New York’s incoming mayor has vowed to tackle the city’s record-high homelessness. But outside a crowded Brooklyn shelter, the guys on the corner aren’t holding their breath.
It’s one of those crisp-but-bearable November afternoons in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and lunchtime for the guys on the southwest corner of Bedford Avenue and Pacific Street. A small sedan pulls up and two men jump out. Trunk open, they begin to serve a hot meal, the first of the day for diners here: jerk chicken, potato salad and coleslaw, a favorite of the large Caribbean population in this slice of Brooklyn.
A maroon fortress towers above. This quasi-medieval citadel, partially outlined by scaffolding, was once home to Brooklyn’s National Guard, its crenellated overlook etched with slits for windows that seem fit for the Crusades. Now, the Bedford-Atlantic Armory, which spans nearly the entire length of Pacific Street, is one of the most spacious shelters in New York, housing about 300 single homeless men a night. But during the day, you can find its temporary tenants hanging out across the street.
My roommate and I looked for an apartment on this block a few months earlier. As we pulled up to the bustling corner in the broker’s gleaming Toyota Prius, she pointed to the loiterers and said, “It’s okay—they’re just homeless.” We ended up choosing a cheaper place to the south, on Rogers Avenue, but I returned to this spot today because the imagery captured my attention every time I have walked by since then. These guys have made this corner their home, with a different assortment of used chairs, crates and boxes to sit on, sound-insulated by a parking lot behind them, somewhat sheltered by a dying pear tree.
While I idle and make conversation, the guys gratefully eat the food given to them daily from community, usually faith-based organizations, storing what they can’t finish for later. A thin man, wearing just a tee in this chill, strolls by, happily singing the chorus of a catchy Drake song: “Just hold on, we’re going home.” But I stand out: my white skin, copper pilot’s jacket and pale curiosity are garnering glares. This alerts one of the men, who pulls me over to the side.
“You’re in our midst and we don’t know you. Are you a writer?” he asks.
That is how I meet Kurt, a homeless African-American man in his thirties, born and raised in the housing projects on New Lots Avenue in nearby East New York. But, on the corner, he goes only by “Cash,” declining to offer a last name. Once I introduce myself to him, the uneasiness dissipates, and he soon references Ian Frazier’s October piece in the New Yorker, which mentioned the corner. So begins our discussion on the daily lives of the city’s record homeless population—estimated to be around 52,000 men, women and children this year—and what we, or more specifically the new mayor, can do to help them.
* * *
Every day, at random times, vans arrive at the corner here, scoop up a few guys and bring them to a construction site for a new condo. The instructions of the jobs vary: move this, gut that or demolish it all. Once done, the van returns to the corner to drop the guys off, each with cash in the pocket. It’s a quick job that demands quick hands, no legal questions asked.
A good day for Cash holds utilitarian promise for tomorrow: if lucky, the vans will be large, able to carry seven or eight of him and his friends at a time, and the job started will require a few days of work, landing them all with steady but temporary pay. On some occasions, these homeless men are making more money than I do as a journalist.
“I average close to $100 a day if I can get work consistently,” Cash says. “Because I might come back from a job early that paid $50 and get another one after for the same price.”
That’s why the guys stay on this corner. Men of all shapes and sizes, homeless or not, have been coming here to pick up contractor work for decades. And for many of those who are homeless, their beds are conveniently right across the street. Cash, a veteran of the city’s homeless shelter system, tells me Bedford and Pacific is one of the oldest work corners in all of Brooklyn, much more active than his previous home on the barren Wards Island.
“You out here, you gotta keep money in your pocket. You have to have money,” he explains. “Because if nobody comes around and feeds you, you’ll need it.” Ironically, that’s how he got his nickname: His friends started calling him Cash at an early age “because that’s what matters.” He has lived out his nickname to the fullest: “I had to get on my grind early. At thirteen, I was selling loose joints,” he says.
Aside from food, Cash saves his money for a greater cause: He hopes to one day buy an apartment, or at least move into a family shelter with his two babies, ages one and two. Cash hasn’t seen their mother since the second child was left at the hospital after birth for him to claim. But, since he is without a home, his children are in the possession of the Administration for Children’s Services, just as he was as a kid. “I’m perpetuating the cycle, but at least I’m there for them,” Cash says.
He takes the A train uptown when he can, leaving the guys on the corner behind, if only for a few hours, to visit his children at the facility in Harlem. To Cash, this is his job as a father, his own father mostly an absence he doesn’t want to repeat. “I felt empty on the inside growing up. I can’t let them go through what I went through,” he says. It’s why, at seven in the morning, he reports out here for duty, ready to take whatever work is given to him.
