This has been a hard winter for New York City’s homeless population. In addition to low temperatures, a blizzard over New Year’s weekend was followed by three lesser but nonetheless harsh snow storms. As a commuter, I see homeless men and women early every morning, sometimes huddled asleep in doorways or next to buildings in long cardboard boxes that look eerily like coffins. But most often I see them in the subway station at the intersection of Broadway and Lafayette Streets in lower Manhattan, my departure point for the ride to America House. When I arrive on the platform, there are usually several men seated on one of the benches, their torsos slumped sideways in uneasy sleep, with plastic bags containing their meager possessions at their feet. Wooden dividers prevent them from stretching out during the night. A doctor who works with sick homeless people at Christ House in Washington, D.C., has told me that never being able to lie down to rest, and having to move from place to place throughout the day, can lead to serious circulatory problems as the ankles swell.
When I don’t walk home after work, I take the nearby subway at the station at 57th Street and Sixth Avenue. In the late afternoon, I often see a slender young African-American woman there-either near the token booth asking commuters for spare change or down on the platform, where she roams back and forth. She is mentally unstable, but she is treated with a certain courtesy even by some of the transit workers who move about periodically through the station. Once, I noticed one of them in his orange mesh vest conversing with her in kindly tones. Most recently, as I was about to go down the stairs to the platform around 5 p.m., she was curled up in a corner on the other side of the stairway’s railing in a small alcove, covered with a gray blanket, already asleep for the night. At least she could lie down.
I also encounter homeless men and women at the soup kitchen in the basement social hall of Nativity Church on the Lower East Side, where I help out on Saturdays. Not all who come for the nourishing hot meal are homeless, but a number of them are, so they take advantage of the men’s room to wash and shave at the two small sinks. Some help as volunteers to prepare for the meal itself. One Saturday morning, during a coffee break for the volunteers, I sat next to a man who was-to use the term favored by the soup kitchen’s director-undomiciled. Where did he sleep at night? On one of the subway cars, he said, adding, The police don’t bother you if you’re actually on the train, and the trains run all night.
The attitude of the police toward homeless people can be ambiguous. The city dreads newspaper accounts of homeless persons dying of cold on the street. Consequently, during the winter the police generally do not drive them from the station platforms back to the street. Why, you might ask, don’t homeless men and women go to the public shelters? Some-like the young woman with the blanket at the 57th St. station-fear them because of the violence that can erupt in shelters. But even if they did choose that alternative, they might well find there was no room.
On Feb. 8 The New York Times ran a front page article with the headline: Homeless Shelters in New York Fill to the Highest Levels Since 80’s. The article lists as possible reasons: escalating rents because of the strong economy, declines in subsidized housing and more court orders for evictions. Nor is this scenario true only for New York City. The United States Conference of Mayors has reported that the number of homeless people seeking shelter-including familieshas risen in two dozen other cities as well. This indeed is food for Lenten reflection, for the domiciled among us who live protected lives here in the richest country on earth.