Huddled in a heavy blanket up against a wall on Queens Boulevard after dark, unshaven, with a dirty hood pulled tight over his head and a battered cup of change in front of him, “Robert” looks at first like any other homeless man in most people’s minds.
But speak to him and you may hear the unexpected. He doesn’t slur his speech or mumble. His eyes are sharp and focused. He’s clearly an educated man, one who’s up on current city politics, one who says phrases like “the Bloomberg administration” and “prohibition by taxation” as eloquently as anyone in the middle class.
Another phrase used by Robert, which is not his real name, is “neurological disability” — that one describes the injury to his spine that he said he suffered, leading to loss of employment and homelessness.
A Bayside native who lived in communities like Ridgewood, Elmhurst and Maspeth before becoming undomiciled in late 2007, Robert said he gets by on the money people put in his cup, making about $65 on most days, more during the holidays and less in the summer. In fact he dreads the summer, both because people are less charitable and because the weather exacerbates his pain.
“There’s good holidays in December,” he said Tuesday night as he leaned against that wall in Rego Park. “There’s no good holidays in July.”
Why doesn’t he spend the night in one of the city’s homeless shelters? For the same reasons many vagrants don’t.
“They’re awful,” said Robert, who declined to have even his first name published for fear of some kind of repercussion. “They’re dangerous. The people are nasty. The curfew is a problem.”
But is Robert really atypical?
“People are outside for many different reasons,” he said. “You see the ones with the substance abuse and mental problems, but it’s a smaller percentage than they say.”
The Partnership for the Homeless, an advocacy group, agrees.
“Homelessness has changed,” said Piper Hoffman, the Partnership’s director of advocacy. “The vast majority of homeless people are families with children. It’s not the Bowery image we often have of drunk single men.”
Robert showed no signs of intoxication Tuesday, though he said he sometimes has a drink when he goes to a friend’s bar on karaoke night. He also frequents a grocery store run by another friend.
The nature of homelessness is not all Robert and the Partnership agree on. They also dispute Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s assertion that homelessness is on the decline in the city. An annual study the city conducted earlier this year reported 2,328 transients, with only 98 on the streets of Queens, and a varying number in the subways here. That was down from nearly 400 in Queens “surface areas,” as the study put it, in 2005.
Citywide, the survey found a 47 percent drop in the number of homeless in the five years since it was first conducted.
But the advocates don’t believe the numbers are decreasing.
“The count is ridiculously low,” Hoffman said. “The numbers the city is giving — I think most New Yorkers would find those numbers don’t correlate with common sense.”
“I wasn’t counted,” Robert insisted. “I can tell you right now that number’s not even close. I think the Bloomberg administration downplays the numbers to make the mayor look good.”
He continued, “It’s going down? Where? Down in the subway?”
Asked where he’s going, in life, Robert said he takes “one day at a time.” He said he has applied for some form of public assistance, and is waiting for the bureaucratic “red tape” to be unwound. His father is on Social Security and doesn’t have a place where he can stay; his mother lives with his stepfather in a retirement community in Florida where Robert, 32, would not be allowed to stay.
He said he has his belongings in three different storage spaces that cost him about $200 a month total. He passes his time at his friends’ establishments or he listens to the radio, CDs and even TV shows on a portable music player hidden in his coat. He’s worked in customer service and in warehouses but doesn’t see new employment in his immediate future. He just wishes he had enough money coming in to get a place somewhere — if only lodgings were cheaper.
“Usually at some level it does come down to the issue of affordable housing,” Hoffman said. “New York City has the resources to end homelessness, but focusing on how to hide the problem is not going to solve the problem.”