“They look at us like we’re dogs,” said Stephon X. “Like we’re pieces of shit.”
He sat against the south wall of St. John the Divine Church on West 110th Street as he said this, staring up at the people who passed him every few seconds. For the most part, the people did not look at him. For the most part, they did not realize he was there.
X, who says he is 54, has lived on the streets of New York City for the past year and a half, following the successive deaths of his mother, brother, sister and niece – his “best friends” – which led to alcoholism, substance abuse and eviction from his apartment. He moved from Bushwick to Port Authority to the Upper West Side, where for the last six months he has lived in the shadow of St. John the Divine.
“I believe in God but I don’t believe in the church. They preach don’t judge, but the priest is the first person who judges you,” he said.
Each morning at 7 a.m., church security comes outside and tells X to remove himself and his belongings. They also remind him that if he stays, he cannot go inside.
Clutched in his hands is one of the things that sustains him – a battered copy of a book of poems by African-American poet Langston Hughes as well as a folder of X’s own verse. He writes whenever he can, sitting on his camp bed, sucking on the pacifier that never leaves his mouth.
“I feel like I’m becoming a child again. I need help, I can’t manage on my own,” he said.
He is helped every day by others who live with him along the south wall. At night, 20 to 25 people sleep there. Two of them, Maria and Wilson Maldonado, befriended X when he lived outside Port Authority and convinced him to join them on the Upper West Side.
“He wouldn’t have survived if he had stayed there,” said Ms. Maldonado. “He wasn’t surrounded by friends, he was surrounded by addicts. Wilson and I became his family.”
The three friends appear happy to spend their days together, laughing for hours on end in fold-up chairs that face into the afternoon sun. For a time, it felt like they were on holiday. But maybe that is because it is still warm.
“People look at us and think this is fun,” said Ms. Maldonado. “But this is not camping, this is hell. Last winter, I almost lost my toe, Wilson nearly lost his life, and our best friend’s friend died because he didn’t cover up.”
For the moment, they are surviving. X is about to enter a homeless shelter in Kingsbridge, Brooklyn for 28 days. He hopes it will finally get him back off the streets.
“I laugh, I try to joke, but on the inside I’m crying, I’m fucking screaming,” he said. “I live in a twilight zone. It’s like the Wizard of Oz – you click your heels three times and you want to be back home, but I don’t know whether that will happen.”