When home is a subway station. Homeless in the cold
John Evans is sound asleep under a bundle of blankets in the 57th Street subway station when a visitor comes by and wakes him up. It's 10 a.m., and the temperature on the streets hovers near 5 degrees F. It's not much warmer down here in the passageway near the turnstiles; John's ``home'' is less than 50 feet from the street entrance on Sixth Avenue.
More than 20 homeless men and women live there in makeshift beds and cardboard condos scattered through the corridor. Warmly dressed commuters rush past with hardly a second look.
Throughout the United States in 1987, the numbers of homeless continued to increase. The US Conference of Mayors surveyed 26 cities, ranging from Charleston, S.C., to New York City, and found that there was a 21 percent increase in requests for emergency shelter services in 1987. With the growing numbers, there are new developments:
There has been an increase in the number of working poor among the homeless. The Conference of Mayors report found that 22 percent of the homeless in the 26 cities surveyed were employed either part or full time. This is seen dramatically in cities like Houston, where laid-off oil workers often can find only part-time, minimum-wage work and lose their homes.
While the homeless are largely without political clout, there has been an increasing militancy among them, including homeless unions and squatting actions. A ``Homeless and Poor Peoples' Peace Walk'' to Washington, D.C., left Santa Barbara, Calif., Jan. 16, with the goal of reaching the US capital the day before the presidential election. The American public is also responding. In Houston last week, nearly a thousand religious leaders met to discuss how area churches there can address the issue.
The issue of how to help the mentally ill homeless has captured national attention, particularly after New York City Mayor Edward Koch began a program aimed at taking more mentally ill off the street, sometimes against their will. A debate has emerged over how prepared communities are to aid these homeless.
Passage of the federal homeless assistance act was hailed by many. But the amount of money actually appropriated for fiscal year 1987 - $355 million - is considered inadequate by most advocates. Many activists hope that the issues of the homeless will be a part of this year's presidential election.
``Even though all the evidence is gloomy, there is an incredible sense that American people want this turned around,'' says Robert Hayes, who heads the National Coalition for the Homeless. ``Polls rank homelessness as one of this country's most pressing concerns. While the numbers and causes of the homeless continue unabated, 1988 could be a watershed year.''
Once roused from bed below 57th Street, John smiles, lights a cigarette, and drinks his morning cup of ``milk'' - straight vodka. Later, in the afternoon, he will go above on the street with his friend Danny Chambers and hold a sign asking for help.
``I went from can-handling to panhandling,'' says John, a charming former chef and World War II veteran who says alcoholism keeps him on the street. He used to pick up empty returnable cans for spare change until he hooked up with Danny, a 32-year-old raconteur who chides John that they don't panhandle, they practise free speech with their sign - Please Help Cold Homeless. Hungry. Thank you. ``God Bless.''
``We're surviving,'' says Danny. ``Maybe we'll get a little to get by.''
Danny says he watches over John, who has been robbed in his sleep by thieves who cut his pockets and extract the money. John, cheerfully laughing at himself, tells of losing even more because he forgets the holes in his pockets and puts money in without thinking.
He fits a certain stereotype of the homeless. But what has become increasingly obvious in the past year is that John is just one member of a homeless population that includes an alarming variety of Americans. There are single mothers and couples with children; elderly women and single men; the mentally ill, unemployed, and underemployed.