Clyde Wilson, 55, starts his mornings by taking a walk around his neighborhood. Today he walked around Morningside Heights for 30 minutes and then headed back home. And for the past few days, his home has been the city’s underground subway system. He usually camps out in the lobby area until an MTA employee asks him to leave.
With the second coming of the polar vortex this month, New York City has experienced frigid temperatures and a decent amount of snowfall. Homeless shelters have reached capacity. Wilson says he has been turned away more than once. The Department of Homeless Services, however, says no one is ever turned away, and advocates say turning people away is illegal. Still, it’s a wonder how the homeless who remain unsheltered for any reason survive in this weather.**
Wilson does it this way: “I keep warm as best I can, I’m a veteran of the streets so I know how to survive,” he said.
Wilson doesn’t mind being called homeless but he likes the tag of “traveler” better. With a bicycle, a pair of boots and a plastic gray suitcase that houses a few pairs of clothes and other belongings, he travels all over Manhattan, surviving by panhandling. Every single day, he says, he does not know where his next meal will come from or where he’ll be sleeping that night.
According to the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group, the year 2013 saw an all-time record high of 53,270 homeless people in New York City, of which approximately 12,000 were families and 22,000 were children. According to them, there is currently no accurate count of the city’s unsheltered homeless population, but the NYC Department of Homeless Services estimates that about 3,000 people live on the streets.* Each night many of the unsheltered homeless people take to New York City streets and parks, and to its subway system and other public spots, to sleep.
Just this past week there were reports of five homeless people dying from the cold across the country. Willie Mae White, 55, of Joliet, Ill.; Glenn Donovan, 53, of Highland Falls, N.Y.; an unidentified Philadelphia man in his 30s; a Jersey city man in his 40s; and a Chicago man who also remains unidentified — all succumbed to the brutal cold due to lack of shelter. Earlier this month, the first polar vortex claimed at least 21 lives.
For Wilson, who also tries making money by selling cans and bottles that he finds rummaging through trashcans, the polar vortex has brought about an unexpected bonus — demand for a service he provides. Armed with a big shovel that he keeps next to his other belongings, he shovels snow outside of restaurants, supermarkets and other retail stores.
“I don’t like to be a burden for anyone, I do what I can and more importantly, I like working for myself,” said Wilson.
Wilson says that it’s hard for people to empathize. They might feel pity, but that is not what he wants. To really understand homelessness, he says, you have to experience it once. He says the best way for him to deal with his situation is to keep positive.
“I am doing OK, but if I had to change something, I wish I was married,” he says. “Oh and a comforter or two wouldn’t be bad either.”
*Clarification: This sentence has been updated to include an estimate from the NYC Department of Homeless Services about the number of people living on NYC streets based on their 2013 Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) survey.
**Correction: This paragraph has been updated to include the DHS perspective. We regret the omission in the original version.