By Carol Tannenhauser
Before winter storms like the one that hit the city on Wednesday, those charged with the health and safety of its most vulnerable citizens — the unsheltered homeless — redouble their efforts to transition people indoors. WSR went with a street-outreach team the morning of a prior storm to observe their work.
Lying under a blue construction tarp, totally hidden from sight, on an Upper West Side sidewalk we’d rather not identify, a man fought to maintain his dignity. No, we could not take his picture. “It’s embarrassing,” he said.
The Goddard Riverside street-homeless outreach team knew his name — William — and where to find him to make sure he was okay the morning of the last Nor’easter, which hit the city later and lighter than predicted, earlier this month. A “Code Blue,” called the night before by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), in anticipation of extreme weather, was nonetheless in effect.
“You okay, William?” Gavin Wilkinson, a senior housing outreach specialist, asked. “Can you feel your hands and feet?” It was six a.m. and raining. “Do you need anything? There’s a snowstorm coming. Do you want to come inside?”
“I’m fine,” William said, from under the tarp.
Promising to return, Wilkinson and his partner, Paulique Medina, got back in their car and drove to their next client, hidden behind a mountain of dirt and a slab of concrete, under the West Side Highway.
“Clients tend to stick to certain areas or ‘spots’ where they sleep at night,” wrote Keri Goldwyn, director of Goddard’s uptown outreach program, in an email. “Some remain in the same location during the day, while others have a ‘day location’ unique from that of their ‘night location’…The clients engaged [that morning] were all in their “regular spots.”
For four months in late 2013, Robert Spisa’s regular spot was 59th Street and Columbus Avenue.
“You have to have certain life skills when you’re on the street,” Spisa, 56, explained. “First, you got to pick your location. You don’t want to get knocked on your head while you’re sleeping. That’s why I chose next to the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, across the street from Roosevelt Hospital. I figured if anything happened, I got God and health care.”
Two-and-a-half years later, Spisa was placed in permanent, supportive housing for formerly homeless people — a residence called Capitol Hall, on 87th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, run by Goddard Riverside. WSR met him there to hear his story of becoming and being one of New York City’s “unsheltered” or “street” homeless, and working his way out of it, with the help of Goddard Riverside, contracted by the City to conduct homeless outreach 24/7/365, covering 59th Street to 110th, from river to river.
In the spring of 2016, Mayor de Blasio launched HOME-STAT (Homeless Outreach & Mobile Engagement Street Action Teams), “the most comprehensive homeless outreach program in the nation,” according to DHS, which recently reported that, in the two years since its inception, together with nonprofits like Goddard Riverside, Center for Urban Community Services, and Breaking Ground, “the City has helped 1,480 people transition off the streets.”
That leaves 3,892 unsheltered New Yorkers, according to the latest DHS/HOPE count.
“Every one has a different story,” Spisa said. “There’s a lot of people who got a bad deal in life, whether they’re emotionally not up to par, or physically not up to par.”
In fact, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, “Studies show that the large majority of street homeless New Yorkers are people living with mental illness or other severe health problems.”
“I’m outside the circle,” Spisa said. “What happened to me, in 2010, I was the super of a building that got foreclosed on during the mortgage crisis, and I lost my job and apartment.”
He had been living with his girlfriend, Leslie, and their young daughter, Chayanne. The couple was given a “buyout” of $12,000 apiece. They stayed in hotels for awhile, but “the money was going real fast and we finally figured we’d split up and see who could get a place first. Leslie and Chayanne went into the family homeless shelter system. I went straight to the streets. I’d heard stories about the men’s shelter system and I didn’t want to prove them right.
“Everybody has different experiences being homeless on the street,” he continued. “Some people get set on fire on the train. My experience, thank God, wasn’t that bad. I kinda made the best of it.
“I worked in a junk yard in Jamaica, Queens, taking wrecked cars apart for parts. I’d get up early, maybe 5:30. There was a coffee guy. He’s still there. He’d be monkeying around with his generator and that’d wake me up. I went to the Starbucks. They open at 5:30. You go in there, brush your teeth, comb your hair, wipe your face off, and start your day, get your breakfast, go to work. How else you going to get off the street? I didn’t see no sense in staying stagnant. Stagnant water goes nowhere. It gets dormant, you know what I’m saying?
