New York — Two figures hover over a fire burning in a dented trash barrel. Flames cast shadows over the abandoned lot. Occasionally one man will stoop down and pick up a crumpled wrapper to feed into the source of heat. It is proving to be one of the coldest winters in the city's history.
Teddy and Red are out on the street again. They are used to spending their nights outside, awake. Empty bunks at the Palace Hotel are grabbed up early. Tired of being harassed by the police, they avoid the subway and bus stations. Even as a last resort, they won't go to the city-run public shelter for homeless men. They have had too many bad experiences there. And they wouldn't dream of sleeping outside at night -- the dangers of getting mugged are too great.
This late at night on the Bowery, when the run-down bars and cafes have shut their doors, there is no place where the estimated 36,000 homeless people in the city can take refuge.
"If there were this many refugees walking our streets," Kim Hopper, a social worker with the Community Service Society, says, "a national emergency would be declared."
More and more men and women in New York and other United States cities are losing their homes. Low-cost housing is scarce and getting scarcer, accentuated by the movement of the middle class back to the city centers. Rising unemployment, especially among young black males, is another factor, and the whole problem has been further compounded in the last decade by the deinstitutionalization of hundreds of thousands of mental patients across the nation.
During the frigid winter months, the problem is aggravated -- competition stiffens for the insufficient shelter space.
Each winter, public officials combine their efforts with private agencies to provide emergency assistance. But temporary measures cannot solve the problem. What is needed, social workers say, is a basic change in the way society understands and deals with the homeless.
Lawsuits now being brought against the city and state suggest what the social workers mean by a new way of dealing with the homeless.
In Callahan v. Carey, a suit that began in October 1979, lawyers representing the homeless argued that the state constitution guarantees a right to shelter. On Christmas Eve of that year, the court issued a preliminary injunction upholding that right. The city responded by turning part of a former psychiatric hospital on Wards Island into a 250-bed shelter for homeless men.
Not only is the shelter way out on an island in the upper part of the East River, but there are also frequent reports of men being brutally treated there. Consequently, Legal Aid Society lawyers have shifted their emphasis. In an auxiliary suit, Jablonski v. Brezenoff, they argue that the quality of the shelter is intolerable. When the trial began, 622 men were crowded into the 250 -bed shelter. Recently, only one shower was operating for over 500 residents.
The case is still in litigation.
Attorneys for the homeless recognize a difficult job ahead of them: Not only must they persuade city and state officials to improve existing shelters, they must also convince officials that more shelters are needed.
"The city says they are doing the best they can," Bob Hayes, attorney for the Legal Aid Society, says. "They claim that the homeless people prefer the streets. But if the shelters were minimally humane, people would flock to them."
Extensive research carried out in New York City by the Community Service Society supports this view.According to their yet-to-be-published report:
"Given the state of the public shelters -- or perhaps, more accurately, given the nature of the personal costs exacted when one submits to their regimens and conditions -- the decision by many homeless people to fend for themselves on the streets gains at least a measure of intelligibility. Where decent, humane shelter has been made available, it has never lacked willing recipients."
Teddy and Red are still the most visible types on the Bowery. They rub car windows with greasy rags to earn spare change, and have, in some sense, "chosen" their way of life. They are the classic skid-row derelicts: society's drop-outs (often because of personal crises), alcoholic, and intensely conscious of both facts.
"I'm a bum," Red admits. "I taught English at a high school when my wife died about eight years ago. It was just around this time of year -- I couldn't stay sober. They fired me. Eventually the money dried up but I didn't. And now I'm out here."
Blessed with good health and a resourcefulness acquired through 17 years of living on the street, Teddy survives remarkably well, compared with others.
"You have to know how to panhandle," he says. "You've got to have some money. Your friends will only support you for so long. Yesterday I made 19 bucks -- 19!"
But not all of the Bowery people are as self-reliant and streetwise as Red and Teddy. During the last decade the character of the homeless population has changed.
At least half of New York's homeless men are former mental patients now deemed fit for life outside the hospitals. They are not as visible to the visitor to the Bowery, since many find their way to the Men's Shelter. There they can pick up a "white ticket" which allows them a free bunk in one of the flophouses on the street, or to the Keener Building on Wards Island.
For those who do not have the physical and mental capabilities of Teddy and Red, life is much tougher. They are constant victims of assault, robbery, and sexual abuse. According to countless reports, they have had little preparation for life outside the hospitals.
Ironically, many of the former institutionalized patients find themselves returning to the place from which they were released -- except now they receive little of the counseling and care that they had before.
