National News

Solving homelessness: Looking for a way to stop looking away

Posted June 19, 2018 3:14 p.m. EDT

— He was unwashed and unhinged, and when he slammed open the doors between subway cars, ranting at demons no one could see, I froze.

It was 1989. I was a wide-eyed college kid in a bad suit on my very first subway ride.

I'd touched down at LaGuardia a few hours before, hoping to land a dream internship on my favorite TV show, but my rookie awe was snuffed by the realization that a hiring freeze had ended my chances before I even got on the plane.

Licking wounds and rationing cash, I ventured down into the grit and graffiti, boarded the A train and, within minutes, was forced to wrestle with the problem of chronic homelessness.

Literally.

He was working his way down the half-empty car, barking at nannies and businessmen and, just as he reached a woman to my right, I instinctively stood to intervene.

How was I to know that the standard protocol is never to engage? Why didn't the flight attendants or a PA announcement inform me that when you are confronted with New York City's most desperate, you always, always look away?

Threatened by my move, he put out his hands. The train lurched and we fell. I remember the weight of him and the smell. I remember how no one helped.

We rolled around for a few fraught seconds until the train stopped at 34th Street, the doors slid open and the man bear-crawled away. My face burned with fear and embarrassment. "You OK?" a guy in a suit asked as he handed me my shoe.

I flew home and vowed never to return. For years, that story was my proof that Sinatra was wrong and the Big Apple was really just a noisy Gomorrah where the deranged roam free.

But then, the job karma flipped. The next time I deplaned at LGA a decade later, a dream job was waiting and I became a New Yorker.

At first, I perfected the local art of eye contact avoidance and the panhandler side-step.

Always look away.

But as the once-imposing towers became my village and the crowds, my neighbors, I began to recognize the same folks in the same spots, day after day. The old guy on his milk crate, throwing crumbs to the pigeons. Leon the Vietnam vet, leaning on his crutch at the bottom of the subway stairs, "Spare change?" echoing in baritone.

At some point I began to see them as people.

Began to wonder how they got there.

And I began to think about that horrible subway ride in a whole new way.

'Million Dollar Murray'

In his 2006 New Yorker piece, "Million Dollar Murray," Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Murray Barr, an alcoholic ex-Marine who lived on the streets of Reno, Nevada, in a state of almost constant inebriation. After years of cycling through drunk tanks and emergency rooms, a policeman who arrested him countless times estimated that "it cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray."

Gladwell used Million Dollar Murray as a vivid example of America's failure to solve the problem of chronic homelessness with the "housing-ready" model of intervention. When the problem became a national issue in the '80s, cities built shelters and soup kitchens to keep the homeless from freezing and starving, but permanent, affordable housing was only an option for those who agreed to get clean, sober and healthy first. Under America's Puritan work ethic, it only seems fair.

But it doesn't work.

By the 1990s, social scientists began to realize that around 80% of folks in shelters are only there for a short time.

The next 10% are younger people, often heavy drug users, who cycle through episodes of addiction and rehab and live on the street for a few weeks at a time. Social workers in New York tell me that as America's opioid scourge spreads, many of the young, Caucasian panhandlers they see on the streets of New York today are addicts from rural areas, drawn by the generosity of the richest city in the world.

The last tier includes the hardest of the hard cases, like Million Dollar Murray or my friend from the subway. After years -- or decades -- of shadows and shelters, living in permanent survival mode can make it virtually impossible to kick lifelong addictions or find effective mental health care.

But since this group makes up a relatively small percentage of America's homeless, there is hope among social workers and policymakers that there is room for dramatic improvement.

'It's not that complicated'

By the early 2000s, the US Interagency Council on Homelessness under President Bush decided to try something else. Instead of a "housing-ready" model, they would switch to "housing first." Instead of giving a person in need a bowl of soup or a cot, they tried giving them the keys to a low-cost apartment.

"It's not that complicated," Fred Shack explains. "If you can provide people with stable housing, with support they will do the work to find their dignity and reach their full potential."

Fred is in charge of Urban Pathways, a housing-first charity I discovered after reading Gladwell's piece and began looking for a way to stop looking away. Every day he dispatches street teams in blaze-orange jackets to check on the forgotten, to comfort and cajole and, with enough persistence, convince the hardest of the hard cases to come inside for good.

Through a creative mix of public and private funding, Urban Pathways has moved hundreds of chronically homeless New Yorkers from the streets into safe, clean apartments, and the transformations can be nothing short of miraculous.

"See, heroin, I could buy two bags for $20 and was good for a whole day," Robert Offley tells me as we walk past the park bench that was his home for nearly a decade. "But then a friend introduced me to cocaine and I just thought it was magnificent. But I had to continuously buy it. I'd spend three to four hundred a day on cocaine."

He laughs as I point out that his bench is across the street from Eleven Madison Park, one of the world's finest restaurants, and it's hard to imagine him out here, panhandling to support his habits and scoffing at the relentless compassion of the Urban Pathways street team.

Nearly every day they would greet him by name and offer to help move him inside, but Robert was wary of shelters, protective of his perceived "freedom," so he would push them away to focus on his next fix. But they never stopped trying and everything changed the night a searing pain in his head drove him stumbling from that bench into Bellevue Hospital, just before the aneurysm could kill him. When he woke up, he was finally ready to accept some of that relentless compassion.

"These people, Urban Pathways, they saved my life," he tells me in a solemn whisper, and then his clear eyes light up as he gives me a tour of his studio apartment. "Look at the size of my microwave!" he laughs before proudly showing off a framed certificate naming him "Tenant of the Year."

While the odds are long, I like to think that the man from my first subway ride found similar peace. And just in case those doors bang open again, I carry Urban Pathways cards in my wallet, printed with directions to their drop-in centers. "You don't need spare change," I tell them. "You need a home. And I know just the folks who can help."