At Home on the Church Steps



Neighborhood: Upper West Side

At Home on the Church Steps
Photo by Smythe Richbourg

On a blustery December evening on my way to a friend’s dinner party, I stopped in front of a jumbo cardboard box on the steps of the church around the corner.

“Jim?” I called out. A moment later a hand emerged and gave a little wave, followed by a head with tousled, graying hair.

“Hi,” Jim said, extending his arm to shake my boyfriend’s hand. “How do you like my new accommodations? I just redecorated,” he added, holding open a flap of the neat construction he’d designed to shelter him from the elements.

I’d heard that Jim was living on the street, but until I saw him myself, the reality of his situation didn’t register. The first time I passed him, standing on the corner surrounded by his belongings, I was stunned. “I’ll be back later,” I called as I hurried to the subway, but the shock of seeing him stayed with me.

Until a month ago, Jim was my neighbor, a fellow tenant of the Art Deco style apartment building that longtime residents simply call “The Building.” For three generations, the building was owned and managed by a small, family-run real estate company. Jim moved into the building in the late ’80s as the live-in assistant to a tenant who ran a Hollywood memorabilia business out of his sprawling rent-controlled apartment. After his roommate died in 2005, the landlords convinced Jim to move to a one-bedroom, non-controlled apartment for which they charged him an affordable rent. But after his lease expired in December, Jim had no place to go.

Over the years, I often conversed with Jim in the elevator, and sometimes stopped by the used books table he’d set up on Broadway in good weather. If I showed interest in a title, he’d insist on giving it to me gratis, and occasionally he came to my door to give me an art or graphic design book he knew I’d like. But Jim didn’t always want to talk. His moodiness could be frightening, his friendliness turning unexpectedly to furious, glowering silences that could last for months. Then just as suddenly, he’d be friendly again. It was clear that he had mental health issues. But still, he was our neighbor, a familiar presence in the building. Now he is homeless—but unlike the anonymous others I’m used to passing by each day, Jim has a familiar face and a name.

This past April, our building was bought by a young, multi-million dollar real estate developer, and is in the process of being renovated for conversion to condominiums. The new management company has unilaterally given all tenants not protected by rent regulations 30 days after their leases expire to move out. So while the rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartments that currently comprise 50% of the building’s units are protected, our market-rate neighbors are not so lucky. Since the summer, moving trucks have been a ubiquitous presence in front of the building, as my neighbors—many of whom have lived here for 15 to 20 years—move out with their belongings, dogs and children. Those who can afford it have relocated to apartments in the neighborhood, and others, to outlying boroughs or suburbs. Now, instead of the sounds of children running in the apartment above, all I hear is the sound of demolition and construction in apartments above, below, and adjacent to mine.

Within the last nine months, 43 apartments have been vacated—almost half the building. Meanwhile, the new owner continues his efforts to make the building a luxury address: power-washing and re-pointing the brick facade; renovating the lobby and covering the marble walls with matte off-white finish; mandatory window replacement; boiler and plumbing replacement and electrical rewiring. Rent-regulated tenants will eventually pay for a portion of these major capital improvements with permanent rent increases, and some rents will become too costly for current tenants to afford—as will, I suspect, the astonishingly high “insider” prices. If the proposal passes, our once solid community of artists, writers, photographers, musicians, educators, social workers and psychotherapists will gradually dwindle to a microcosm amongst the new upscale, condo-owning neighbors.

But this is not the worst of it. Recently, shortly after being notified that they had to move out—each for different reasons—two longtime tenants died, one of a heart attack, and the other from complications of age-related illness. Neighbors speculate that while neither death was directly attributable to the events in the building, it is likely they were hastened by the stress of being forced to leave their homes and find new ones.

And then there’s Jim, living in his box on the church steps, waiting for his social security checks to be rerouted to his bank before he can find housing, preferably on the Upper West Side. “This is the only neighborhood I feel comfortable in,” he says when we discuss his situation, adding, “I’m afraid to go to a shelter.” He proudly refuses offers of money, but accepts gifts of water, coffee, and food. “Not too much,” he says, adding that other neighbors had stopped by with food earlier in the day.

I make some phone calls to look into local low-cost housing options. Jim Morris, Associate Director of Social Services for Hotel Euclid Hall, explains that in order to be considered for one of the many single room occupancy hotels on the Upper West Side, applicants must be referred by a caseworker through a shelter or a licensed agency. He suggests that Jim should go to one of the city’s drop-in centers in the East or West 30s, or the men’s shelter on East 30th Street, and once he’s assigned a caseworker, he can ask to be sent to one of the neighborhood’s private, faith-based shelters. Only after months in the shelter system would he be considered for low-cost housing, he adds. Since Jim is unwilling to go to a shelter or leave the neighborhood, I’m afraid he’ll remain on the street. As someone who distrusts institutions, I can understand Jim’s choice. But what options are there for someone who refuses to go through the system?

Next I call Goddard Riverside Community Center, a community organization a few blocks away. “How long has your neighbor been homeless?” the representative asks, and explains that their outreach program, the Manhattan Outreach Consortium, works primarily with the chronic homeless who have been on the streets for at least nine months out of the last 24. After being evaluated, clients are referred to various temporary and transitional housing options, with the goal of securing permanent residence in S.R.O.’s and other supportive housing. She adds that there are a limited number of “community units” in S.R.O.’s that occasionally become available for neighborhood homeless who are able to pay rent, which may not be subject to the 9-month criteria. Before we hang up, she promises to send an outreach team to talk to Jim about possibilities. Not wanting Jim to know I’ve violated his privacy, I ask that they don’t mention my name.

A couple of nights later, Jim’s box is still on the steps. It’s cold outside, and he doesn’t respond when I call his name.