According to the Community Service Society document, 65,000 patients (out of a total of 89,000) have been discharged from New York State hospitals since 1968 . Criteria for admittance have also been tightened.
"As a result," the report states, "an estimated 47,000 chronically mentally disabled adults now reside in New York City alone."
"What led to institutionalization," explains Dr. Harold Goldberg, director of the West-RosPark Mental Health Center in Boston, "was a feeling that the people were hopeless cases."
But in the 1960s, with the backing of the Kennedy administration, the philosophy of treating mental patients changed. Dr. Goldberg relates that with new ways of treatment and a growing optimism, "there was a feeling that they [ institutionalized patients] could be rehabilitated" better outside than the hospitals than in.
But the theory has not worked, according to most social workers who have dealt with deinstitutionalized patients.
"The Department of Mental Health has not lived up to its responsibilities," David Whitty, director of Shelter Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., charges. "This is the whole theory behind deinstitutionalization: We deinstitutionalize from inhumane, large, impersonal, and expensive institutions to humane, small-scale, and hopefully less expensive community- based programs. But where are these community-based programs? In relation to the people being deinstitutionalized, it is totally inadequate."
Whitty claims that many former mental patients are capable of living in rooms or apartments. "These people need some support," he says. "They may not need a 24-hour staffed residence, but they do need periodic visits by social workers or counselors to give them emotional support and encouragement."
The most significant strain on the mentally disabled is the lack of low-cost housing. In New York, as well as in Boston, the stock has diminished severely.
Where low-cost hotels once stood on the Bowery, wholesale lighting and restaurant equipment stores have taken their place.
"Look at that!" Red exclaims as he points to a sign in a fancy store window. "'Pure oak and slate pool table used by Willie Mosconi -- only $11,000.'"
Red walks by the run-down hotels -- the Palace and the Prince. "But we get to live with royalty," he says with mock braggadocio.
In New York, the overall vacancy for rental housing is estimated at 1 percent by the Community Service Society report, with 5 percent considered optimal. Because rents have risen 23.8 percent and income only 7 percent during the past three years, more than half of all households now pay a quarter or more of their gross income to landlords and utility companies.
On the Bowery and elsewhere, according to this report, the supply of low-cost hotels with single-room occupancy is disappearing at a rate that will ensure their extinction by 1984.
In Boston, where there are an estimated 4,000 to 9,000 homeless, there were over 900 rooming houses 10 years ago. Now there are fewer than 50. Most of them have been converted to condominiums or replaced by high-rent apartment buildings. Each time this happens, 10 to 15 people are displaced, according to Paul Sullivan, executive director of the Pine Street Inn, a shelter for homeless men there.
For the past 63 years, the Pine Street Inn has operated a shelter in the South End of Boston. The widely acclaimed success of the 350-bed shelter is due to the efforts of Sullivan and a largely volunteer "live in" staff, many of whom were formerly homeless. The Boston shelter is considered an exemplary large-scale institution by social workers who are seeking to improve the conditions of public shelters in New York.
Yet the most successful ones have been the small, "Digger" type. Named after the 16th-century utopian group in England which advocated private, voluntary efforts to help the disadvantaged, these organizations attempt to provide spiritual as well as physical shelter. A family or community spirit is promoted to enhance the residents' self-respect.
Church or religious groups are often associated with these small-scale shelters. The Salvation Army sponsors "Harbor Light" homes in eight US cities, the Catholic Workers operate Mary House and Joseph House in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and many other private charities run and finance shelters for the homeless. In each case, it is primarily concerned and dedicated volunteers who make the shelter a success.
Their work depends on the availability of low-cost housing.
"Without control over the housing stock," Mr. Hopper emphasizes, "their job is farcical."
He would like to see Digger-type homes replace the large centralized public shelters. But he realizes it would take "grass-roots political pressure" to secure public funding for such homes and to overcome opposition to locating them in residential neighborhoods.
"People just don't know what to do," he says. "Most people are sensitive to the problem and would be willing to help, if they were offered a way. . . . They can do volunteer work at one of the smaller centers or, perhaps more important, they can begin organizing at the community-service level."
Bob Hayes, the Legal Aid Society lawyer, cites what he considers to be the ideal program to help the homeless. In Geel, Belgium, families have been adopting the homeless since the 14th century. The government provides financial assistance, and the families provide the home.
"It would be like having an 'uncle' living upstairs," Hayes says. "This is my dream vision for the ultimate solution to the problem."
"It is the failure of our own imaginations," Hopper declares, "to see the problem as hopeless. These people are not irrecoverable."