My first encounter with homelessness came when I was 10 or 12. Passing a friend’s house in my hometown in Maryland late one summer afternoon, I was amazed to see two people sound asleep at the edge of the wooded lot next door: a man and a woman who evidently had no place to stay for the night. That was long before the word homelessness entered the vocabulary of everyday life. Although the implications of what I saw were unclear, I knew that the scene had something to do with being very poor.
Now, decades later, during the summer months I continue to see homeless people asleep in the open here in New York City, especially in the parks. For more fortunate Americans, parks represent opportunities for fresh air, exercise and convivial gatherings. But for others, they serve as a refuge, a kind of outdoor homeless shelter. Given the dangers of the city-run shelters, choosing to remain outside during warm weather seems a reasonable option.
This lesson was borne home to me one Sunday morning in July. After the 8:30 Mass, I walked up Second Avenue from my parish church to visit a parishioner at Beth Israel Hospital. At 15th Street I took a shortcut through Stuyvesant Square Park—a peaceful setting with benches round the four sides, the whole shaded by a canopy of leaves.
What struck me at once was the presence of half a dozen homeless men and women stretched out full length and sound asleep on the benches. One was a middle-aged man with a wheelchair parked at his side. Not far from him slept a young couple, head to head, with a white plastic bag of their belongings as a shared pillow. Later, retracing my steps through the park, I passed the man with the wheelchair. He was pushing it ahead of him, moving out toward the street.
Around the park is a Victorian cast iron fence with heavy gates at two sides that are padlocked with chains at night; those I saw there could only have entered that same morning in hopes of making up for sleep lost while seeking rest the previous night.
Other parks in Manhattan also have fences or walls of one kind or another. The Sara D. Roosevelt Park that runs in a narrow strip for several blocks between Houston Street and Grand Street in Chinatown has a low barrier along two sides, and signs that say, “Park Closes at Dusk.”
But unless the police department were to deploy most of its force to monitor the parks all night long, neither the signs nor the wall deter homeless people from spending their nights there and at other sites—even Central Park, whose own low wall and vast expanse make total surveillance impossible. A walk through the Roosevelt Park one weekend afternoon offered ample evidence that its benches, too, served as beds after nightfall: rumpled blankets lay scattered around several of them.
But if you choose a park as a place of refuge at night, what about hygiene? Next to a drinking fountain in the Sara D. Roosevelt Park, I once saw a toothbrush and a piece of soap: small signs of a desperate effort to survive. A Catholic Worker told me of seeing a man washing his shirt at another drinking fountain there.
The city offers little help. A new restroom facility by the entrance to the renovated Bryant Park in midtown has a sign: “No laundering of personal belongings. No bathing.” Some make use of the lavatories in the train and bus stations. Living under such conditions makes it hard to hold on to whatever remains of one’s dignity.
Not just in New York, but in cities around the country, the number of homeless people is reaching an all-time high. In northern cities, summer is short and cold weather—when parks no longer offer places of refuge—comes soon. For many, shelter may then become a doorway or the bench on a subway platform.