Last Sunday night, 24 hours before Sandy swept through the city, Dennis Williams became the first New Yorker to have his habitat drenched.
Sleeping in his regular spot on the boardwalk of West Harlem Piers Park – a few feet away from the increasingly turbulent Hudson River – Williams was suddenly sprayed with seawater brought in by a fierce gust.
“It was really windy and the pier was raking, making so much noise,” he says at noon on Monday. He is sitting on a plastic bread tray below the West Side Highway overpass, across the street from the waterfront bench that has been his home for the past three years. He had relocated to underneath the overpass – on the corner of West 125 and Marginal Street - in the middle of the night, in search of a drier spot.
Now sober, but homeless
Williams, 56, does not look homeless. He showers, shaves and has his clothes washed at least once a week in Riverside church’s Services to Persons In Need program, and his few belongings fit in one backpack.
“This kind of crowd you see here today, you don’t usually see,” he says, referring to the dozens of spectators – including families with children – who came down to the boardwalk to observe the gushing river before the much anticipated Sandy arrives.
Williams says he’s seen it all. He grew up in Harlem and in the eighties and nineties worked as subway conductor and a community service officer. But then he started using drugs and eventually dealing them to support his habit, and ended up spending several years in jail.
He says that today he is completely sober and clean – and he looks as much – but his age and criminal record make it impossible for him to find a job, so he’s living on the street, relying on welfare and food stamps.
As a teenager he would come to fish in the Hudson, which had no boardwalk back then. Now, he prefers to spend as much of his time as possible by the river, away from the noise and dangers of the Harlem streets.
At noon the police arrive and seal off the boardwalk, distancing the enthusiastic, photo-snapping spectators at least 30 feet away from the river. Williams’ spot underneath the highway overpass becomes the front row for those eager to witness the Hudson’s rage evolve.
One of the storm-watchers approaches Williams and asks if he’s homeless. He answers her politely. Where are you going to sleep tonight, she continues questioning. Williams points to a staircase outside an unused space that was once a restaurant. The woman is shocked but doesn’t know what to say. She wonders off without saying anything.
Meanwhile, waves are growing and shattering on the boardwalk, watering the fragile-looking trees that seem as if they won’t make it through the night. Sandy seems to be getting closer by the minute and the police urge the crowd to disperse and take shelter in their homes.
Need for a Plan B
Williams is now joined by Andre Fields, a fellow homeless man, who also prefers sleeping by the river. Fields, 52, lost his apartment in May because he couldn’t make rent. He and Williams met here on the boardwalk last summer and became good friends. As the storm escalates, Fields is getting nervous.
“I ain’t gonna say I’m not scared because I’m scared,” he says, “If push comes to shove, we’ll have to take shelter somewhere.”
On regular cold nights, Williams says, they would have been able to take refuge in the nearby McDonalds that is open 24 hours, or ride the train all night. Both options have been shut down because of the storm. Fields uses the cell phone (which he got through a federal program that subsidizes telephone services for low-income consumers) to search for an available shelter.
They learn there is an evacuation center in a school nearby and that the Red Cross opened another shelter somewhere in the center of Harlem. But both men have strong convictions about places that offer homeless people a bed. They don’t feel safe there.
“In the shelters there are people that have lost all hope, they are nasty,” says Williams, “people who got no respect for god, for man, for woman. I don’t go to there unless I have to.”
Looking for dinner
As the skies turn dark the drizzle turns into a shower, and the sound of the wind intensifies. It’s time for dinner. Fields calls the Billy Roberts House of Hope on 124 Street, the Yorkville Pantry on 109 Street and the Broadway Community on 114 Street, but they are all closed due to the storm. The only option left is the Central Harlem Alcohol Crisis Center on 126 Street, where leftover dishes are given out every evening to people in in need.
By the Alcohol Crisis Center there is already a line of fifteen people, waiting for food. The cue is outside the building so everybody is getting wet. After a 45 minutes wait, each person receives a small takeaway plate with chicken, rice and a portion of over-cooked vegetables.
Williams and Fields take their share and head back to West Harlem Pier Park, where they sit to have dinner in the only dry spot available – under the West Side highway.
”I have to deal with it”
The next morning, after the storm passed, the boardwalk and Marginal Street covered with debris, sewage and mud. The place stinks. Williams and Fields are exactly where they were the previous night.
“We were sitting here eating our dinner, and all of a sudden water from the sewer started bubbling up over there,” says Fields, pointing to the ditch in the road, less than ten feet away. At about 10 p.m., Fields continues, the river swamped the boardwalk and began flooding the street.
Williams says they quickly retreated forty feet further away from the river, taking refuge in the elevated porch of a diner called Dinosaur. They spent the entire night there, on picnic tables and haystacks that usually serve as decoration. The water coming in from the Hudson did not ascend as high as the porch, but did flood the diner’s basement.
“Wind was blowing rain to my face, I could hear it hit on my coat,” says Williams, “I just laid down and said the hell with it, I have to deal with it.”
He heads over to the waterfront. A green picnic table is hanging upside down on the pier, but Williams’ boardwalk bench, the one he has been sleeping on for the past three years, is standing firm.
“There’s always storms coming in your life. It can be a physical storm or a mental storm,” he says. “We are surviving the storm of homelessness, so we can survive any hurricane.”