“Homelessness for Dummies”: The Economics of Living in the Street

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It is in cheap “dollar stores” like this one that Nadine and Jeffrey regularly purchased alcohol wipes in order to clean themselves while living on the street.

By Gligor Tashkovich (United States)

Around October of 2014, Nadine approached me as I was walking towards my office in Manhattan. She and her husband Jeffrey had been living on the street corner of East 57th and Madison 24/7 in all weather conditions and without proper shelter. They would find clothes from time-to-time — even sleeping bags — or backpacks — but they would eventually get stolen by other denizens of the night. I had never spoken to her before and like most people I walked past them. Nadine chose her words carefully. She asked me for a hand-up.

Nadine said that she wanted a bed under a roof with a bathroom and a mirror. She wanted her life back and she thought that I — of all the thousands of people that pass their street corner each day — could help them achieve that dream. In the back of my mind, I could hear the voice of Doris Buffett of the Sunshine Lady Foundation tell me, “Gligor, I give hand-ups, not hand-outs.” Without knowing anything about their situation other than that it was clearly dire, I didn’t hesitate. I said, “Of course.”

The first eleven months were a steep learning curve for me as I heard story after story of their trials and tribulations and of the reverse racism they continually felt at the hands of city government employees and on the subway. Their paper documents (photocopies of IDs, appointment papers, etc.) would dissolve into nothingness from each rainstorm leaving them to start all over each time.

After this happened twice, I started to keep copies of all important documents and identification in my office drawer. It was a good idea because I had to make photocopies of those documents several more times until we got them into a shelter just an hour or so before the Pope visited Manhattan in October 2015. I had helped them make multiple visits to the Public Advocate’s office, the Coalition for the Homeless, and two trips to City Hall to get an “original copy” of their Domestic Partnership certificate which was required for them to get shelter together in the city.

Living on the street meant that they had to be aware of the laws concerning sleeping in public. Whenever the police came to question them (which was more than once a day), Jeffrey was always able to show that they were never occupying any more pavement space than the public is legally allowed to do in New York. They also each had to hope to raise $2.34 for each meal, which they would use to purchase a pre-made “macaroni & cheese” product from the local overpriced Duane Reade. They would prepare it with a free cup of boiling water from the nearby Starbucks. In addition, they hoped to make $2.75 each for subway fare in order to spend the night on the subway system during most cold weather days. These two expenses meant that they could not even imagine the idea of finding the $15 fee for the Domestic Partnership certificate, plus $11 in subway fares for both of them to go down to City Hall and back, plus a fee to pay for a money order to pay City Hall because the city does not accept cash. You’ll quickly understand that their ability to get this certificate was out of their reach without help from someone.

When we went across town to the NYC shelter processing area on East 30th Street hours before the Pope arrived, a brand new London-style yellow taxi picked us up. The driver looked distinctly displeased to have two visibly homeless people in his new cab. Nadine and Jeffrey, to their great credit, had decent hygiene. At a cheap “dollar store” some blocks away, they regularly purchased alcohol wipes which they used to clean themselves in a bathroom of any random Starbucks once a day. They also kept their street corner immaculate and respected the rules of occupying a street corner without the police being able to legally eject them (although the heartless employees at the new Breitling watch store tried to eject them many times — even after I wrote store management three times asking for a meeting to discuss the situation — e-mails to which they never replied).

Previously, Nadine and Jeffrey had been turned down for shelter as a couple numerous times before because they couldn’t produce their original Domestic Partnership document. (How many married couples can put their hands on their original marriage license if they had to?) However, once they had the replacement copy, it was scanned into the city’s system so that they now have a permanent record of it on file. Nadine and Jeffrey were placed into a temporary shelter out near Jamaica (a major interchange for the Long Island Railroad) for a few weeks. Then a place opened up for them on the 5th floor walk-up of a drug-and-mice infested shelter euphemistically called the Grand Concourse Residences in the Bronx.

I never set out to become their best friend for life. I saw my role as more like a Guardian Angel (or “a friend for a reason” as the saying goes) who could give them a hand-up and get them to a safer place than they were now. They undoubtedly are in a safer place but my fear is that this could all unravel pretty quickly.

When I first began to chronicle their story to share on social media, they both agreed. Once they were in the shelter, they had a chance to read over everything published so far. Reading their own story made a huge impact on them‎. The idea that their story would help educate others was very satisfying; so, Jeffrey has decided to start drafting a Homelessness for Dummies book!

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