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

Steve’s eyes are tired but focused. He tells me to open the drawer next to me. Inside sits a collection of skilled pencil sketches. I pull out the top one. It’s a profile of a nameless superhero.  

I tell him it’s pretty good.

“I was one of the first people of color to work for Marvel,” he says in a raspy voice.

Marvel Comics?

Steve doesn’t nod, but his eyes remain focused, looking past me. “I know Stan Lee personally—I went to Jack Kirby’s funeral. Back in those days, DC didn’t hire people of color.”

I look at the sketch again. You must have practiced a lot, I say.

“I never practice, I just put my brain to paper,” he says.

Steve is 83 years old, although I wouldn’t have put him a day over 60. In the first minute of our conversation, he runs through his life story like he’s checking boxes.

“Came here in 1936 from Cuba...graduated high school...joined the Navy, fought in the Korean War. Got married. My wife passed away from breast cancer in 1969. Got 7 Kids, 14 grandkids, great grandkids…”

I asked how he could be homeless with his background.

“It’s a series of events...some too personal to mention.” His expression doesn’t change, but the subject does.

“I believe in respect,” he says. “Respect rolls two ways. If you want it, demand it, you must give it. There’s rules you follow.”

He pauses. “I’ve spent some time in prison. It’s not a badge of courage, it’s a badge of stupidity...but you learn and you move on.”

I ask him about the shelter.

“It’s damn expensive to live in New York,” he says. “With these vampire landlords.”

I laugh.

“Homeless is at an all time high,” he continues. “We live in the greatest city...in the greatest country on earth, but there’s almost 60,000 homeless out there. It makes the the country look bad. It makes people not want to care...It used to be just people of color, now it’s everybody...you’ve got seniors out there like me, freezing to death.

“But the trick is to work with the system, not against it. If you feel you’re being trampled on, use this.” He points to his head.

“You come into the shelter system with hopes to be self-sufficient. It doesn’t always happen that way...but I’ll be out of here by spring. The goal is moving forward–-meet with the right people.

“Maybe my comments, my thoughts can motivate others.”

He collects himself. We’re silent for a few seconds.

What are you doing in the meantime?

“I’m doing art. If I’m not doing art, I’m reading.” He motions towards one of the posters he’s created for Project Renewal on the wall.

“Project Renewal’s one of the best organizations in the city, but it needs help

Like Steve said, 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 just 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 heart open.

- Dan Foley