New York’s homeless skeptical of aid programs

By Verena Dobnik and Jonathan Lemire, AP

NEW YORK–A surge in homelessness is bedeviling New York City, and dozens of homeless people made it clear in interviews that it will take more than outreach programs by the mayor and governor to bring them in from the cold.

Not one of them told The Associated Press they had been approached by outreach workers that Mayor Bill de Blasio promised last month would be out on the streets, with an ambitious goal of canvassing every block, every day, in an 11-kilometer (7-mile) stretch of Manhattan, aiming to persuade street people to come indoors. A city spokeswoman told the AP on Friday the program would not be fully operational until sometime in March — when winter is almost over.

And despite temperatures that dipped below freezing, none of the about three dozen homeless interviewed last week said they had been involuntarily taken inside following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order instructing police statewide to forcibly remove the homeless from the street once the temperature drops that low.

All said they would rather take their chances on the street in frigid weather than turn to a shelter system they described as filthy, violent, vermin-infested, and rife with mental illness and addiction.

“I haven’t talked to any cops, or social workers, or anybody,” John Gallup, 30, said while collecting change outside a Trader Joe’s food store on the Upper West Side. “And the shelters here are horrible. I feel safer on the street.”

Michael Cliff, begging in Manhattan’s Union Square Park, said he won’t go to a city shelter due to worries about violence. But, for now, Cliff has a more immediate fear.

“I’m scared. … I’m really scared I’m going to die out here when it’s cold,” said the 32-year-old, who said he was once an actor.

City officials estimate that between 3,000 and 4,000 people sleep nightly on New York City’s streets, while nearly 58,000 more — including 23,000 children — live in shelters. That’s up from 42,000 in the past three years, according to the city. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has separately recorded a 37 percent increase in New York City’s homeless population since 2009. ‘Infested with mice, notorious for criminals’ The problem has been fueled by soaring housing costs, drug addiction and mental illness. The mayor responded last month by commissioning a program called HomeStat, in which workers are tasked with making repeated daily contact with the homeless in what he billed as the country’s largest outreach program.

Last week, during a bitter cold snap, city officials said outreach workers persuaded 97 homeless people to go into shelters one night and 62 the next. The city’s long-running Code Blue program requires those workers to comb the streets for panhandlers when temperatures drop below 0 degrees Celsius.

But John Hamarics, 54, panhandling on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, told the AP that New York City’s shelters are “a ferocious pigsty.” One East Side shelter, he said, was “infested with mice, burrowing in our food bags” and another was “notorious for criminals and people robbing each other’s cellphones, robbing each other’s clothes, robbing each other’s food.”

He instead opts to sleep on the steps of a Park Avenue church, fortified every few hours with a US$2.18 cup of hot soup from a nearby Subway sandwich shop. Hamarics said he hadn’t noticed any changes since the two outreach initiatives began.

“The exact same people are still in the exact same place,” said Hamarics, who identified himself as a skilled carpenter looking for a job.

Three of the people interviewed said they had been approached by police officers in recent weeks, but only in the way long familiar to New Yorkers: ordering them off public spaces and suggesting they go to shelters, without offering any assistance or direction.