Though Kit’s body was removed promptly from Harlem’s Morningside Park after he hanged himself from a tree, no one bothered for about four years to take down the neon-orange rope he used to make the noose.
Not many in the neighborhood noticed the rope over those years. Two did. They were a typical American family with two kids. The parents had jobs and mom was going to college after work to study child services. Because their New York City landlord happened to be stealing power and gas from a neighboring building, the city boarded up the Maldonado’s building with no notice and all the tenants had to leave. They ended up living on the street. Their children were taken away by social services and they won’t see them again until they have an address. And they can’t get an address without a job. And they can’t get a job until they have an address.
For six years now, Maria and Wilson Maldonado have lived under a vestibule at St. John the Divine’s Cathedral, one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world, right around the corner from the noose.
In some ways, the Maldonados have been lucky. Someone gave them a little tent that fits into their vestibule and gives them a dry and relatively warm place to sleep. They’ve noticed other homeless people resorting to stealing body bags from nearby hospitals or morgues and then zip themselves into one when the weather gets life threatening.
Though Maria has an open offer to live with her sister, the sister won’t let Wilson come along. Not enough room, she says. And Maria isn’t going to leave her husband out in the street, in spite of their occasional stress-induced spats or shouting matches.
After five years and 10 months of living under the church, a nurse at a nearby old folks’ home offered a big dose of hope, the promise of a free home upstate until they could get back on their feet. She told them to have their things ready and expect a U-Haul to pick them up “next Saturday”.
It was around that time we started following Wilson and Maria’s journey. It looked like an opportunity to give a face to homelessness and we wanted to know at least one homeless couple whose street saga might come to a happy end. So we jumped into the world of homelessness like anthropologists in HAZMAT suits with a Horatio J Alger complex. In other words, we were shamelessly being white liberals in America.
Meet the Maldonados:
We got familiar with the Maldonaros and with a couple of their neighbors. Like Henry, the drunken guy and occasional troublemaker in the next vestibule who is homeless by choice because it allows him to be an alcoholic without family pressure to cut out the booze. And Rooster, the guy who wakes up every day before the crack of dawn and makes sure everyone under the church has time to move his or her stuff before the police show up at daybreak. Seems everyone we met fell into one of three categories of need: there was no system in place to treat their substance abuse, there was no system in place to treat their psychosis, or in the Maldonado case, there was just no system in place for when shit hit a really, really big fan.
There was a little more bonding between us when Wilson showed us a gate at a nearby apartment building where empty boxes are stored until garbage day. The gate looks locked but it’s not. So homeless people go in there to collect the boxes to use as shelter or makeshift mattresses. We said to Wilson it must be the “Homeless Depot” and he got a kick out of that. There have, since then, been many laughs between us. But Morningside Park, about a block away, was hard to joke about.
Meanwhile, for Maria and Wilson, Saturday turned into another Saturday and if a U-Haul was anywhere around, it wasn’t there to pick them up.
Waiting for the U-Haul:
While they were waiting for that U-Haul, the church they lived under decided to evict them. They had to put their things in storage and clear out until the U-Haul showed up, so the plan was to put their belongs in Manhattan Mini Storage every morning and take out necessities each night so they could sleep on the street. While they had some savings to pay for the storage unit for a while, they were $70 short on the deposit.
Almost everyone in the neighborhood is at least vaguely aware of the “people who live in the green tent” and we wondered if we could raise the 70 bucks from them, one dollar at a time, to solve the ironic conundrum of two homeless people being evicted from a sidewalk by a church, where they lived because they were evicted from their home – because of a landlord who was stealing power from a nearby building.
An hour later:
The storage unit came in really handy because the free house clearly didn’t exist and Wilson needed that leg surgery that he said a few weeks earlier “Wasn’t an option right now.” It came down to leg surgery being the only option.
For the last several months – about 13 weeks after that U-Haul was supposed to show up – Wilson has been in and out of hospital several times and had multiple operations. His blood pressure is erratic. Something is wrong with his heart. They found out he has anemia. High blood pressure. Last week they found blood clots in his leg. The only good side is that, so far, he’s been able to stay out of the cold and Maria has been able sleep in the waiting room. There’s a bathroom and shower there. But the hospital can’t provide food for Maria. She can’t buy any food for herself because – after arriving at hospital – her ATM card was stolen, hacked and the bit of money she had was cleared out of her account.
Right around Christmas Wilson was going to be discharged – maybe to make room for the holiday hospital rush? But the particularly harsh weather on the street was going to push his diabetes and blood pressure to the limit and he’d certainly be right back there, this time in the emergency ward. At a loss for better ideas, we snuck him some food while still in hospital that would temporarily drive Wilson’s vitals wild – just to make sure the staff would freak out and keep him. Hey, if a diabetic with high blood pressure and diabetes is going to eat a salted ham and cheese sandwich and drink a cup of sugar with a drop of coffee in it, where’s a safer place to do it?
They had a rough Christmas and the New Year is just another notch on the belt of street life. Their kids’ birthdays are coming up. It’s a time each year that Maria reserves for a total breakdown. And it reminds her of the journal of poems and memoirs that she was writing for her kids. Which, of course, was one of many things stolen way back when they lived in a tough shelter.
Currently, the Maldonados shuttle between Wycoff Hospital in Brooklyn and St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan until doctors deem Wilson healthy enough to move back onto the streets.
We were hoping to capture an ending worth celebrating. But the ending we got is that there is no ending in sight for the homeless population in America right now.
There are, however, a couple of takeaways: First, don’t count on a church for help. While St. John’s was evicting them, the church simultaneously and proudly installed an outdoor art exhibit about the tragedy of poverty in America. This installation, by Matt Black, was just a few yards away from the Maldonados’ tent.
Second, the people we met in the neighborhood seemed more than eager to contribute to a homeless family’s cause when they knew why they were doing so. In this case, it was to help them get the storage unit. Also, the neighborhood knew the faces: “Yeah, I know them – the people in the green tent.”
Maybe those two takeaways are the beginning of a solution, one that doesn’t rely on religion or George Bush’s Thousand Points of Light but on people’s familiarity with the people on the streets around them. While the federal government spends a whopping $5 billion a year on homeless programs, that’s only $8,333 for each of the 600,000 homeless in America – for food, shelter, education and other initiatives. For most of us, there are no faces or stories to go with those 600,000 people.
Eight thousand dollars doesn’t seem nearly as big as $5 billion but that’s how the math works out – and it underscores how many homeless people we have in America. And clearly it hasn’t solved anything. The late Tip O’Neil might tell us that all homelessness is local, and that those billions of federal dollars could be put to better use if the people who had to cough it up knew the faces of the people who were getting help. And right now, they don’t and the aren’t.
There will be more:
Our attempt at a neat, tidy, blog-sized mini-documentary about homeless people whose family is reunited in a new home went bust. But we made friends along the way and so did Wilson and Maria. In hospital, they have access to a phone and they call or leave a message almost every day:
“You looked like crap the other day — feeling any better?”
“Hey, it’s Christmas. Behave yourself, be well and see you soon.”
“Just wanted to make sure you got home safe from Brooklyn. We’re a little worried and we worry about family.”
Maybe that last message held an answer to this journey. Yep, we’re all family and its called America. As members of the strongest economic force in the world, we shouldn’t find the homeless shameful, we should see ourselves as shameless for looking the other way when they’re in our presence. Each time we do, we are accomplices to leaving that neon-orange noose on Kit’s tree.