[Hpn] NY Times -- Finding a Home Under Highway, Even as Rats Flee

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Thu, 23 Jan 2003 11:58:53 -0800

NY Times
January 23, 2003

Finding a Home Under Highway, Even as Rats Flee

moking an after-dinner Tiparillo in the candlelight and savoring his
commanding view of the Hudson River, Frank Wait did not exactly look like a
man whose life was in danger.

"They say it's cold, but the winters were much worse in the 80's," he said
early yesterday, propping himself up on one elbow and lighting several

The dim light flickered around the cavernous room that Mr. Wait calls home.
Its roof is the underside of the northbound Henry Hudson Parkway and its
30-foot-high walls are the massive concrete support slabs that hold up the
elevated road. One wall has a window-size opening that overlooks the river
and the twinkling lights of the George Washington Bridge nearby. An icy wind
whips through the hole, but Mr. Wait, with several cushions beneath him and
several blankets over him, seems snug.

This week's cold snap has driven many of the city's homeless indoors, and
outreach workers and police officers have combed the streets, urging
holdouts to seek refuge from the dangerous cold in shelters.

But the dire warnings are lost on Mr. Wait, 49. He has no plans to head
indoors. In some ways, the cold has helped his plight.

The swarms of rats that normally gnaw on his blankets and skitter over his
sleeping body prefer to stay underground. Drunken homeless neighbors no
longer barge in.

"I'm sleeping better than I have in years," he said.

It should also be said that the temperature outside was 12 degrees as he
spoke and that the bunk next to Mr. Wait's was empty because his roommate
headed indoors several days ago. Nearby subway stations, shelters and
emergency rooms have been packed this week with shivering comrades.

The below-freezing temperatures that have gripped the region for the last
week are expected to continue until Sunday, said Nancy L. Figueroa, a
meteorologist with the National Weather Service, in Upton, N.Y.

But for the hardiest of New York's hardy homeless, the cold leads them to
burrow deeper into the city's infrastructure, making shelter out of anything
they can, from bridge abutments to abandoned equipment sheds and crawl
spaces. Late Tuesday night, a group of people slept in a large, new tent set
up under an off-ramp of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, near 125th Street.
In a small crawl space under a footbridge over the drive, a man slept
soundly in a green sleeping bag, next to an empty fifth of vodka.

The City Department of Homeless Services said that 8,239 single adults went
to shelters late Tuesday and early yesterday, compared with last month's
nightly average of 7,967. Many more sought assistance in drop-in centers,
which provide showers and meals but no beds.

The police, who are authorized to remove homeless people incapable of caring
for themselves when the temperature drops below freezing, approached 111
people between Tuesday night and yesterday evening, and took 47 to shelters,
said Detective Robert Price, a police spokesman.

The Homeless Services commissioner, Linda I. Gibbs, said yesterday that the
city was aggressively trying to persuade those who chose to remain on the
streets in the bitter cold to check into shelters.

"We recognize that there are a small group of street homeless individuals
that resist the outreach, but we will never give up on getting our teams to
them," she said.

They will have a tough time with Mr. Wait, who has lived on the streets of
Manhattan's West Side since he became addicted to crack in his mid-20's. He
has lived here for the last three years, and the preceding 15 in similar
bridge abutments nearby.

A soft-spoken, scruffy man whose slight frame goes hidden under five layers
of clothing, he spends his days collecting cans, panhandling and scavenging.
The money goes for beer, water and cigarettes. Food and clothes come mostly
from the trash.

He is virtually toothless, but otherwise, he says, his health is fine. He
eats lots of sardines, smokes a pack of Pall Malls a day and favors King
Cobra malt liquor when the sunsets fill the chamber with a bright orange

He has never had a driver's license and has not written his name in many
years. He never married and is not registered for any type of government
assistance, he said. There are bad memories of attempts in the 80's to
register for social services. The paperwork and bureaucracy seemed
impossibly complicated. The shelters are dangerous or have other problems,
he said.

Going back indoors would be as difficult as at first adjusting to living
outdoors, all those years ago, he said.

Visits have increased from outreach workers warning him to take refuge. One
group called Project Rescue had just stopped by but had no luck persuading
Mr. Wait to leave. Instead, a worker left a business card on his night

"Some guys see it as a loss of their freedom," said Andrew Apicella, program
director for Project Rescue. "Our guys said, `Frank, we'll take you to a
shelter, and if you don't like it, we'll bring you back.' But he wouldn't

Mr. Wait explained why. "If I went in," he said, "I'd come back in two weeks
and someone else will be living here. My stuff would be gone."

Early yesterday morning, Mr. Wait sat on his bed in the cave. Around it, the
ground is pockmarked with dozens of rat holes the size of corner pockets.

Mr. Wait conceded that the winter nights were long outdoors, and cold, too.
He tends to think about how things would have been had he stayed in school
and married.

He grew quiet and listened to the steady ka-thump of the cars passing
overhead, driving home toward Westchester. "Everyone's going home to their
families and their warm houses," he said. "Here, it's just me and the rats."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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