“It’s a life or death situation out here”: a brutal winter for unsheltered New Yorkers

“We sleep together like chickens”: Street homeless New Yorkers describe the struggle to endure the pandemic-era winter.

Ari Dubow   ·   February 8, 2021
With the subway shutdown, John Muschaweck finds himself grasping for alternatives for places to spend the winter nights. | Ari Dubow

John Collins, 36 with blue eyes and a long blond beard, moved from Arizona to New York City in early March to live on a friend’s couch. After just two weeks, his friend lost his job because of the pandemic and left the city. Collins, who had spent his entire savings on a cross-country bus ticket and hadn’t yet found a job, was forced onto the street.

Two weeks ago, Collins said, another friend fell asleep on an especially cold night with three fingers exposed out of his sleeping bag. By morning, his frostbite was so severe that he had to get the three fingers amputated.

“It’s a life or death situation out here,” Collins said. “People don’t always realize that.”

This winter, New York City’s street homeless population has lost access to many of the informal shelters that helped them endure previous winters, as the city continues to shut down the subway system overnight, 24-hour establishments close at night, and emergency rooms often fill up with Covid-19 patients.

Gerald Barth is a 57 year old man who spends most of his time in the East Village, usually under scaffoldings he can find along 1st or 2nd Avenue. Barth often sits outside a Papaya Dog and hopes that people will offer him food or a drink.

Because emergency rooms have been busy with COVID patients, Barth said, he has been turned away at night several times. And besides, he is wary of exposing himself to COVID because of his poor health.

“Cops say, ‘go to the hospital or go to jail,’ but you can’t go to the hospital,” Barth said. “And you can’t go in the subway either. It sucks.”

Instead, Barth spends nights shuttling between different overhangs and scaffoldings, trying to stay out of rain and snow. The soles of his shoes recently fell apart, leaving him to layer socks upon socks to avoid frostbite.

In the spring, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Metropolitan Transit Authority ordered that the subway be shut down between 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. each night, while cleaning crews carry out a disinfection program whose efficacy as a public health tool has been questioned by experts. The shutdown has made this winter especially brutal for New Yorkers who rely on the stations as a primary source of shelter on cold nights.

For months, John Muschaweck lived under the scaffolding of a building in Boerum Hill. In previous winters, he said, his heroin addiction and fear of shelters had led to him to spend many winters sleeping in the streets, often spending the coldest nights inside the Bergen Street subway station or taking the F train from end to end. With the subway shutdown, he finds himself grasping for alternatives.

Even in past years, the safety of these scant refuges was undercut by law enforcement.  “Last winter, I thought I was gonna freeze to death. We had the polar vortex, when it dropped to 20º below 0º. I was sleeping at the bottom of the stairs [of the Bergen Station], and the police threw me out, so I had to go outside. I tried to sleep, but I woke up. My feet were numb, my hands were numb. It was scary to go to sleep after that. I was afraid I wouldn’t wake up,” he said.

This winter, his options are even more dire. “With the station closed and the trains not running, if you go in, you get arrested,” he said. “They’re so petty that they’ll come looking for me on the street outside the station. One time, they threw me up against a wall and yanked my arm behind my back. I couldn’t move my arm for a week.”

Muschaweck’s camp, shielded from the rain and snow by the scaffolding, lasted only part way through January, when construction workers began working on the building. Since then, he has moved around the neighborhood several times a day, evading the transit police and looking for places to sleep that are sheltered from the weather.

Muschaweck said that as soon as he receives his next stimulus check, he is going to buy a bus ticket to Arizona, his home state, and live with a friend.

“I tried to make it in this city. I really tried, but it just didn’t work out,” he said.

Since the onset of the pandemic, homeless advocates have pushed the city to use federal funding to house people experiencing homelessness in empty hotel rooms. The city has moved around 10,000 individuals from congregate shelters to hotel rooms, but the rooms have been harder to come by for unsheltered New Yorkers. Collins said that while he’d heard that some homeless people can stay in hotel rooms around the city, he is unsure how to sign up.

Explaining why he would accept a hotel room but not a bed in a congregate shelter, Collins described the violence and theft he has experienced in shelters. He recounted one night in a shelter when he awoke in the middle of the night to someone standing over him with a knife.

“I didn’t do two tours in Afghanistan just to get stabbed in a homeless shelter,” Collins said. 

“Once I woke up one morning and my new boots were gone,” he continued, referring to a night in December he spent at the Bellevue Men’s shelter on East 30th Street, the largest homeless shelter in New York City. Wearing only socks, Collins walked down an icy Third Avenue to the nearest train station.

Craig Hughes, a social work supervisor for the Urban Justice Center Safety Net Project, said that current outreach work fails in pairing unsheltered people with available hotel spaces.

“It’s definitely the case that if you meet an outreach worker on the street there’s very little chance you’re going to get that offer,” Hughes said, of both single and double hotel rooms.

Reached by email, a spokesperson for the NYC Department of Homeless Services said that the city currently maintains over 3,000 stabilization and Safe Haven beds, alternatives to congregate shelters which include hotel rooms, dedicated to serving the street homeless population.

But advocates say far more is needed. “The city is not universally offering every person that it encounters through outreach what they truly need which is a single occupancy hotel room where they can come indoors and also have the privacy needed to social distance,” Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, said.

Simone added that city officials seem more committed to addressing street homelessness through channels like 311, which often leads to confrontations between police officers and homeless people, than to direct outreach. “We’re approaching homelessness as an inconvenience for people who are stably housed,” she said.

Diego Muller is a 67 year old Dominican man who lives under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway on a cluster of couches and beds that he shares with five other men, mostly from Mexico. Describing his winter plans, he said, “We cover the couches with plastic when it snows, we make a roof. That’s the only thing we can do. And when it gets really cold, when it’s cold, cold, cold, we sleep together like chickens. Man, next to another man.”

“You suffer a lot, being homeless,” he said.

Morley Musick and Akash Mehta contributed reporting.

Ari Dubow is a contributing editor at New York Focus.
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