The building's residents include a woman here illegally who once lived with her brother; a one-time employee of the month at a building maintenance company; a former transit worker; couples; single women; single men.
They are residents of a safe haven in Washington Heights — a transitional housing site that aims to offer stability to homeless people.
A first step
In solving the homelessness crisis, the hardest step might be the first.
On cold evenings, or mornings, or afternoons, city outreach teams attempt to coax the street homeless, to come indoors. But some don't want to come; or fail to stay.
On the street, homeless people scoff at drop-in centers, where the city offers a hard chair to spend the night. They tell dark stories of shelters, large and impersonal and not secure, places of potential violence and robbery — not to mention early curfews and sobriety requirements, not easy to accommodate when living on the street.
Safe havens, however, are popular alternatives that tend to be safer, cleaner, and less demanding than other options, where no one would stop you from coming in at 2 a.m., or walking down the block for a beer, though squeaky-clean behavior is encouraged onsite. Which all makes safe havens good, lower-stress places to begin the long road to permanent housing.
For Larry Harrison, the program director at this Bowery Residents' Committee-operated safe haven, that road begins with a simple change. It's hard to miss even on first entry— air fresheners, one on each floor which, every few minutes, emit a puff of mango, jasmine, saddlewood.
It's about "making an environment contrary to what they expect on the street," Harrison says.
Paintings on the walls, landscapes and still lifes, add to the effect. There is a small tarp with pots of plants in the basement — a garden, Harrison says — and common areas on each floor, including small libraries of books.
Harrison says that since the facility opened in 2008, 412 people have gone through the doors of his 20-room safe haven. The building's residents lived on the streets for an average of 9.5 years before arriving; they stay for as little as 30 days or as long as a few years.
Two hundred clients have been placed in permanent housing, according to Harrison, with very few returning to the streets. For more than a year, none have.
Policy meets politics
The next step for the vast majority of safe haven residents is supportive housing, a form of affordable housing paired with social services. The goal is to help the chronically homeless deal with physical and mental health issues that might previously have kept them on the street.
Supportive housing has been a particularly political topic lately, caught up in the feud between Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo on who best can solve homelessness.
Previous administrations had cooperated in so-called New York-New York agreements to share the cost of building and running the units.
This fall, de Blasio declared he could wait no longer for Cuomo's commitment, and promised the creation of 15,000 units in 15 years from the city alone.
After months of silence on the issue, in his State of the State address yesterday, Cuomo committed $10 billion toward 20,000 units of supportive housing statewide over the next 15 years, the majority of which would be in the city as well.
It's not a new agreement, and the pols still aren't in perfect sync, but at least the promise for more units is on the books.
Each unit counts
Edwin Acebedo, 47, had been intermittently living with his sister and sleeping on benches in Brooklyn.
While other housing situations he'd been in had been marred by drugs, gangs, "wannabe tough guys," Acebedo said he felt comfortable here.
His corner of the four-person dormitory was neat and overwhelmed with reading material — Reader's Digest and Time magazine. The low-threshold nature of the site helped him continue in addiction programs, without feeling overwhelming. He was continuing program attendance, and also looking for housing.
Later, Harrison said that was the most important part. Taking his own keychain from his pocket, he held them in front of his face. "I like to see clients jingle those keys."
This is amExpress, the conversation starter for New Yorkers.