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‘Like jail’: New York homeless say shelters not the answer

By AFP - Jan 13,2016 - Last updated at Jan 13,2016

NEW YORK — Life on the streets of New York may be miserable for the thousands of homeless who sleep rough, but many are disillusioned by stepped-up efforts to eradicate a modern-day crisis.

America’s biggest and wealthiest city is a beacon across the world for financial success and entertainment — one of the biggest tourist draws on the planet, welcoming 56 million visitors last year. It has more billionaires than any other city in the world, says Forbes.

And yet 75,000 people are homeless, according to US government figures — the mentally ill, those who lost jobs in the 2008 global financial crash, employees who cannot afford skyrocketing rents, families and children.

Dozing on benches in Penn Station, begging on the street or curled up at the bottom of subway stairwells, the plight of the city’s homeless is clear for all to see.

The Coalition for the Homeless non-profit says nearly 60,000 people are in shelters each night and that in recent years homelessness in the city has hit highs not seen since the 1930s Great Depression.

The statistics are an embarrassment for Mayor Bill de Blasio, a progressive Democrat two years on the job who campaigned to redress the city’s colossal inequality after two decades under Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani and billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

His office marked the New Year by announcing a slew of initiatives, upping the number of personnel taking people off the streets when temperatures drop, increasing the number of beds for homeless youth and promising to double the number of city-funded drop-in centres.

“I am taking the gloves off on this issue, we are going at this with everything we’ve got. We will turn the tide,” de Blasio promised.

‘Like prison’

But it’s not a problem going away overnight. Outreach teams took 97 people to shelters during one particularly cold night last week, out of an estimated 3,000-4,000 believed to sleep rough.

“Woah, there’s a lot of people don’t like shelters,” Eddie, 61, told AFP as he shuffled down Ninth Avenue with a walking stick.

“When you go in, they’re gonna screen you like you’re in prison, they’re gonna pat you down.” 

Last month, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer issued a stinging report about “nightmare conditions” endured by children in family shelters run by the department of homeless services.

“What they gotta do is, instead of building all these goddam hotels for the tourists, all these abandoned buildings should get the homeless,” said Eddie, gesturing at nearby skyscrapers.

Some of those most hardened to life on the streets say they loathe shelters, claiming they are dirty and violent.

Troy, a 48-year-old grandfather and military veteran, says he hasn’t slept in a shelter for nearly a year.

Sitting on a crate on top of a piping-hot air vent on a bitterly cold afternoon in Manhattan, he compares shelters to “being in jail” and prefers life on the streets.

“Oh, it depends where you at! You see where I’m at, I’ve got many locations like that,” he said, warming his hands over the hot air.

“The time I go and see my buddy is when I can take a shower or I go to the community centre and take me a shower.”

Asked what the solution is, he waved towards a vacant-looking building — prime real estate — saying the city should renovate it and turn it over to the homeless.

Reforms announced

On Monday, de Blasio announced $8.5 million a year to finance drop-in centres, which offer food, showers, medical care and advice, acknowledging that many street homeless dislike traditional shelters.

It is the latest in a series of reforms following a 90-day review, including 15,000 new supportive housing units. 

“I got into an argument with somebody and they swung at me, and I got beat up,” said Dashaun Brown, 38, from Georgia, sheltering in Penn Station for warmth and remembering his worst shelter experience.


Tall and lanky, and self-conscious about his heavily decayed front teeth, he says he last had a job as a teenager, flipping burgers.

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