“I’d stay my whole day at work,” Spisa said. “Six o’clock I’d get off and go to a soup kitchen, get a meal. Every day they have different places. They hand out ‘street sheets’ that tell you where to go. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, they give out showers at different churches. You got to keep yourself clean, wash your clothes in the laundromat like everyone else.
“When I got off work, I would look for some thick pieces of cardboard that somebody threw out, because you don’t want to sleep on the cement. I had my blue construction tarp; that’s very important. You want to keep you and your possessions dry. That’s key, cause if you walk around in wet stuff, that’s definitely NG.”
Spisa knew a social worker at St. Luke’s Hospital who called Goddard about him. “The outreach team made three visits,” he recalls. “They came really early in the morning. Then I got a phone call at work: ‘They got a room for you. We’ll put you up in the YMCA on 135th Street.”
“What Robert is referring to is called a ‘stabilization bed,’” explained Roberta Solomon, LMSW, deputy executive director of Goddard Riverside. “It’s a bed with no strings attached, just to get somebody off the street while we work on more permanent housing options. We have a contract with the YMCA in Harlem. There’s also transitional housing called ‘safe havens,’ which are outside the conventional shelter system and meant for street homeless.”
According to DHS, the number of beds dedicated to street-homeless New Yorkers has more than doubled during the de Blasio administration. The current number is 1,283.
Solomon emphasized that, while permanent housing is the ideal, the outreach teams provide a whole range of services along the way to that goal, “anything and everything,” she said. “We get people linked to public assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, Social Security, family reunification. We help people get IDs. We have medical and psychiatric street teams, so, often, we save lives that way, before somebody ever comes indoors.”
The simple, but profound effect of human contact, consistency, and caring also cannot be overlooked.
“Good morning, Norman. Doing okay? Can you feel your hands and feet? Do you need anything? Would you like to come inside”?
Robert Spisa now works part time in the kitchen at Capitol Hall. Of course, he said, he would like to have his family together — Leslie and Chayanne were placed in an apartment in the Bronx — but they visit him and stay over often. “Everybody here knows Chayanne,” he said. Now seven years old, she comes on weekends. They love going to Central Park to feed the ducks.
“If you see a homeless person in need of help, call 311,” urged DHS Press Secretary Isaac McGinn. “Your call will be routed directly to us and an outreach team will be dispatched immediately.” McGinn also said to keep your expectations realistic; it can take months, even years, to bring someone inside — if at all.
“I know someone who’s been out there 22 years,” Spisa said. “They tried to gather him up for Superstorm Sandy and he was hiding from them. He doesn’t want to go in. He’s anti-shelter and all that. I think mental issues are at the base of it. They actually brought him here right from a bench on Broadway, and he declined. He saw something that scared him.”
They could not force the man to stay, nor could they forcibly remove him from his spot.
“There are local laws that restrict whether you can obstruct the sidewalk in New York City,” McGinn explained. “At the same time, there are constitutional protections so that, unless you are committing a crime or presenting a danger to yourself or others, you cannot be forcibly removed from a public space. Our outreach teams are well trained to make real-time assessments of an individual’s health and safety. They know these people really well, through hundreds of contacts. They know their survival skills: if they have the physical and mental capacities to protect themselves. A removal is always, always, always a last resort, because in order to bring someone in voluntarily, it can take an average of five months plus of building trust. If someone says ‘Go away’ today, we’ll go away, but we’ll be back tomorrow. The moment we use an involuntary removal, so much of that trust can be undermined.”
This article was inspired by an earlier WSR story about two women living under a scaffolding on Broadway, between 77th and 78th Streets. They and their belongings were forcibly removed last December. DHS explained in an email:
“This was a pre-arranged clean-up effort scheduled and performed in close coordination with the NYPD, and our not-for-profit service provider partner Goddard Riverside to address a ‘pop-up condition’ [some level of debris such as carts, cardboard, etc.] on the Upper West Side. Our outreach teams coordinate closely with partner Agencies as well as property owners to address and clean pop-up locations quickly and carefully whenever and wherever they may occur, while also encouraging those street homeless individuals to accept services and transition indoors.”
A few weeks ago, the women were spotted back outside with their belongings, in a new, nearby spot. We asked McGinn how workers deal with the frustration.
“The outlook our teams have that makes them so good at what they do is, it’s not a question of whether someone has accepted housing, it’s whether someone has accepted housing yet. We are constantly out there trying to show people that when they’re ready, we’re ready, making it clear that there are folks who are watching out for them and offering a helping hand.”
Photos by Carol Tannenhauser.