From a distance, Joseph Sowards looks like any traveler stuck for the night at LaGuardia Airport’s central terminal after his flight was canceled. Get closer, and it becomes clear from his layered clothing and dirty hands that he’s one of New York City’s record number of homeless.
“They don’t bother me here,” said Sowards, 44, an unlicensed plumber from Maspeth, Queens, who was lying on the floor. He’s been sleeping in parks and abandoned buildings for the past 10 years.
While the homeless population is bigger at the Port Authority bus terminal and Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, a growing number are finding shelter at New York’s airports, according to Volunteers of America. Since 1986, the 118-year-old nonprofit has provided outreach to the homeless at LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International airports under a contract with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.
Sowards was one of about two dozen people who had taken shelter in LaGuardia’s 50-year-old central terminal on a subfreezing night this month. They slept in seats at the baggage claim and waiting areas and on radiators in the presecurity food court. They used restroom sinks to wash, and some with suitcases blended in with other stranded travelers.
Volunteers of America, which has offices at LaGuardia and JFK, counted a monthly average of 45 chronic homeless people at LaGuardia in 2014, an 80 percent increase over the average month in 2011. On the coldest nights, as many as 50 took refuge at LaGuardia in East Elmhurst, Queens. JFK’s chronic homeless increased to an average of 33 per month, double the number in 2011.
“There’s some new faces,” said Sharan Kaur, an assistant general manager at Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, who’s worked at LaGuardia for five years.
Conditions at the airports reflect the growth of homelessness in the most populous U.S. city. Every night, more than 60,000 people—almost 26,000 of them children—sleep in shelters, an increase of about 20,000 in three years, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, a New York-based advocacy group.
City officials estimate that an additional 3,357 homeless people (pdf) were living on streets, in parks, and in other public places in 2014, an increase of 6 percent over the previous year. Homeless advocates say that number is much higher.
“It’s a public space,” said Carmen Keaton, Volunteers of America’s director of community case management and facility operations. “You have a place to bathe. You have a place to eat. You have a place to panhandle for money, and a warm facility.”
Security guards won’t eject the homeless from the central terminal so long as they’re peaceful and don’t create a nuisance, Keaton said. Many develop relationships with concession workers, who give them food and drinks, she said.
Ron Marsico, a spokesman for the Port Authority, said such groups as Volunteers of America help relocate the homeless to shelters when possible.
“Working with these organizations has enabled the agency to be sensitive to the needs of these individuals, while ensuring there is minimal impact to aviation operations for the 117 million travelers flying in and out of JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark Liberty airports annually,” Marsico said in an e-mail.
On a recent morning at LaGuardia, Alvaro Uribe, a 29-year-old industrial designer on his way to Chicago, sat in a waiting area looking at his smartphone. When a reporter pointed out a homeless couple sleeping behind him, he said it didn’t bother him.
“I mean, it’s New York. You get used to seeing homeless people in every public space,” Uribe said. “I don’t think they’re harming anyone. Sure, it looks weird initially, but I just thought they were waiting for a flight.”
New York’s homelessness crisis stems from a shortage of affordable housing. Median rents rose 75 percent from 2000 to 2012, compared with 44 percent in the rest of the U.S., according to a 2014 report (pdf) by City Comptroller Scott Stringer. In addition, New York lost about 400,000 apartments renting for $1,000 or less.
The median monthly rent will reach $2,700 this year, according to the real-estate website StreetEasy.com. That’s $1,300 more than what a resident working 40 hours per week and making the minimum wage earns a month, before taxes.
In 2005, New York stopped giving priority for federal housing aid to homeless families and children in shelters. The city started Advantage, a rental-assistance program, jointly funded by the state, in 2007. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg ended the program in February 2012 after the state cut funding. In the 21 months that followed, almost 50 percent of families enrolled in Advantage returned to shelters. The former mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio, with state help, reinstated rental-assistance programs of as long as five years for families in shelters, depending on eligibility and funding.
The city also increased spending by $20 million on a program that provides eviction assistance and back-rent payment and expanded street outreach efforts by $10 million. Still, the shelter population grew almost 13 percent last year.
De Blasio, a 53-year-old Democrat, is asking the state for $32 million in rental-assistance funding this year and more in future years. He has also pledged to create or preserve 200,000 affordable housing units, a cornerstone of his 2013 election campaign.
“If we do not take immediate, bold steps, the crisis will keep growing with an increasing human toll,” de Blasio told a legislative budget panel in Albany last month.
LaGuardia’s central terminal is the only one of four that remains open 24 hours. During the day, the food court buzzes with travelers. By 11 p.m. on a Friday night in March, it looked more like an encampment.
A man and woman reclined on a silver radiator that runs the length of the food court. In a back corner, a cluster of five people slept, including one on what looked like a lawn chair. At another table, a woman with a blanket over her head rested it on a table.
On the third floor, Hadi Mansaray sat barefoot in a waiting area. His socks got wet in the slush, so he was drying them on a radiator. Mansaray, 31, came to the U.S. 15 years ago as a refugee from Sierra Leone. He said he’s been living on the street for two years after getting evicted from his apartment. For the past five weeks, he’s been coming to the airport at night.
“Living on the street, my backpack got stolen. It had my wallet and Social Security card,” Mansaray said. On the street and in shelters, he said he gets hassled by police. The airport is warm and safe.
Mansaray, who lost a job as a security guard, said he is now studying to be a nursing assistant and getting his graduate-equivalency degree. He eats at soup kitchens and sneaks onto buses to get to an adult learning center in Manhattan.
At LaGuardia, a two-person Volunteers of America homeless outreach team works from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., while another operates at JFK from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Together with airport staff and Port Authority police, they identify homeless people and offer transportation to shelter. Outreach workers focus on transients because they’re more likely to accept services than the chronically homeless, Keaton said.
Last year the group placed in shelters or reunited with their families 31 homeless people at LaGuardia and 105 at JFK.
Rachel Weinstein, Volunteers of America’s chief development and communications officer, said one man, an alcoholic, lived at LaGuardia for 20 years.
“The guys got him into rehab, he got dried up a couple of times, and he’d keep coming back,” she said.