Two officers pass by across the street, dispatched to ensure the corner doesn’t get out of hand once night falls. But they aren’t NYPD—they’re security brass from the Department of Homeless Services. Inside the shelter at night, staff members are there to help, but on the corner the only face-to-face presence the department has is that of authority. So, to the guys, the agency created to serve them feels distant: The occasional caseworker will say hello before heading into the Armory, but the higher-ups stationed at a faraway administration building, the ones with Cash believes have the real power to help, would never come to the corner.
“If they do come, they don’t make themselves known. They don’t come around like they should, ask questions and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ or ‘Let me talk to some of the guys,’” he says. “They don’t want to, they don’t want you to know who they are. Because they know we got a gripe.”
Wide gaps of appetite are left open. That’s where the volunteers who were here earlier come in. With the constant volunteer portions arriving, “This is the most well-fed corner in New York,” Cash jokes. “They know we don’t get much. [The DHS] gives us little TV dinners—little meals, little portions here and there. It’s just enough so you don’t get sick; it’s enough so you don’t die.” The DHS has been reached for comment on this issue, but still has yet to respond.
A visit to the nearby bodega on Franklin Avenue and Dean Street is growing in demand. Asking if I can stay, Cash tosses me a root beer left over from lunch so I sit on a crate to drink it until he comes back. A new band of guys shows up, joining the already crowded corner, and one of the newcomers stares at me awkwardly: “That’s a white boy—he’s a white boy. Somebody tell me what’s going on.”
I tell him I was speaking with Cash. “Say no more,” he says aloud to laughs, and then pats me on the back. Ten minutes later, Cash returns with everyone’s orders: Beers and tall Arizona Iced Teas for the thirsty, loosies for the craving, cigars for those looking to twist up a blunt to smoke and pass the time. As he cracks open a drink, I ask if the cops around here care about the booze. He tells me the NYPD hassle, and sometimes arrest, the guys for alcohol, but they drink anyway. There’s nothing much to lose.
At night, the cops will kick them off the corner for sleeping there, forcing them to find somewhere else to sleep down the block. But why would anyone sleep outside with a shelter across the street? Earlier, Cash told me he was incarcerated—for “paraphernalia,” when I ask— at the Manhattan House of Detention, a.k.a. The Tombs, and was released a year ago. He uses his experience, and his now post-imprisonment sensibilities, as the explanation for why he chooses to sleep on streets instead of in the shelter.
“Have you ever been to jail? That’s a similar situation.”
“Soon as you come in those doors, you’re thrown into pat frisks. The people you’re around are just wastes, you know? No morals, no principles, no values. It all goes.”
Just over a year ago, when Hurricane Sandy crashed down upon New York, leaving thousands in his current position, Cash was behind bars. The inmates were tasked with fortifying the prison as the hurricane approached and, strange to say, he appreciated his time in prison then. It gave him the defense from the storm he wouldn’t have otherwise had.
I mention that it is November; the impending danger of winter can be felt in the air here. And the several times I met with Cash, he was always wearing a thick jacket, set with a hood over his graying black hair. But that season change doesn’t seem to matter to these guys or, at least, they have just stopped thinking about it.
“You find a hole. Being homeless is a skill—you need survival skills on how to stay fucking alive in New York City,” Cash says. “Sleeping in all these bizarre places—for someone that’s already been out here, you learn how to survive.”
* * *
In 2007, attesting to his now-failed vow to cut homelessness by two-thirds during his mayoralty, Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched the Advantage program. Its M.O. was simple: City Hall gives you an apartment to live in and subsidizes your rent. The catch? You have to find a job, so you’ll eventually be able to pay it yourself. It was the perfect blend of conservative work ethic and liberal social justice.
And, to use a phrase unheard of in government, it worked. The New York Times called Advantage “one program that has helped to reduce homelessness.” At one point, of 10,000 homeless family units on the program, “88 percent of recipients [were] successfully making the transition to living on their own.” As a result, Advantage’s waiting list was a scroll, and Cash’s name was somewhere on it, but not for long.
Enter the whirlwind of recession. By 2011, Governor Andrew Cuomo was cutting $65 million of state funds that were going to Advantage, and then, without the backing of Albany, the $25 million in federal funds disappeared almost overnight. In February of that year, the rent checks stopped coming for thousands of people. They were now forced to move out, onto the streets and subway platforms or back into the already-packed shelters.
