By Bobby Panza and Carol Tannenhauser
Ethan Freckles, 29, is not your average person experiencing homelessness; in fact, he would debate whether he’s experiencing homelessness at all. He prefers to say he’s “home-free.”
He usually wears clean, athletic clothing and is well groomed, though sometimes shoeless; his long red hair and beard often look damp, as if he’s just taken a shower. He’s well spoken. He finished high school and a year of community college in South Carolina, where he grew up, the son of a physical therapist and the owner of a tree-care company. They were “very religious Christians,” and homeschooled Ethan to protect him from “harmful influences.”
After college, he ended up working as a promoter for a nightclub in Los Angeles, where he first began living outside.
“I couch surfed for like a month in L.A. and then I didn’t have a place, so I just slept outside a library,” he told WSR, in a recent interview. His real name is Ethan Schneider. “That was really scary,” he said. “The first night, I wasn’t sure if someone was going to come and try to steal my stuff. I had a nice MacBook and some clothes and things, and I didn’t know what it was going to be like. It was tough to sleep at all, but I knew that I needed to, so I hung out at the library for like the first week. I listened to audio books and didn’t eat very much, but then eventually people started to notice I was there and they were like, “Hey, there’s a food bank over there.” I was like, “I can get food?” And I was off to the races.”
For the past few years, Ethan has lived on Columbus Avenue, between West 74th and West 77th Streets, usually under a sidewalk shed, in front of a vacant storefront. Lately, it’s been on the northeast corner of 74th and Columbus, in front of a former bank, and his “footprint” has grown increasingly larger, as his array of acquired goods has expanded.
“I’ve been working on learning how to live without the dollar,” he explained. “Living without currency is like an extension of me being radically self-reliant, because I figure the less I’m exchanging with others, the more I’m relying on myself or just whatever I can find. I think anything that’s in the trash is fair game. In an urban environment, that is where you hunt and gather; it’s fair game. I mean, because it’s just going to go to the landfill and go to waste and, you know, waste is, is, is awful, especially when it comes to food waste. And that’s when I, I got into, you know, looking in the trash at grocery stores and stuff like that. It’s like, it’s really unethical to waste food.”
As of last week, Ethan’s “finds” stretched out the length of half the city block. A quick inventory would include luggage, a sleeping bag, a plastic porta potty, some bicycles and a cart, composting bins, a camp trunk with “Ethan Freckles” stenciled on the side, numerous plastic egg crates filled with clothing, solar panels, and other unidentified objects, covered by tarps. Ethan could often be seen sweeping in front of his things, passing his time talking to passersby.
Not everyone appreciates his presence. Ethan has been the subject of many 311 calls and discussions at the NYPD’s 20th Precinct community meetings. “He’s taking advantage of the city,” a woman who lives on West 74th Street, between Columbus and Central Park West, told WSR. “It’s really an eyesore, and he’s obstructing the sidewalk.”
“I can’t just store my things in front of my building on the sidewalk,” a man from 83rd Street said.
“Some people want to talk to me, and they come to talk to me,” Ethan said. “If they don’t want to talk to me, they walk away. And in some rare circumstances, I tell people to walk away from me, but I realize that on a public sidewalk, really, no one has the authority to order anyone to walk anywhere. And that’s how that goes.”
Until Friday, June 4th, at around 9 p.m., when police officers and Department of Sanitation workers arrived at 74th and Columbus, and proceeded to load all of Ethan’s things into a van. Representatives from the Department of Homeless Services sat in an unmarked grey Prius, and watched.
The weekend was a haze of confusion and uncertainty for Ethan — and WSR. Reporter Bobby Panza was working on a profile of Ethan, just before his world came crashing down.
That Friday night, Ethan slept where he usually does, same spot on Columbus Avenue. On Saturday morning, he texted Panza that the police had told him that his possessions had been “vouchered,” and he had three days to pick them up in midtown before they were moved to Queens.
“Just because some neighbors are complaining doesn’t mean they have the right to push me around and take my stuff,” he said, via text before signing off. “I’m okay, but pretty tired.”
Ethan was still there early Saturday afternoon when a woman approached him and asked what he was planning to do now that his stuff had been taken. He responded that he was going to midtown to pick up the vouchered items and bring them back. And that’s what he did. How he got them uptown is a mystery — as is what happened to them a second time, a few hours later, when they disappeared again.
Here is a segment of Panza’s interview with Ethan.