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New York's New Beggars
September 14, 2003
-- THEY have cell phones. They've got e-mail. They shop free at Old Navy, McDonald's and Virgin
record stores. They have free access to acupuncture treatments, yoga classes and massage therapy.
Welcome to the coddled lifestyles of New York's
new "homeless" - young kids who, besides getting pampered by charities, rake in hundreds
of dollars a week begging on the street.
Cell-phone toting Dawn, who like most
interviewed for this story did not wish her full name revealed, is one of their number, and she's
staked out a corner at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street as her begging spot.
A sign at her feet reads, "Hungry, broke
and miserable . . . All I want is a warm, safe place to stay until I . . . get back home . . . or
back on my feet here."
Dawn told The Post she averages $40 a day
panhandling - what the new homeless called "spanging" - but recently a stockbroker handed
her $600 cash, saying he'd once been in similar straits.
"I don't spend my money on drugs, so I'm
able to afford a cell phone, buy clothes and go to the movies once in a while," she said.
"Part of the reason I'm living like this is to get away from the material life."
Each summer, hundreds of the new homeless arrive
from as far away as Texas and California, looking for jobs, handouts and companionship. Then they
retreat to warmer climates around this time of year, when the first chills set in.
Peaceful, articulate and well-read, they're more
likely to resemble Grateful Dead groupies than the freight-train-hopping hobos of yore.
And while these predominately white, liberally
pierced and tattooed kids - one of whom told The Post his stepfather is a Wall Street bond salesman
- are all, as Dawn has it, getting "away from material life" and sleeping on the streets,
they're often still first in line for charity handouts.
The social service of choice for the new
homeless these days is a "drop-in center" called Streetwork, a few blocks from the
It was set up two years ago by homeless youth
agency Safe Horizon, after then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's efforts to clean up Times Square pushed many
homeless out of the area.
"These kids tells us, 'This is the life
I've chosen,' but in reality they've run away from home because they couldn't conform to Middle
America life," said David Nish, associate vice president of Streetwork.
IN addition to offering basics like showers and
health counseling, the nonprofit program holds focus groups to help ensure the homeless kids are
treated like average American youth, rather than feeling institutionalized.
"If they like a certain brand of clothing
or a certain type of food or music, we do our best to provide it," said Nish.
Almost all of the new homeless wear boxer
shorts, so the center gives those out instead of briefs.
George, a 22-year-old squatter from Lexington,
Ky., told The Post that last Christmas Streetwork gave him $20 gift certificates to Old Navy and
McDonald's, in exchange for taking a survey about drug use.
But while the city cares, many of the city
workers who deal with the great unwashed believe the coddling should end.
"These kids could work if they wanted -
sweeping up, washing dishes or whatever," said a police lieutenant who broke up a group of
about 30 gutter punks in Tompkins Square Park last week after four of them staged a concert without
"But they get free food and clothes all
around this area, so they don't have to do anything," the lieutenant said. "I've never
heard any of them talk about a job."
A supervisor at East River Park, where many of
the new homeless sleep, also has little sympathy for his guests.
He told The Post, "They come over here -
sometimes in cabs - and do drugs every night. I'd say that 98 percent of them are on heroin. They
leave so many needles around that we've had to hire people just to pick them up."
Karen, a 21-year-old gutter punk from
Silverthorn, Colo., takes umbrage at the allegation she and her pals are drug addicts.
"That's bulls- - -," she said.
"I've done some hard drugs, like a lot of us around here. But not any more frequently than
anyone else our age in New York." She said she's been trying to get a job as a janitor all
summer, but no one would even talk to her.
"People here suck," Karen added before
crawling back into her sleeping bag and dozing off under the late-summer sun.
THE consolation for Karen and the rest of the
new homeless who find our surly city tough going is that a remedy is close at hand, in the form of
Dawn, 21, who comes from San Francisco, says she
keeps in touch with her friends by phone and e-mail.
"I buy prepaid phone cards so I can talk to
my friends in California and so my boyfriend can find me around here during the day," she said,
pulling a squeaky-clean cell phone out from its hiding place in the base of a street lamppost.
She sends e-mails from PCs at Streetwork and
public libraries, where she also charges her cell phone.
Dawn left home when she was 13 because her
parents were drug addicts. She hasn't spoken to them since.
After dropping out of college, she took an
office job, which proved "too rigid and stressful," so she hit the road.
Earlier this, year she squatted in an abandoned
building in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn for several months, but it was condemned. Now she
sleeps on the streets around NYU.
She's thinking of getting a job as a bike
messenger and hopes to be an English teacher some day. But she also says she's in no huge rush to
get a job.
Dawn's boyfriend, 21-year-old Tom, is another of
the new homeless. He met Dawn in Los Angeles and comes from a totally different family background to
The oldest of four children, he grew up on a
200-year-old Victorian estate in Chatham, N.J. and his stepfather sells municipal bonds at HSBC Bank
on Wall Street.
Tom left home five years ago after getting
kicked out of school for drinking and playing hooky. He remains on speaking terms with his parents,
but they no longer give him money.
While passing through Minneapolis last year, he
spent the night in jail for giving police a false name. Otherwise, he said, he has no criminal
The last job he had was working construction in
New Jersey 18 months ago.
Recently, he'd planned to apply to a Starbucks
in Manhattan but was sick the day of his interview. He did manage to turn up when the drop-in center
distributed some free Virgin records vouchers last Christmas.
Like his girlfriend, he spanges around NYU,
though makes only about half as much as she does.
The couple is thinking about going to
Philadelphia this fall to find another squat.
"There are 31,000 abandoned buildings down
there," Dawn said. "Ideally, we'll be able to live for free."
"I don't find joy in a 9-to-5 gig," Tom told The Post. "I'm kind of happy with the way things are now. And if it ever gets to the point where I'm not, I'll change my life."