Bleak house: The problem with some New York shelters is people have to sleep there

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Bellevue homeless shelter. (cuttlefish, via flickr.)
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The guy ahead of me set a gray, molded plastic tub, the kind you might soak your feet in, down on the wide table. He took his jacket, wallet, loose change, lighter and other personal items from the basin and slid it toward me before moving on.

The first thing I noticed was the filth. Months, perhaps years of dirt had accumulated in the bin’s contours and crevices, as in the creases of a hobo’s slacks. The container had a sheen of oily grime, such as you might find on said hobo’s skin. Brown and yellow stains, like some kind of fecal acid wash, accented the overall murk. I was to put my stuff down in that.

“Come on, bruh, keep it moving,” said the man behind me.

A line was already building behind him, out the front door of 30th Street Men’s Intake Shelter (a.k.a. Bellevue Shelter). So I took off my jacket and set it down in the filth with my wallet, notebook and several ink pens. I carried the bin over to a conveyor belt x-ray machine. More filth. It stood out, frieze-like, in the grooves of the belt. It was all over the segmented rubber curtain that the bin rolled through like a car entering a car wash. Except this was no wash. A police officer watched the x-ray monitor as my property rolled on through. The monitor, too, was caked with filth. I passed through the metal detector without incident and retrieved the bin from the other end.

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As I entered Bellevue Shelter’s lobby, the grime on its mustard-yellow walls and stone floors expanded upon the theme. The theme here being, Bellevue Shelter is filthy. Filthy as a stable where the ranch hands have called in sick. The security guard asked for my meal ticket. I was new here, so no ticket.

She sent me down the epic hallway to a chamber designated “Intake.” There, men slept across rows of solid plastic school chairs. More cops sat chatting by an idle x-ray machine and inside a small office bordering the room. A caseworker in a booth called, “Next,” and whoever was awake went up to the Plexiglass window to be identified, electronically fingerprinted and sent either to their previously designated “permanent shelter” or, if the person was a newbie, assigned a temporary bed at Bellevue, until a caseworker arranged for transfer to one of the city Department of Homeless Services’ shelters.

The seats of the chairs were relatively clean, while the metal webbing that linked them was decorated with heavy ropes of dust. The chairs must have been fairly new. I have noticed that airborne city filth shows itself off a bit faster, in the form of dirt on signs or dust in corners, than does the kind that rubs off of unwashed bodies. But, even if you don’t see it, it’s there.

By the time it was my turn to be processed, I was starving. The caseworker entered my info into the computer and handed me a meal ticket for dinner that night and all other meals for the next few days. This ticket was also my pass for re-entry into the shelter, up until its expiration date.

She directed me to a room down the hall where I was to wait for a bed assignment and get a bag lunch to hold me over. The holding pen was fully in keeping with the theme.

That was 2008. I have been back to Bellevue Shelter several times since, at times when I had nowhere else to go. The place has always operated with great efficiency, and it has always been filthy. Since it is the central intake unit for all homeless men in New York City, it processes thousands of dirty, sometimes sickly or mentally unstable men each year. As a resident, you will sometimes run into men who would seem to require quarantine or a straightjacket. Fits of coughing and fits of rage.

If you want to remain hygienic, though, Bellevue never fails to provide the essentials, in my experience. When you go up to your room, the intake counselor gives you a big plastic bag with fresh linen, a clean felt blanket, towel and washcloth. A small white plastic satchel that looks like a celebrity swag bag (except for the “Department of Homeless Services ADULT” label) contains body wash, lotion, baby powder, petroleum jelly, toothpaste and a comb. If you need a disposable razor, you go down to the front desk and pluck one from a big pile. Same goes for bar soap and toilet tissue. The bars are broken in half and the tissue is rationed in pre-torn scraps, piled in a box. Hence the bathrooms with no hand soap or toilet paper. Efficiency. As filthy as Bellevue’s walls, floors and bathrooms are, it’s easy for the conscientious to emerge from it looking like a million bucks.

Or with tuberculosis. In the dormitory-style rooms, where as many as 20 men lay side by side, there’s always at least one guy who coughs through the night as if he won’t make it to morning. I’ve run into a few city-shelter veterans who were taking TB antibiotics. In one room on the 7th floor at Bellevue, I met a guy who was so sick with a lung ailment that he couldn't get out of bed for dinner. So one of our roommates brought him leftovers. Although TB tests are mandatory at many private shelters (and in the Department of Social Services’ Work Experience Program), at city shelters the priority is on housing the individual first, and sorting out his physical or mental problems later.

