Samuel Steele sat in his regular corner of Mesa Park, a deserted lot off Morris Avenue in the Tremont section of the Bronx. He was wearing a pair of dirty jeans over untied boots, a tattered button-down shirt hanging out. He smelled of urine. His leather-like hands shook as he held a lighter towards his mouth, repeatedly attempting to light the crack pipe hanging from his trembling lips. Eventually he succeeded, and then he was calm.
An hour later, Sammy – as he’s known in this neighborhood – picked up his backpack and wobbled out to the street. His salt-and-pepper beard partially masked his creased dark skin. His eyes were glazed and with his head hung low, he mumbled, unable to make eye contact. Eventually, as if he had been practicing a rhyme, he blurted out his first three audible words: “Door… floor… store.”
A few minutes walk down Eastburn Avenue led him to the Grand Concourse and the Tri-Star Check Cashing Corp. on the corner of 175th. It was 1 p.m. It was time to go to “work.”
For the past seven years Sammy has been the unofficial doorman/deliveryman/janitor of the Check Cash, a daily presence outside the door that has almost made him a symbol by which customers recognize the store.
His three primary chores, which he performs every day, are delivering lunch to the employees, mopping the floor and opening the door for customers. He is usually paid $2 to $3 for each assignment, in addition to the tips he collects from customers at the door. On a good day, he can make as much as $20. Almost all of it goes to purchase beer, cigarettes and drugs.
“He just showed up here seven years ago and started opening the door for people,” recalled Miguelina Rodriguez, the clerk perhaps closest to Sammy. “He wasn’t nagging so we let him stay. He’s been here ever since.”
When he’s not “working” at the Check Cash, Sammy alternates between apartment building lobbies and parks to find shelter in the night, a hobo wondering through the streets of Tremont he knows like the back of his weathered hands.
“I don’t live nowhere,” he said. “I go by myself. I stay by myself.”
He says he likes it this way, and refuses to go to a shelter where, he says, people often get robbed.
“I don’t like being around people,” he explained, adding that he needs a place no one will bother him and “nobody begs for drugs.”
But life on the street has not been kind to him either. Recently Sammy was beaten. His jaw was broken and he spent two weeks in a hospital recovering. He often comes to collect food at homeless centers after being attacked on the street. But Sammy won’t have it any other way.
According to Rodriguez, one of Sammy’s brothers stops by periodically to check in on him and offer help, only to be rejected time and again. Sammy said he wants nothing to do with his many relatives. He is adamant about staying alone.
“I don’t have a friend in the world,” he said tersely. “I don’t talk to nobody. I talk to myself and I don’t get no answers back.”
Street homelessness in New York City has decreased significantly over the past decade – at least anecdotally – but it’s still a major problem. The city is under court order to house any person who requests shelter, following the 1979 landmark Callahan decree. However, this has little impact on homeless men and women like Sammy, who don’t request shelter and choose instead to stay on the street.
In November alone there were two separate cases of homeless people dying on the streets. A man in Brooklyn, who was living in a dumpster, was accidentally crushed to death in a garbage truck, while a Brooklyn couple died in an electrical fire in a city-owned building where they squatted. As the temperatures go down, the risks on the streets for the homeless go up.
A comprehensive 1998 research paper, conducted for the homeless services agency, found that the “street homeless” population is as diverse as New York City itself. However, there was a common theme among many of the homeless: drug use. The study found that substance abuse is both a cause and a symptom of homelessness.
In the Bronx, the poorest of the five boroughs, this is an especially serious concern. Danny Farrell, director of the Homeless Outreach Team, a Bronx-based not-for-profit agency, estimates that about 85 percent of the homeless are drug users. This is particularly true with a group experts refer to as the “chronic homeless,” a group estimated to include as many as 15 percent of all homeless people.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently announced that the city was putting together a plan to end chronic homelessness in the next 10 years. This comes on the heels of a similar announcement from President Bush’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, which has the goal of ending the problem nationwide within the next decade.
The recent high profile developments have raised the awareness for the plight of the chronic homeless. This is a select group that has been out in the streets for many years, with a long pathology of destructive behavior and often with little will or ability to change. This is a group that includes Sammy.
