabinovici give up looking for familiar faces. Still carrying a full bag of bagels, they head up the stairs to the exit. They get back in their van and take off for Bryant Park. Later in the afternoon, they discover a former Penn Station resident sitting on a foldout chair at the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. Noel, 62, has a bushy gray beard, a pair of lavender shades covering his eyes, and a harmonica in his pants pocket. Next to him are two shopping carts overflowing with clothes, blankets, and newspapers.

Some homeless people have told Rabinovici and Washington they have convention plans. One said he was going to check into the Bellevue shelter for the week; another plans to pitch a tent in a Staten Island park. Noel, however, insists he will not budge. “What’s the big deal about the convention?” he asks. “Why should we have to move because we’re homeless? That don’t make sense to me. Unless they don’t want the Republicans to know we’re on the street.” He pauses, surveying the sidewalk scene on this sunny day. “They want people to think New York is spotless,” he says, but “everything is not beautiful.”