Rodents have a better time of it there. They constitute a problem Bellevue has apparently decided to live with, despite the comical tombstone placed over a rat trap out front. I once witnessed a man frantic at the front desk, in his bed clothes. He demanded a room transfer because of “a gang of rats fighting around my bed!” He complained that the mites or lice from their fur were already making him itch uncontrollably. The guards and supervisor told him there was nothing to be done, and that if his roommates were dealing with it, so should he. He got his belongings and left the facility.

When I woke up one night to find what was either a large mouse or a small rat enjoying a Three Musketeers bar just a few feet from my head, I went down to the lobby to ask if I could sit there for the night. The overnight supervisor said, no, just take the candy bar from the pest and scare it away. Good idea. But we all have our phobias, and, for irrational terror, rodents are just above air travel for me. So I spent the night surfing the web at McDonalds.

I was once assigned to the 8th floor, the vast corridors and chambers of which evoke classic movie bedlam, where my new roommates schooled me on the vermin: “Yeah, we got all kinds of creepy crawlies in here. Say hi!” One night was good enough for me.

It was often difficult to sleep at Bellevue anyway. Not that the beds weren’t adequate: I never experienced a stiff neck or a bedbug in all my time there. I just had trouble remaining horizontal with acid reflux and stomach pains that Pepto Bismol couldn’t ease. It was the Bellevue diet. Breakfast was tame enough: Strong coffee, cereal, bagels, box juices and fruit. But lunch and dinner were often a killer combo of TV dinners (the kind where a chicken patty might list 20 different chemicals as ingredients) and pickled bean salads.

“These motherfuckers are trying to kill us,” is something I would often hear the (literal) bellyachers among us mutter while shoveling it in. The liberal servings of whole milk only added gas to the powder keg of acid and sodium.

Maybe it seems churlish to complain about the food they gave us, in a time of devastating famine across Africa. But the purpose of food is sustenance, not bloat, pain and fatigue. After a Bellevue meal, a druggy feeling of malaise creeps in. The paranoid among us had our theories...

On Saturdays at 1 p.m., a group of volunteers from some other organization set up a table outside Bellevue to serve fresh vegetarian meals. A line of grateful residents would stretch down the block for hours.

The cafeteria is on the shelter’s 3rd floor, which is the middle level of the section designated for “permanent” residents. Floors two and four are where the hustling happens. Old-timers who hang out in one of the 4th-floor lounges to play dominoes make a living selling ... anything. Cigarettes, candy bars, socks, cell phones.

The place is kept noticeably neater than the rest of the building. It's almost reminiscent of the tidy housekeeping in a movie mobster’s prison cell. From the 5th floor to the 8th reside short-term clients waiting for a transfer to their permanent shelter.

If the upper floors are notorious for their vermin, the lower ones are known for a prison-style hock-and-barter economy. These two worlds—longstanding residents and pending transferees—collide on the cafeteria line, where the old-timers and schemers hawk their goods to newcomers.

Luis Daniel Ramirez spent a month at Bellevue before landing at Bowery Mission Transitional Center, down the hall from me. He’d noticed that more than socks and Snickers bars changed hands back at the Intake.

“If you walk through the facility, you’ll see people strung out,” he told me. “You’ve seen it before. I was talking to a guard about how I almost got transferred to Wards Island”—the shelter most New York City homeless men dread—“and how it’s a lot like jail, and the guard said, ‘Yo, I used to work at Wards Island and it’s no different than this place. You know, you got motherfuckers at Wards Island who are smoking rock and shooting up dope, and you got people here, smoking rock, shooting dope.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ And he said, ‘You obviously haven’t been to the fourth floor.'”

I’ve been to the fourth floor. I’ve seen the zombies.

Rats, roaches, fiends, peddlers and bad food aside, some residents find it harder to deal with the ghosts. My former roommate Shabazz and others have independently claimed to have witnessed faucets turning themselves on and off. Well, sure.

Our room gave a view to a jutting, majestic wing of the 9th floor, which was always dark. Residents who had wandered up there, including Luis, have told me it’s the scariest place on earth, the former site of lobotomies and other medical experiments back when Bellevue was a psychiatric hospital.

The fact is that Bellevue, which the city has been trying to shutter for years, is still the site of an experiment. New York City is determined to find out just how much savings it can achieve without actually abdicating its duty to provide emergency housing for desperate men. The risk, in this case, is of rendering a service that even the rats might complain about, if they could. Or if anybody would listen.

Steven Boone is a film critic who has been writing for Capital about his experiences with homelessness.