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House the Homeless In Unused City Space

By Jonathan Rowe / February 11, 1992



MITCH SNYDER, the late advocate for homeless people, once launched a crusade to turn part of the Capitol Building in Washington into a shelter. He went from one congressional office to the next, speaking with whomever would listen.

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The Capitol has a spacious rotunda, he said. It is warm, dry, and totally empty at night, except for the guards. The taxpayers are already paying for the space, Snyder said. So why not take this architectural artifact and turn it into a showcase of humane concern?

I was working on a congressional staff at the time, and Snyder made his pitch to me. Steeped in the culture of Capitol Hill, I urged him to be politic and practical. Congress would never turn its precious rotunda into a shelter, I said. But there was lots of other space on the Hill, such as the network of tunnels connecting the congressional buildings. Push for one of those, and you just might get someplace, I told him. Snyder didn't speak the language of politics and compromise, however. He knew his mis sion was quixotic. But he had a point to make and the rotunda - a symbol of Washington gentility - helped to ram it home.

There was lots of space in America that could provide shelter, as there still is today. People were sleeping in cardboard boxes and on heat grates while this space went to waste. Couldn't somebody put two and two together?

I thought of this a few nights ago as I walked through Lower Manhattan to the subway. It was very late and very, very cold. The gray buildings of the financial district were shut up like vaults. Aside from a few all-night delis, the only place of shelter and warmth was the World Trade Center's underground mall that leads to the subway terminus there.

By day the mall bustles with stockbrokers and secretaries. But now, after midnight, it had turned into a shelter. Men were stretched out in shop doorways and along the walls. The subway train had become a kind of rolling motel. I should have expected it, but still the sight stunned me. I felt as though I had walked into somebody's bedroom.

Like most New Yorkers, I often see tabloid headlines of grim subway assaults, and these hovered over my mind as I took a seat. What struck me as I sat there, though, was how vulnerable these men looked. Asleep, they were almost like kids curled up in the back seat of the car. What a terrible thought, on a freezing night, to have no place to go except the plastic benches on this subway train.

I thought, too, about the office buildings I had passed. The office vacancy rate in Manhattan is close to 20 percent, which means some 63 million square feet with no one in it. Even when space is rented, often it's not used very well. A British management consultant by the name of John Lloyd has studied the use of high-rise office buildings. He found that when you take account of lunch breaks, off hours, and the like, the typical building is used at only about 5 percent capacity. "Not many factories or p ower stations are allowed to waste assets on such a prolific scale," Lloyd said.

He's exaggerating, of course. No one can sit at a desk 24 hours a day. Still, the point remains. Much indoor space in American cities probably goes unused at least half the time - primarily at night when someone needs it most. Much space, such as basement corridors and the like, hardly gets used at all.

If each commercial building in Manhattan were to provide space for just two or three people, the impact on the city's homeless population would be enormous.

Yes, it would take some coordination. But the city spends a great deal today keeping the homeless out of places. Perhaps it could spend just a little of that overseeing new places for them to stay. This need not be a one-sided transaction. Superintendents in residential buildings typically get free rent in exchange for their services. Similarly, those who get a place to sleep could help clean around buildings or in subway stations - whatever.

New York is at an impasse regarding the homeless. The city can't afford the small-scale shelters that work best. Neighborhood residents don't want the larger ones that create problems. The answer might be to start using the space the city already has.