In New York's Riverside Park, a homeless man named Robert, 48, worries about the coming winter weather. "The wind off the water will rattle your bones," he says. "I got 10 blankets." He may need them, because he could have trouble finding a safe haven this winter. "I may have to spend this one outside," says Robert.
In the nation's largest city, the homeless population is on the rise-and subject to rougher handling. New York City officials admit to a homeless population of 25,000, but that figure is based only on attendance at the shelters. Advocates for the homeless say the total is closer to 90,000, of whom 13,000 are mentally ill and 30,000 are EW-positive or have fullblown AIDS. City officials and activists agree that the numbers have increased 100 percent in the last decade, and project an even faster rate of growth ahead. Factor into the scenario the recession, fading public sympathy, city-budget cuts and political wrangling over Mayor David Dinkins's new shelter plan--and the fact that grass-roots and community-service groups are stretched thin. "In a word," says Mary Brosnahan of the Coalition for the Homeless, "the outlook is bleak." Changes in official policy have made life harder for street people. This fall, officials from the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Port Authority said people will no longer be allowed to sleep in subways and bus stations, even when temperatures fall below freezing. The homeless complain that park workers and police run them out of the parks every morning. "If we don't move our stuff too quickly, they'll take it," says Robert. Others fear police brutality. George Banks, a former bank clerk, claims a cop once smashed his ankle with a nightstick when he tried to defend a young woman the officer was harassing.
Police are supposed to point the homeless toward city shelters, but many people are afraid to go there. Will they be infected with the tuberculosis that's become an increasing threat in the city (page 70), or attacked by a psychiatric ward refugee in the next bed? Will the gangs of young homeless men who tyrannize some shelters beat them up? "I'd rather be in jail than Ft. Washington [shelter]," says Daniel, who lives in Riverside Park. In recent years, city policy cut off another option to the shelters. For less than $100 a week, homeless people could stay in single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels. But during the construction boom of the 1980s, the SROs were razed in droves, eliminating some 80,000 beds.
Mayor Dinkins thought the solution was smaller shelters where managers could head off the problems of the old ones. Instead, he set off a sharp public debate. While making severe budget cuts in other areas this fall, Dinkins announced a plan to open at least 24 new shelters, largeIy in middle-class neighborhoods. Dinkins heard a familiar protest: "Not in my backyard." Stepping into the battle, Andrew Cuomo, the governor's son and chairman of the mayor's Commission on Homelessness, told The New York Times that the Dinkins plan was "dead on arrival." Cuomo made his own proposals for private, nonprofit shelters and separate housing for addicts, people with AIDS and the mentally ill.
Politicians squabble, advocates complain-and on nearly every street corner in Manhattan, someone extends a dogeared paper cup and asks for change. Inured to the sight, most New Yorkers walk by without a glance. Even the homeless know that, as a public cause, they've lost ground. "The bottom line is, people don't care," says Banks, "and it's getting worse." With increasing numbers of homeless people living--and dying--in the city's streets, who can tell him he's wrong?