You don’t need an ID card to visit the Church of St. John the Baptist, and no one will search your bags. Just a block from Penn Station, it offers free food, clothing and a quiet place to pray—no questions asked. But that may not be true come late August, when the Republican National Convention rolls into town. “They’re basically going to shut us down,” said Mary Bivona, a case manager with Catholic Charities who has worked at the church for 14 years.
She and other service providers fear that the street closures and security checks planned for the convention will cut off their homeless and low-income clients from essential services such as food, shelter and medical care. Between West 31st Street and West 33rd, from 7th to 9th Avenues, pedestrians will need a “business-related purpose to enter,” according to the mayor’s June 25 press release.
That could be a problem for Carl, a 55-year-old former truck driver from New Jersey who has been living on the streets near Madison Square Garden since splitting with his wife a few months ago. Now he lugs around his possessions in a pleather backpack, panhandling until he has enough change for a hot dog. He expects to be kicked out to make way for the RNC. “It’s going to look like pretend, make believe,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh, we don’t have homeless people here, we take care of our own.’ It’s all bullshit.”
While agencies in the “frozen zone” may be the hardest hit, the surrounding area encompasses several other providers, including the Olivieri women’s shelter, Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, and the HIV/AIDS Services Administration. It’s also home to the James A. Farley post office, a block-long behemoth where welfare and disability checks are sent if their recipients have no other address. The convention falls at the beginning of the month, the same time that benefits arrive.
In recent interviews with the Daily News, the police, mayor, and Department of Homeless Services all insisted there would be no homeless sweeps. In fact, DHS is promising the convention will bring an increase in outreach. “DHS is working closely with the host committee and the NYPD to insure that vulnerable individuals continue to access critical services,” said Jim Anderson, spokesperson for the department. “There’s a real commitment to that.”
But some advocates are skeptical. Before the 1992 Democratic National Convention, also held at the Garden, hundreds of homeless people reportedly “disappeared” from the streets. Norman Siegel, then head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, thinks there was an unofficial crackdown. “I’m sure that’s going to happen again,” he said. “And the city will say they didn’t have anything to do with it.”
To help defuse the situation, providers have been meeting regularly to discuss possible solutions like distributing homeless ID cards, providing more shelter beds or opening up city parks for sleeping.
“We are primarily concerned about making sure that people’s civil rights and liberties are not trampled on,” explained Lynn Lewis, co-director of the advocacy group Picture the Homeless, which helped spearhead these efforts. “Let’s have some common sense. There are a lot of homeless people here; they’re not going to evaporate.”