“There is still a chance for Sammy,” insists Farrell, whose outreach team – nicknamed HOT – has about 3,000 contacts a month with homeless people in the Bronx. About 100 people a month get placed in short-term shelters or drug and alcohol treatment programs, and on average only one client a month succeeds in independently moving into his or her own place. However, the most trying individuals he deals with are the 45 or so “chronic cases” like Sammy, who only recently contacted HOT.
“It’s not a Cinderella story,” Farrell said from behind his desk at HOT headquarters, just off the Grand Concourse, in an open-space hall that looks more like a warehouse than an office. “We are not saviors,” Farrell said. “We just want them to get housed and be stable enough to stay there.”
He and his team of 25 caseworkers cannot afford to become frustrated; instead they operate on the belief that there is hope for every homeless person.
However, Farrell, a clinical social worker who has headed HOT for three years, knows that with Sammy and others like him, it isn’t easy.
“Sammy is a long term project,” he said. “It will take a while and there are no guarantees.”
Although Sammy often stumbles in his speech, he is never at a loss for stories, and he likes to talk at length, offering fragmented glimpses into the tumultuous 60 years of his life. Almost half of those were spent in prison, on various charges ranging from assault to a robbery he said he did not commit.
He was born in South Carolina, he says, but his family moved to Manhattan when he was a child; he has two sisters and nine brothers, three of which have since died.
He says he plays the piano and also owns property in Savannah, Georgia. When he was younger he converted to Islam. He says he has lived in the Bronx for 37 years, that he has three sons and a daughter whom he hasn’t seen since 1977. He never married their mother, but was married to someone else for three years a decade ago. While he was “away” serving a 10-month sentence on drug charges, his wife divorced him and took all of his money, he says.
He says he used to be a teacher and a case manager for drug addicts himself.
“I used to teach,” he said. “Now I teach on the street.”
Sammy has gone through extensive periods of his life as an alcoholic and a heroin addict. He never really explains how he got from here to there, though. His memory is sketchy – likely a result of years of drug use – and he often confuses dates and years. And it’s impossible to confirm anything Sammy says since no one in the neighborhood knows about his past before 1996.
Still, those who know him best say that Sammy is a very smart man who, when sober, has beautiful handwriting and a rich vocabulary. Even when discussing his drinking habits, Sammy is precise when choosing his words. Recently, when asked if he needed a beer, he sharply replied: “I don’t need a beer, I want a beer. Need is a necessity, want is a desire.”
He loves to read and often quotes an Eric Burne book entitled: “Games People Play,” which discusses the psychology behind human relationships. He said he read the book for the first time in 1965 but hasn’t read a new book in many years.
“I can’t afford to buy reading glasses,” he explained.
Over the years, Sammy’s “bosses” and the regular customers at Tri-Star have grown to love and trust him.
“He’s a nice person. Whatever else he does… he’s still a nice person,” said Rachel Vivera, one of the clerks.
“He’s not a violent person,” added Rodriguez, who attested to his kindness, the way he helps people in wheelchairs at the ATM and the way he naturally protects her when he recognizes a suspicious person nearing the store. Knowing that she is single, Sammy often points out men he thinks would be suitable for her.
“She had man problems,” Sammy explained. “She couldn’t hold a man.”
He has been delivering lunch almost every day for years and has earned their trust by meticulously returning each time with exact change.
“Once I sent him out with $120,” Rodriguez said. “I completely trusted him. He always comes back.”
The owner of the store is fond of him as well, trusting him to watch his car when he comes for a visit and rewarding Sammy each time with a sizeable tip.
Juan Ortiz, another one of the clerks who has known Sammy since he arrived on the doorstep in 1996, seems the hardest on Sammy. Yet, even he, in his brusque fashion, reveals his true emotions.
“I like him. I like giving him a hard time,” he said with a smile.
The employees claim Sammy has never asked for a favor and always does everything they ask of him. He’s no pushover, though, and when he gets mad, he’ll let you know about it.
“He’s gets that from me,” Ortiz said as he laughed aloud.
The affection he and Rodriguez have for the troubled, aging man is obvious in their words; his tough love balanced by her compassion. They speak of him like a wayward son. However, recently they have both been losing hope.
“He’s just a crackhead,” Ortiz added bitterly. “He’s going to be this way the rest of his life.”
