Walter Greene is, at least, set for groceries. On this drizzly Saturday morning in February, Greene has just made his first visit to the Metro Baptist Church's weekly food pantry. Every Saturday, about 150 people patiently queue up outside the century-old church, hard by a Lincoln Tunnel entrance ramp in the wasteland blocks west of Times Square, before entering and showing free membership cards that entitle them to enough food to provide three to four days' worth of meals for each household member. On this day, Greene emerges with a shopping bag stuffed with boxes of cereal, canned goods and even some fresh produce for himself and his wife.
Now all he needs is somewhere to cook it. "We're in a non-cooking facility," explains Greene, who looks younger than his 51 years. "In the shelter, the [Department of Homeless Services] police come in there and they search everybody's rooms. Stuff that they ¬find in there that we ain't supposed to have in there, they throw it out. Like our hot plates, the spoons and forks, and stuff like that."
Greene, like the other estimated 3.3 million New Yorkers designated "food insecure" because they don't always know where their next meal is coming from, has another option: He could go to a soup kitchen to eat. Unlike food pantries, which use a combination of government grants and private contributions to supply groceries, soup kitchens serve prepared meals, at least until the food runs out.
But Greene would rather prepare his meals himself, especially since he has diabetes. "Me and my wife, I'm able to cook, she's able to cook. I just can't eat everybody's cooking." Instead, he says, he sometimes risks the wrath of the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), which runs the shelter at 317 West 45th Street where he and his wife have lived for the past year, and sneaks in a hot plate: "But we'll clean up behind ourselves, 'cause that room is very clean, the little room that they give us."
One tough year
This has been a difficult year in Greene's life. In early 2010 the moving company in Brooklyn where Greene worked suddenly shut down. "He just closed down completely—he didn't want to run it no more," he says, his southern drawl betraying his North Carolina origins. (His family moved to New York City when he was 6.) He tried finding jobs doing the same things he'd been doing in his 30-year working life—moving, roofing, driving a forklift, "working on cars every now and then"—but he says he had little luck in the current economy. Soon, he and his wife were forced to vacate their Brooklyn apartment and begin their tour of the homeless shelters run by DHS.
The move gave them membership in a recently less exclusive club. The exact number of homeless New Yorkers is a matter of intense debate. The city, citing figures from its annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate—or HOPE—in which volunteers fan out across the city each January to count people living in the streets, says street homelessness has declined 40 percent since 2005, to 2,648 individuals. Advocates for the homeless—particularly the Coalition for the Homeless, whose senior policy analyst Patrick Markee has waged an annual media war against the HOPE figures—insist that the city's count misses numerous people, especially because it's taken in the dead of winter, when many otherwise street homeless may be tempted to enter a shelter for the night.
The one thing the two sides agree on, though, is that the number of shelter dwellers, while down slightly from a couple years ago, is still near an all-time high. The city's current shelter census is over 35,000. Forty percent are children; of the 8,000 or so single adults, nearly three-quarters are men.
Greene says the first two shelters he was housed at, the El Camino Inn on Jamaica Avenue in Queens and the Park View Hotel on Central Park North, weren't so bad. Then, after a brief breakup with his wife in which he stayed with his mom at a senior facility in Brooklyn, they reunited and were assigned to the DHS shelter in the former Aladdin Hotel on West 45th Street.
This shelter, Greene says, is a nightmare: "It's nasty. People throw shit out their window. I been in one before, but it wasn't like this, with people throwing food and throwing feces out the window. It's totally pathetic and nasty."
A prewar brick building on an unassuming block in the theater district—across the street from both a Broadway show and a "gentleman's club"—the Aladdin (formerly the Longacre, as its faded sign still identifies it) gives little indication from the outside that it's home to 117 homeless couples. On closer inspection, though, one sees the guard posted in the lobby and the signs pasted to the front door: "New curfew: 8 p.m.-4 a.m., Effective 4/7/11."
As if on cue, a woman emerges and asks what the interest is in her building. "You have to tell everyone how terrible this building is!" she says, giving her name as Lakiya. "It's stinky. We got bedbugs." The city pays $3,000 a month to house couples there, she alleges, when for $1,000 a month they could be providing vouchers for private housing.
Life at the Aladdin
Visitors to the building—those who are allowed past the guard—pass through a lobby with vending machines for snacks and prepaid phone cards, as well as stacks of drywall and tiles waiting to be installed. Much work is being done on the former hotel, building manager John Warren explains as he helps lead a DHS-organized tour, following its conversion into a Next Step shelter in March.
Next Step is a program for homeless individuals who, explains DHS deputy commissioner Barbara Brancaccio, "just aren't getting it" in terms of following an independent-living plan. To that end, residents at Next Step shelters are offered extra social services—at the Aladdin, Volunteers of America is contracted to supply 15 staffers, including housing specialists and a "client responsibility coordinator"—and also extra rules: the no-hot-plates edict, says Brancaccio, is part of an attempt to eliminate "distractions." The overall message, she says, is "Now you have to get it together. Now your work is you."