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In the cramped vestibule of the Providence Hotel, 125 Bowery, three men squat on metal chairs drinking milkless tea. They ask my name and it’s intros all round. Harry*, a large Middle Eastern man with an impossibly thick beard, is the last to extend his hand, and he holds on to mine just a bit too long, enough that I notice. I ask if they have rooms. “Go up and see,” he says in the careful, enunciated English of a man who has worked to acquire it. “Then I want to talk to you.” He says it friendly enough, but firm too, like there’s no question that we’ll be having this chat. And there isn’t.
I’ve barely gotten to the top of the stairs and the Chinese man at the desk is shaking his head. I ask if they have a room. He says no. I ask if they might have a room tomorrow or the day after: No. I ask him if he knows any place that might. He jerks his body violently to the right, to indicate “up the Bowery,” I think.
Harry takes me outside. He says he knows another place. It’s hard to get into the Providence. He’s got a room there but he couldn’t pay rent tonight. He sells sweets on Grand Street. “Bad day today—weather,” he says as we make our way to the next hotel. He thinks I’m an easy touch, and I am. I tell him thanks for helping me, but in exchange for this bit of money he needs would he help me get into the Providence tomorrow? I offer him $8. “Please. It’s 14.” “So you’ll help me get in?” “Yes,” he says. “It is the big boss now. Tomorrow will be better.” He’ll be selling his sweets midday, and I’m to find him. It’s a vague, unpromising proposition but it looks like my best shot at the inside. “If you cannot get a room here tonight, come back and find me,” he says.
I can’t. That night and the next, I’m up and down the Bowery dozens of times, in and out of every lodging place I see: the Sun, the Grand, the Prince, the Andrews, the White House. The Sunshine Hotel (commemorated in David Isay and Stacy Abramson’s NPR program of the same name) is locked. A man outside tells me they don’t take anyone anymore. There are 125 men living there and they’re gonna be gone soon, he says. “Try the mission.” The next night Tommy, a grizzled 56-year-old who’s been homeless for years, tells me he remembers staying here seven years ago for “$10 a night, and now you can’t get a place.” After I lend him a smoke he tries to see if they’ve got something. A tall, 50-ish man in a stocking cap and black coat bounds down the stairs, speaking angrily and looking at me: “You’re not supposed to be here. They see you they’ll arrest you. This isn’t a place for you.” Arrest me for what? “Loitering. Police’ll throw you in the clink just like that.” Tommy suggests the mission: “That’s where I’m heading. They move the pews over. If you’re lucky you get a blanket.”
It’s the same everywhere: no place to go, and the mission as last resort. Those who remain are an insular, suspicious group. They feel threatened, and for good reason. The old-timers were pushed out of the White House as it transitioned into a youth hostel. The Pioneer became the $80-a-night Sohotel. The Andrews was taken over by Common Ground, a nonprofit that specializes in first-step housing (construction is slated for March 1). The Prince, as it once was, now occupies a single floor (all filled); to get into the other two floors you have to go through Bellevue. “They make you get a job, fill out some forms,” says John, a resident there. He’s waiting for the meal truck. “It’s pretty good,” he says. “A dollar for a chicken cutlet.”
The second night, I’m turned down again at the Providence. I’m aware that I may look like an outsider, that maybe that’s why I’m still outside. I ask a man eating a roll if he knows of a place that might have rooms. I explain that I’ve tried for two nights with no luck. “There used to be places up and down the street,” he says. “Bowery’s changed. It’s the last of the Mohicans.” He looks at his watch. “Better get going, if you’re gonna make it. There’s a Salvation Army just up the block.”
*All names in this story have been changed.