Over the years, he and Rodriguez, as well as several concerned customers and many others from the community have repeatedly tried to help Sammy, setting up meetings with police, homeless support centers, drug rehabilitation centers and local churches. Each time, he has failed to show up.
“Unfortunately, he is a grown man,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t force him. We have no control over him…He doesn’t want to be helped.
“Once I said to him, ‘Sammy, if I win the lotto, I’m going to take you off the street,'” she recalled recently. According to her, Sammy looked her straight in the eye and replied, “Who told you I want to get off the street?”
On Wednesday, Nov. 19, all seemed normal at Tri-Star, the local money market in Tremont. Customers floated in and out to pay bills, wire money or transfer funds. They chatted with the two clerks standing behind the heavy plated, bulletproof glass window in their own unique dialect of English blended with Spanish. The regulars, though, could sense that something was out of the ordinary.
“The first thing I said when I got in this morning was ‘Where’s Sammy?'” said Vivera, on duty with Ortiz that day. “He’s always here. He’s faithful. Rain, snow, it doesn’t matter. If he’s not here, something’s happened. He’s either locked up or in the hospital…probably locked up.”
Everyone knows Sammy in this part of the Bronx. This is his backyard. Consecutive days of absence are usually enough for the warning lights to go off in the heads of Vivera and Ortiz. Years of experience with Sammy have sharpened their instincts. Ortiz was certain that Sammy had been taken away once again.
He was right.
A week later a call to the Department of Corrections automated phone service confirmed the inevitable: Samuel Steele, ID 0819241L, was being held at the West Facility in Elmhurst on one misdemeanor count of violation of the penal code. The voice on the machine announced that he could not be bailed or bonded out.
Nov. 19 was also a significant date for Sammy for another reason: it was his birthday. Sammy turned 60 behind prison bars.
Incarceration is nothing new to Sammy. He’s been in and out of prison several times, hauled in by police for misdemeanors such as public urination, panhandling and drinking beer on the street, all a product of his homelessness and drug and alcohol addictions. Each time he is taken for a short stint, only to be quickly released.
Despite the repeated efforts of family, friends and social service agencies to help him, Sammy always goes back to crack, and to the streets, and the same exercise is repeated all over again.
This time, it was only two weeks before he was back opening the door and collecting tips at Tri-Star.
“I spent my birthday at Rikers Island,” he said. “That’s f—– up, ’cause I missed last year too.”
Farrell, of the Homeless Outreach Team, refuses to throw in the towel just yet. Right before his most recent arrest, Sammy had contacted HOT and had already been assigned a caseworker. However, Farrell warns that a chronic case like Sammy’s will take time. Results don’t happen overnight.
“Sammy is in the throes of an addiction,” he explained, and said that his behavior must be judged in that context. “Every moment of Sammy’s day is surrounded around getting his next hit. If he doesn’t get a hit, he can’t do anything.”
Farrell said that Sammy’s interaction with HOT has been similar to his behavior at the Check Cash store.
“We need Sammy to work with us. He has to trust us and let us help him,” Farrell said, equating his job to that of a basketball coach, who has to develop a relationship with a player. “[But] every time we get to that point he sabotages it.”
Farrell said that living in Sammy’s condition is like “being in a black pit.”
“They are so used to it,” he said, of the chronic homeless. “After all these years, they figure it’s not going to get better.”
But Farrell still believes it is possible. He has seen it happen before, and cites the case of a chronically homeless man named Robert who, like Sammy, had been on drugs – and the streets – for many years. Recently, with HOT’s help, Robert completed drug rehab and moved into an apartment of his own.
Farrell said that Sammy is now where Robert was five years ago. Even he, though, can’t predict where Sammy will be in the future.
“Who knows with Sammy?” he said. “He could be dead tonight, or he could be like Robert in two years.”
All agree that ultimately Sammy’s fate lies in his own hands. He will have to allow others to help him if he ever plans on getting his life in order. Even Sammy acknowledges that, but he says he is not ready yet.
“I don’t want to do it right now,” he said, in response to his many offers of help. “I don’t want people telling me what to do. You can’t do things for other people. If you’re not doing anything for yourself, why do it?”
So why doesn’t he do it for himself? “I’m just tired. I’m tired of everything,” he said before adding. “But I keep pushing. I keep pushing.”