When the temperature drops during the winter months, it's not uncommon to see articles about how to help the homeless. The advice is generally the same: call a city hotline and a special team will be dispatched or consider donating warm weather clothing—and you should of course do both of these things if you know of someone who must be out in the cold. These articles also highlight a large segment of homeless people who turn down help to avoid having to spend the night in a shelter, where they worry their safety and well-being will be compromised in the company of strangers. Where do these people actually go in the face of extreme elements?
It was a humid day in June when I met Marie*. I was hurrying through an outdoor passageway at Penn Station to get to the office following an offsite morning appointment. I was late so my sole focus was getting through the passageway as quickly as possible and I walked without seeing—insofar as we tend to overlook that which is familiar to us—the group of homeless men and women who often gathered in that space. I was aware, however, that my bright red dress was attracting a lot of attention but I had also relegated that to the peripheral space where so much of City activity gets placed so I didn't immediately take notice of the man until he had fallen into step with me. He offered me a compliment and I quickened my pace but he didn't fall away. He offered me another compliment, more aggressively, and I responded sharply that he should leave me alone. He opened his mouth again, and that's when Marie interjected. "Leave that child alone!" she said. Her voice boomed through the passageway. I threw a glance over my shoulder to see this diminutive woman, feet planted firmly apart, with a group of five or six people spread around here. My would-be admirer fell back and I could hear her voice, now fading fast, demanding to know what he was doing.
The rhythm of the day quickly took over once I crossed the street and entered my building. There were emails to answer, meetings to attend, and teams to direct. I didn't think of the morning's incident again until I began to pack up for the day. I retraced my steps without incident—the passageway was entirely empty. However, descending the stairs into the bustle of Penn Station, I heard her voice again. She was standing with another little group near a schedule screen. Her stance was as it had been in the morning; she just seemed like she was in charge. We caught each other's eye for a second and I gave a quick nod before joining the current of people headed toward my track. Over the summer, we built up an exchange of passing acknowledgments and she moved from the periphery into my space. I began to see her more often. Then the office moved, and my route and schedule into and out of Penn Station changed, and it was the beginning of December before I saw her again.
"You don't come through here no more, Red" she said that day. I stopped. And we had our first real conversation.
A report from Housing and Urban Development reports that there were over 200,000 Americans living in unsheltered locations in January 2013. On colder nights, the segment of the population is particularly at risk. Marie has been living on the streets for twelve years. After lost her job as office assistant, she had trouble finding another job as the economy spiraled into the recession. Her money soon ran out and she came home to an eviction notice. She spent that first night standing in a parking garage and those first few days on the streets shuffling between Starbucks and McDonalds.
Marie has seen her share of cold nights and avoids the shelters for the reasons cited by many: safety and security. Thefts are common in the close quarters of shelters, as are colds and bedbugs. She has on occasion used one to warm up, but when given the choice, she chooses to take her chances outdoors. She has a set of parks and underpasses she frequents in the warmer months. But she has huddled in bank atriums, public libraries, and hospital waiting rooms when the cold forces her indoors. She's careful not to linger long enough to attract attention but also knows where she can usually catch a break from the cops on patrol on particularly bad nights.
In places like Penn Station, Marie is careful to never appear drunk—which doesn't mean she doesn't drink. "They'll notice you," she told me which struck me as odd at first: why would someone who is typically overlooked want to remain in the shadows? She won't turn down the bottle if it's passed to her when she meets with her friends, but she's careful get drawn into an argument or allow herself to get unsteady on her feet. It's almost as if flying below the radar has become a part of the norm for her. She and her friends tend to gather in the far corridor at Penn Station near the escalators that connect to Amtrak. It provides them with an easy exit when they need it, but it also keeps them away from the majority of the commuting crowd. She's learned over time that when people become uncomfortable that usually means you've got a limited amount of time before you get rousted.
"Too many rules. Too much to do to be with you people," Marie told me around Christmas when I asked if she would be spending the holiday in a shelter or with friends. She was referring to the intake process for a single adult to get into a shelter. "If I had kids, it would matter, but it's just me. I can do fine out here. It's easier out here."
But there are rules on the outside too: always dress in layers, be ready to leave, and stay away from the tunnels. On days when she just has to get inside, she plots a course that sometimes takes her a considerable distance: She might spend the day at one of the indoor public spaces sponsored by businesses or make her way to a public library. "It important to find places with a bathroom," she told me. "Especially during the day cause at night, you just take what you can get." In these cases, at night, she'll try to stay for as long as she can at a bar before the crowd thins and she has to leave. Then she'll head to transportation hub like Penn Station or Port Authority. It's sometimes harder to get into the restrooms in the early morning hours, but it's warm and dry.
She tries not to ride the subway if she can avoid it. As a woman, she worries about late night encounters on the trains. (Sometimes the people you have to worry about aren't other homeless people, but drunken revelers headed home.) The thing she never does is head down into the subway tunnels: "You don't know what's down there. Stay where you know."
*Marie is not her real name.
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