When Cash describes his own misfortune—the fact that he never even got a chance to join the program—you can hear the anger and frustration.
“All you had to do is get a job and be able to maintain the fucking place. That’s it! And then you can save a little something before they cut you loose to take the run and go. That is all we need: a job that pays and a place to lay our fucking heads. Just so we can go out and do what we have to do,” Cash explains. “You’ve got guys here—they drink, they smoke, but they’re functioning. Some of ‘em out here six o’clock in the morning, waiting to be a honest man and go to work. You can’t knock that.”
We’ve heard this said about the helicopter-hopping Hizzoner countless times before: His wealth has disillusioned him from the plight of New Yorkers, disabling the mayor from enacting substantial change; in this case, to wipe the enormous blemish of homelessness off the collective, urban soul. Except Advantage, this solution that even Cash praised, was his administration’s idea. Its failure was a result of the times, like so many other hopes cut short by the Great Recession. In 2004, that vow to end “chronic homelessness” seemed fiscally feasible; seven years later, it was deemed financially impossible. But if you’re struggling to survive on the streets, none of this finding fault or finger pointing matters. Advantage is gone and that is that.
To the guys on the corner, Mayor Bloomberg is synonymous with the DHS, appearing in the form of authority once a day, if that. He represents what they don’t have and their inability to fix that. And, on January 1, 2014, his name will enter the history books.
The man who will take his place is 1) not worth nearly $27 billion; and 2) states, notoriously unlike his predecessor, that the growing divide between the haves and have-nots is the most serious problem facing New York. Homelessness in New York City has surpassed Great Depression levels, with thousands of residents sleeping on its streets every night. Bill de Blasio will take office on that message of bridging the gap between government and reality. But, even if these details were strictly campaign rhetoric, isn’t a post-Bloomberg government inherently progress to the guys on the corner?
“We don’t really know who de Blasio is; I mean, he’s an overnight candidate just thrown at us. Really, who is Bill de Blasio?” Cash asks me when I bring up the new mayor.
According to him, Bill de Blasio has never visited the corner, not as a Councilman, Public Advocate or, now, Mayor-Elect. And, like with the DHS and Bloomberg, if the guys can’t see the attempt to help, it doesn’t exist. So skepticism of his victory’s implications is no surprise.
In late October, President Obama came to New York to raise millions, stopping at the Pathways in Technology Early College High School just a few blocks from here. When his motorcade drove down Atlantic Avenue, Cash says the guys on the corner were moved down the block by the NYPD, far from the President’s sight. This was the candidate who, like de Blasio, campaigned on economic hope and equality for all, but all Cash has seen is fewer food stamps and fewer linens in the shelter.
This is the common criticism we hear about the forthcoming de Blasio years: that, come January, his progressive ideology will get backhanded by pragmatic betrayal, met with high crime rates and taxes to form some sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde nightmare for supporters.
But he does have plans. Aside from promising to build 50,000 new affordable housing units, the Mayor-Elect is advocating for a rent subsidy program similar to Advantage and the placement of the city’s neediest cases on the front of the housing line. And, with much more stable city and state budgets than in recent years, he’ll be dealt a better economic hand than Bloomberg, too. For now, at least. The office of Governor Andrew Cuomo has remained mum on a rent subsidy program, telling the Wall Street Journal that it would “review any proposals when they are put forward,” but there seems to be support for it amongst the Democrats in the State Assembly.
“Leaders have a tendency of getting into office and the real powers start muscling on you to do things you really don’t wanna do,” says Cash. “They start off with great intentions and get sidetracked.”
“You think being from Brooklyn helps?” I ask.
To note, de Blasio, a Park Slope denizen, is the first mayor in nearly forty years to be elected while living in the outer boroughs.
“I think it’s good for Brooklyn!” he laughs. “Finally, we’re gonna have a good shot. Finally, Marty has someone on his side who can get the things done that really need to get done.” (He was referring to Marty Markowitz, the popular, outgoing Brooklyn Borough President).
“Like what?” Hearing my question, Cash raises his voice and the guys near us notice. They look over and lean in to listen.
“There are not enough rent-stabilized homes or affordable homes for these men in the shelter,” he says, shaking his head. “The shelter system has a priority list—you know, women with children, men with families, so forth. But we’re down at the bottom: there’s no place for single men.
“If I had my say, what I need de Blasio to do is create housing. Programs for work, right here in our ‘hood, too. There really are a lot of people going through a lot of shit. You see all the up-up people, but they’re not Brooklynites. These are people that are coming from other places to Brooklyn. It’s not the people who have helped drive and made Brooklyn what it is.”
