"Why are you homeless?" - Carl's story

Carl folds his large hands together. His expression is stoic and hesitant.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

I tell him we’re trying to raise awareness for Project Renewal. A single eyebrow raises, before his tattooed arms relax and he eases into his chair.

I return the question to him.

“Originally from Brooklyn, raised my kids in Long Island. They’re all grown, except my daughter who’s 11.”

What brought you here?

“After I got divorced, I moved in with my uncle. We were sharing an apartment and he got sick.  Decided to move in with his children. I couldn’t afford the apartment myself...at the same time I went on disability.”

What about the insurance, I wonder, but he keeps going as if he read my mind.

“Unfortunately, they take half of my disability check for child support. I can’t even afford to rent a room. A room is $150 a week.”

I almost ask where I can find a room for $150 a week, but instead I ask about the disability.

“I was a commercial roofer, a union roofer, for 25 years. Then I was in the glazer’s union for 5 years. Then I was in the carpenter's union. I worked all my life.”

He looks like a construction worker, with his wide torso and crew cut.  

“Then...a couple different marriages. I had a house, signed that over to my first wife. Life...you go on. I did a lot of frivolous spending. Traveled around the country for a while, after the divorce. I lived in California...Texas...Florida for a while. I’ve been around.

My favorite spot is San Diego...The weather it’s 70, the people are nice and friendly, everything’s clean...it’s the total opposite of this. But I love New York.” He adds the last part as if it were an unmistakable truth.

How long have you been in the shelter?

“I’ve been here 7 months now...in rehab right now...I can’t do construction anymore. My body can’t handle it anymore.”

So what then?

“I’ve been in construction my whole life, since I was 17 years old. I have no idea. I don’t think I could sit behind a desk.

“Construction’s a great industry. Made a lot of money, made $65,000  a year. To go from that to this is pretty devastating...pretty depressing...If I had the resources I’d leave today.”

What about your family, why not stay with them?

“My two kids just got married, and my other son lives with his fiance in Long Island. What am I gonna do, sleep on their couch? I wouldn’t do that, I wouldn’t impose on them. My siblings are spread out all over the country, so I’m all alone.

“I always had my own place to live, I’d rather be here, try to make it happen on my own.”

Then what makes it okay? What makes you happy?

“I’m really close with my two boys. Spending time with kids brings me joy...I’m not in a relationship right now, because why would I get in a relationship when I live in a shelter? I have nothing to offer anybody right now.” He shakes his head. “It’s a day-to-day battle.”

I stumbled to think of a question. Then, gathering myself, I asked him if there was anything he wanted to say to the people out there?

“I talk to a lot of homeless guys who don’t want to come to the shelter. If I could say anything to the people out there who are living on the street it would be ‘come’. Come here. It’s so much better. Just having a bed to sleep in every night makes a big difference in how you feel about yourself. It gives you hope.”

Why Project Renewal? 

There are tens of thousands of homeless people living in New York City. Many of them have stories just like his. It’s our hope that, through the Why Are You Homeless? campaign, more New Yorkers will come to understand that anyone can become homeless.

You can help people like Steve.  Project Renewal runs, in part, on donations, but we appreciate it just as much if you sign up to learn more about us or like us on Facebook.  Check back next week for another eye-opening story about homelessness in the city.  In the meantime, keep your eyes and hearts open.

- Dan Foley