Life on the Street in a `Cardboard Condo'

AS winter envelops New York, the city's homeless must make an often agonizing decision: where to find warmth, food, and a bed. The Human Resources Administration of New York reports that more than 10,000 homeless men and women choose its shelters. Private social agencies who work with the homeless estimate that from 5,000 to 20,000 more remain in the streets, parks, and abandoned buildings, as well as subway, bus, and train stations.

As an icy wind cut down 41st Street, Brian Fields woke from a night spent in a cardboard box outside the Port Authority to find that his shoes had been stolen. Asked about the Puma hightops he is wearing, he explains that he rents them from another homeless man, for $2 a day.

Nearby, ``Guiliano,'' who declined to give his last name, leases two upended furniture boxes, called ``high-rises,'' at $5 for five minutes for use as a ``private dressing room,'' he says. Crack cocaine, a highly potent form of the drug, is widely used among the homeless here, and crack smoking is a more likely use for the shelters.

Do people steal from him? Guiliano is asked. ``I own everybody around here,'' he replies. ``They're lacking brains. They build their houses and then they fall down. I build the best houses. You mess with me, and you stay out in the cold.''

Guiliano fits together four cardboard containers, one inside the other, and reinforces them with wooden pallets scavenged from a warehouse. For $35, he will fashion more elaborate cardboard duplexes for sleeping. ``This thing will stand for a month,'' he said as he whacked the structure with a sawed-off broom handle.

A week later the cardboard boxes, and their occupants, were gone. Port Authority officials said the people who lived in them were driven away by the cold. Denizens of the bus terminal said the police emptied the ``cardboard condos.''

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