Cash’s uptick in tone makes it clear that this is a topic of conversation here often, one fraught with deep-seated emotions of societal neglect and class. Because, in the end, it is their livelihood, their treatment in a neighborhood developing around but without them, and no matter where the guys on the corner look for help, they see indifference.
In the past year alone, the condo industry in Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights—the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the shelter—has exploded, with an average price now over $431,000, twelve percent higher than last year. On almost every street parallel to Pacific, signs boasting ‘Expected Finish Date’ showcase the newest arrivals in real estate’s next trendy target, locally due in part to the revitalization of Franklin Avenue. One wealthy shopper described the buying frenzy to a Post writer as “Insane! You can’t find anything.”
Neither can Cash and the guys. All you have to do is look up and down to see Bill de Blasio’s now-famous Dickensian tale.
“Landlords are building all these single condos. There’s no room for no buildings for us. But they’ll take an empty lot, and build a condominium,” Cash exclaimed. “It’ll be a thin, nimble thing! That’s the place where our buildings should go!”
But ironically the hyper-development provides Cash and his friends with day-to-day jobs: more condos, more construction. It’s a catch-22 that Cash willingly takes part in—he understands that. So, as a homeless man and an up-close witness to change, Cash doesn’t criticize gentrification. He just wants a piece of the pie that everyone else seems to be eating.
“It’s for the better. I love being able to sit down at a cafe and do my thing—I love that. I’m for it. I’m tired of looking at abandoned buildings and same ratchet places,” he said, glancing over to his friends. “They’re tired of that, too.”
Throughout the conversation, Cash only mentions our differences in income and daily life—the simple fact that I can go back to a home and he can’t—once. It comes to life when he prescribes the incoming leader with a simple remedy, one that would help city government realize that New York City’s homelessness is much more complex than abstract rhetoric.
“You come out here and see what the people really need,” Cash declares, pointing to my chest. “Don’t assume: What you need is not what I need. You already got it. You’re not gonna go to that damn job every day and get down in dirt and all of that if you have a proper education. You don’t have to.
“The little guy has to do that because it is what it is,” he continues. “All that matters is, if you’re gonna be for the people, you have to be for everybody—the little guy as well as the guy who greens your pocket to help you get certain things pushed. Bill de Blasio says he’s going to support the small merchants and the little guy. Let’s see it.”
* * *
On the corner, Cash has known a few of the guys for years, some decades, having grown up together in East New York. Earlier, a man lying off to the side attracted my attention, with his beard, tanned skin and old age.
“That’s Cuba. He’s a longtime resident and doesn’t speak English. He’s part of our family.”
“And the man from before, the one who asked who I was?”
“Give him twenty minutes and he’ll be snoozing.”
An SUV pulls up—time for food again. This time, fried chicken and fried rice. A line forms from the trunk to the sidewalk. Having eaten just before, Cash wants to save the meal for dinner, so he tries to hang his on top of the fence, underneath the pear tree and away from the cold winds, but he can’t reach. “Yo, Andre!”
The call beckons a tall, soft-spoken man to appear. He doesn’t have to extend his arm up much to hang up the conservationists’ trays. Cash looks at me and smirks as he walks away. “That’s why we call him Andre the Giant.”
It’s time to leave. Hours have passed and it feels appropriate to let the guys eat in peace this time. So I say my goodbyes to the guys I met on the corner. But before I head out, I pull Cash aside.
“Hey, if I want to talk again, how can I?”
“Just come here tomorrow morning—I’ll be here. I’m always here.”
* * *
In the second week of December, I return and discover that the work corner on Bedford Avenue and Pacific Street has been deemed “a problem” after someone in the community penned a letter to the NYPD, arguing that the noise of the men at night was becoming an issue. This was the reason the cops gave when they kicked the men off the corner at nightfall, Cash told me, and even said the letter had made its way up to the outgoing police commissioner himself. When asked, the NYPD’s public information office was unable to provide the alleged complaint, citing privacy issues.
After long days of working in colder weather, the guys like to drink and wander, Cash tells me, but this is the first time that this—the notification that his home on the corner has been called “a problem”—has happened in his years living here. In terms of what this means for their displacement in coming days, he shrugs and said, “We’ll wait it out. That’s what we always do.”
* * *
John Surico is a freelance writer. Currently a stringer for the New York Times’s metro desk, his past work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, GQ.com, NYMag.com and BKLYNR. He lives in Brooklyn, but hails from Long Island.
Alison Brockhouse is an artist and photographer based in Brooklyn, New York.