Growing up, Joe Wallinger had a distinct image of homelessness: drunks shuffling through the Staten Island Ferry Terminal begging for money and turning benches into beds. But that image changed in 2005. Wallinger, a 56-year-old accountant and former resident of Tottenville, now counts himself among the homeless on Staten Island.
Homelessness now hides behind shelter doors, walks in designer clothes and carries cell phones. Many homeless people are working-class, college graduates, parents or the elderly, according to Project Hospitality, a private nonprofit organization that operates the borough's homeless shelters and many food assistance programs.
Homelessness has blended into Staten Island communities that still hold on to the image of the drunken or mentally ill nesting in the ferry terminal and don't "see" the new image.
Buford Carter, a preacher,
comments on the changing
image of homelessness. (Audio: 0:23)
Dennis Dell'Angelo, longtime resident of southern Staten Island, said homeless advocates and city officials manipulate the image of homelessness so they can justify expanding their services.
"If all the city agencies say we have a rise in the homeless, then the people who have facilities that deal with this will build them," said Dell'Angelo, 64, president of the Pleasant Plains/Princes' Bay/Richmond Valley Civic Association, a neighborhood watchdog group.
But Staten Island now has the second-highest percentage of homelessness in the city, and the number of people seeking shelter has doubled since 2001. Fewer homeless people are living on the streets, but approximately 311 people crowd into Staten Island’s seven emergency shelters every night and wait in long lines for soup kitchens and food pantries.
"We've had people come in who've had condos and because they lost their job, they lost their condo and all their means of income," said Mamie E. Daniels, 76, who has run a soup kitchen at the Stapleton Church since 1987. "Before you knew it, they're in a shelter."
Contrary to the worn image of chronic homelessness, today many people are either close to finding a home, or on the verge of losing one.
Cassidy Mojica, a 9-year-old Staten Islander, speaks about homelessness and her cousin who can't find a shelter. (Audio: 0:56)
Almost 62,000 Staten Islanders eat at emergency food programs--up 300 percent since 2004, according to Hunger Safety Net 2007, a report produced by the Food Bank for New York City.
Photo: Lisa Biagiotti/NYC24
People gather outside the Stapleton Church Soup Kitchen at 3 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays for a prayer before mealtime.
Staten Island's nine soup kitchens serve 4.8 million meals a year. Lines for the island's 30 food pantries wind down church steps, and still, 70 percent of these food pantries and soup kitchens run out of food.
"The food pantry or soup kitchen is the last step of desperation," said the Rev. Will Nichols, director of Project Hospitality's communications and community outreach. "People who are coming here are homeless next."
On a near-freezing April night, men and women wearing dark-blue Levi's, velour jumpsuits and sports jerseys signed-in to the center as "clients," before sitting upright in plastic-covered chairs. They covered themselves with thin, white blankets.
The city rejected Project Hospitality’s application for a permit to convert the facility into a full-scale, sleep-away shelter under pressure from local officials and residents.
Wallinger, an accountant with 72 credits toward his master's at Baruch College, calls the Central Avenue shelter home.
Wallinger left his apartment three years ago when he couldn’t feed himself, pay his rent and the $440 a month he owed in child support.
"This is what I have to do to make a living," said Wallinger, who lost his accounting job less than a year ago.
Wallinger was clean-shaven and wore an "Izod" brand pull-over and a clean pair of jeans when he fell into his "bed" -- a chair that resembled an airplane seat. He closed his eyes behind wire-framed glasses.
At 11 p.m., the lights went out and the cell phones popped open, glowing and bleeping amid the chatter of the dark room.