Today it is snowing. While Jim hunkers down in his makeshift shelter, his apartment remains pointlessly empty. Grateful for my rent-stabilized Upper West Side apartment (like Jim, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else), I realize just how fortunate I am, and how vulnerable I could become if rent regulations were done away with. Meanwhile, our Tenants’ Association has hired a legal firm to represent us and negotiate with the new landlord.

We are the lucky ones. Even if forced to leave, most of us would be capable of finding a place to live. Where is the protection for those less fortunate? As a life-long New Yorker, I understand the inevitability of change. But it’s disheartening to imagine a future where compassion is always trumped by enterprise. Judging by the number of buildings going condo, those church steps may become crowded.

“It’s shameful,” I hear again and again as my neighbors and I discuss Jim’s situation in the elevator, the lobby, or standing beneath the scaffolding outside the building.

On our way home from dinner, my boyfriend and I stop by the church to drop off a plate for Jim. Rousing himself, he thanks us and adds, “Come back tomorrow night. Maybe I’ll have some money by then, and I’ll take you out.”

In spite of Jim’s apparent cheerfulness, I fear for him. Bolstering him with food and social visits won’t solve his larger problems. How long can he last before becoming ill or lapsing into depression or psychosis? When Jim lived in his apartment, his moods could be erratic, but at least he had the stability of a place to go home to. What chance does he have on the street?

Thoughts and questions swirl like snowflakes as my boyfriend and I walk home in silence.

On my way to a New Year’s Eve party, I stop by the church, but in Jim’s place, a young man with a ponytail is setting up some cartons. “Where’s Jim?” I ask. “Maybe he got picked up,” he says with a shrug. In the next vestibule, a Hispanic man sitting on the steps advises me to come back later. “Jim usually comes in late,” he adds, flashing a gap-toothed smile. These are Jim’s new neighbors. I wonder what their stories are.

Now that the temperature has dropped into the low twenties, I scan the church steps as I pass by, but find them eerily devoid of human presence. I can only hope that Jim, like my other former neighbors, has found warm and suitable shelter.

Mindy Lewis is the author of LIFE INSIDE: A Memoir and editor of the essay anthology DIRT: The Quirks, Habits and Passions of Keeping House. Her essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Newsweek, New York Times Book Review, Lilith, Body & Soul, Poets & Writers, Arts & Letters, and other literary journals. She teaches at The Writer’s Voice of the West Side Y and Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, and has also taught at Brooklyn College. A native New Yorker, Mindy grew up downtown and at 19 moved into her Upper West Side apartment, where she remains today.

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§ 11 Responses to “At Home on the Church Steps”

  • Joan Barber says:

    I applaud you for publishing Mindy’s heartbreaking story. As one of Jim’s neighbors I can only second all her thoughts and feelings. I only wish Jim had not so tragically fallen through the cracks of the system.

  • Mindy,
    I enjoyed your well-written essay about what can happen when there’s callousness in the housing industry. Your comment, “But it’s disheartening to imagine a future where compassion is always trumped by enterprise,” really sums it up. In a city so rich as this, can’t we do better?

  • ann jackowitz says:

    This is a beautifully written story. Thank you.

    I, too, have been deeply interested in the homeless in NYC which increasingly includes families and children as you probably know. I, too, know neighbors who are a husband and wife team who have become friends who live in a park bench across the street from my apartment in the spring, summer and fall and in a parked car near their bench in the rainy, snowy, cold winter.


  • Moira Ghant says:

    Hello Mindy Lewis I read your story this is so sad to hear about Jim. People are losing just about everything almost every day someone ends up homeless I pray to god that my family and I can stay afloat. I do hope that you see Jim again soon. I am looking forward to read some good news on Jim. Thank you Mindy for your time

  • Mindy Lewis says:

    11pm, snowing… Jim is out there in his box, didn’t answer when I called his name. I guess he’s hibernating like the rest of us. His neighbor in the next alcove had an umbrella set up over his box and blankets, a cozy tableau. “How are you doing?” I asked. His answer, “Not bad, thanks. Surviving. How are you?”

  • Marta Szabo says:

    I greatly enjoyed reading this description of very real life. Thank you.

  • Rachel Karyo says:

    Dear Mindy,
    Thank you for this beautifully written and important story. I really hope Jim’s situation improves soon. “Thoughts and questions swirl like snowflakes…” indeed.

  • Mindy Lewis says:

    Dear readers,
    I appreciate your response and your concern for Jim’s fate. When I last spoke with him, in the midst of a snowstorm, he was characteristically upbeat (braving the elements seems to bring out the best of him). While we were speaking, an outreach team from Goddard Riverside Community Center stopped by to make sure he was OK. He told me he had an appointment scheduled at the Center, set up by another former neighbor, and that he already had a social worker assigned to his case. I’m starting to feel guardedly optimistic. Jim is a kind of outlaw who hates the system. Let’s see if the system can work for him anyway. Meanwhile, the new landlord is demolishing the apartment above mine, and every day is filled with brain rattling pounding, which the new management company says will continue for the next 4-6 months. It’s probably quieter out on the street, but colder. (Glibly said, I know there’s no comparison).

  • Miriam says:

    Mindy, as always, beautifully written, sincere, and heartfelt.

  • Elena Schwolsky says:

    Thanks, Mindy and Mr. Beller for publishing this beautifully written, poignant story that illuminates a pervasive problem in our city through a vivid portrait of one man, a neighbor, made homeless by the forces that value real estate development over humanity.

  • Cecilia says:

    A troubling story…the most upsetting aspect, to me, was reading that Jim’s chances of being helped improve the longer he is homeless, and thus more likely to experience a downturn in his mental state. Thank you, Mindy, for sharing Jim’s plight. He is fortunate, at least, to have neighbors like you who are advocating for him.

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