"It's tough enough to live in New York City if you have your job and everything together," shares Sal Salomon, who has made his way out of the city's homeless system. "But getting from there is like coming from the pits of hell."
We interviewed Sal last weekend about his Hell's Kitchen story. He's seen life from many angles – he's been to prison; seen three brothers, his father, and mother all die within a seven-month period; and spent the last year in a homeless shelter. Now he's back, living in the city, and earning a living by performing his music.
During our conversation, he shared his experiences of living in a homeless shelter for the last year, a situation he and the other shelter clients call "warehousing men." In April, like so many other homeless during the pandemic. he was transferred from the shelter to a hotel.
"Even without the pandemic, the shelters are not housing," explained Jawanza Williams of the New York City Homeless Union, in an interview with the New Republic. "They are crisis facilities, for moments. Not for living."
Many, like Sal, are working while in the shelters. According to Beth Hofmeister, a Legal Aid attorney for homeless rights, around one-third of shelter residents work full-time jobs. "These are not people who want to be where they are. There is this misconception. They’re doing everything they can to better their situation,” Beth told City Limits.
On April 13, one month into the pandemic lockdown, the New York Times reported that the shelter system was a "time bomb" as 23 died in packed homeless shelters. At that point, 371 people from shelters had tested positive for the virus, about 80 percent of them from single-adult facilities, even though those adults represent less than a quarter of the homeless population as a whole.
The solution: the city started "paying an average of at least $174 a night" for shelters to rent hotel rooms that lay vacant with no tourist traffic in sight.
Sal was relieved when he got to his hotel. After being a resident of six different shelters in less than a year, he had finally worked out how to "win" in the system: "I learned how to keep my mouth shut and not call out their abuses and be quiet," he says. "I got moved out to a hotel in Queens."
This was no luxury, but he was happy to be isolated and away from dormitory life. "The places in Queens are on the side of highway or by the airport. There's nobody around," he says."We had to walk 10 blocks to get a bus, to get the train. We were on the South Conduit and it was fine. Hey, if you're homeless and you're down and you have a roof over your head, it's going to be a little bit far away."
"They're not trying to move us out. They just trying to collect the money for housing us."
When Sal first entered a shelter in May 2019, he'd started to suspect that the businesses involved were "pretty much warehousing men and charging the city." When he asked those who had been in the system for years, they confirmed his fears: "They're not trying to move us out. They just trying to collect the money for housing us."
He didn't want to believe this at first, but experiences told him he had to go it alone to get out. "I'm sitting there and I'm saying to myself, 'Wait a minute. I'm not crazy. I'm not on drugs. I work, I sing in the streets, I make my money and I'm saving my money and I really want to get out and nobody's helping me at all. And every guy in there is like, 'No, they don't help you. They're just housing you.'"
"She had police officers surround me and take control of me. And then she had me transferred out to a worse place."
If Hell's Kitchen residents distrust the system, that feeling from within the shelters is even greater. Before Sal learned to keep his "mouth shut," he had run-ins with management that ended in transfers to "bad spaces" One example: "I approached the program director at one place in Brooklyn. I told her, 'Do you realize everybody here is on K2 or heroin, everyone's selling drugs and taking drugs here?' You know what she did? She had police officers surround me and take control of me. And then she had me transferred out to a worse place."
Sal is puzzled by the selection process that decides who ends up in the city hotels, but has a solution. "They're not separating men properly according to their need. In my opinion, the hotels in town should be for men who work. Sometimes working men are in the worst shelters, far from their jobs, which makes it nearly impossible to hold down work.
"If they did that at the city hotels, the only thing you're going to see are guys coming in and out to go to work. My friends in the shelter were working at UPS, or downtown on construction.
"It's a simple way until the people who are running the shelters learn how to tell the difference between who's the axe murderer and who's the person who has a job.?
"In my opinion, homeless people who are not working, or attempting to work, should be out of the city. It's a simple way until the people who are running the shelters learn how to tell the difference between who's the axe murderer and who's the person who has a job. Men who get violent, who scream, who will do something threatening – they're better far away from the city streets."
"These people need real help," says Sal. "I wish that I could get voted in because I would take that job in two seconds and I wouldn't play. I'd fire people."