New York City is expensive.
As part of the affordable housing requirements in our apartment building, the management has set aside certain areas for individuals with low incomes and/or who are formerly homeless.
On the third floor stairwell lives one recipient of those initiatives: a man named Jeffrey who has lived in New York City for forty-five years. I spoke to him one Saturday afternoon.
How’s it going?
Today’s a good day.
What makes it a good day?
There’s a little sliver of light that comes in through the hole in the wall on certain days. Sometimes the sun isn’t at the right angle but today it did come through and that made me happy.
How long have you lived in this building?
I’m going on three years now. My case worker came to me one day and said, Jeff, Who Lives in the Apartment Stairwell—that's my name since I’ve been living in stairwells for a while—we have the perfect place for you.
And she brought me here. It didn’t look as good as it does now, I’ve really fixed the place up. I could tell it had good bones and it would turn out okay once I cleared out all the mice feces.
Where were you living before?
I’ve been in a few different stairwells before. I was over in Manhattan for a while in the Lower East Side but then came to Fort Greene and Clinton Hill but got priced out of those stairwells. My landlord turned off all the services to my rent-stabilized stairwell and locked me out and I wasn’t as familiar then as I am now with New York City regulations and rules so I just left.
How did you become homeless initially?
I lost my job. That was the start of it. Then I couldn’t keep paying my rent, I didn’t have enough saved up, that’s my own fault, I admit that, but I didn’t have enough to cover the rent and I was evicted. I didn’t know where to go so I slept in my car.
But then my car got towed and I didn’t have enough money to get it out of impound and I slept in Prospect Park. I’ve used some of the city services but I don’t like the shelters. People get stabbed, your stuff gets stolen, it’s just a nasty place to be. Worse than sleeping on the streets, I think.
How well do you get along with the neighbors here?
Well, most of them are fine. I have a lease, I’m legally allowed to be here. I know there’s no door but this is my area. And so when people put bikes here or trash, that really pisses me off.
Or they call management to complain about me. I’ve had a bunch of people call the management and are shocked that someone is living legally in the stairwell.
Well, I’m here, I’m a human being, if you’d rather have me living out behind some goddamn dumpster, what does that say about you? Does that make you a good person?
Yeah, I can’t believe people are doing that, calling management to complain.
I stay in my stairwell. I don’t have loud parties. I'm quiet.
Well, I think people were concerned about the incident.
That was not me. I’ve said it a million times, I use the coffee shop to take my dumps.
So you didn’t take a dump in front of my door?
I didn’t think it was you, I know there was that big party on the roof the night before, but still, a lot of people thought it was you, you know, because you don’t have a bathroom.
Everyone wants to blame the person living in the stairwell. It was not me! I heard those damn kids coming up and down the stairwell the whole night. They were drunk, loud, you think you had it bad. I’ve been pissed on before. Have you ever been pissed on?
Never. Knock on wood.
I’ve been pissed on. And people just assume it’s me taking dumps in my own apartment bulding. There’s a clause in my lease that says if I take dumps in the stairwell, that’s grounds for eviction. So why would I risk that? Why would I risk my home?
You just had to go really bad?
No, it wasn't me.
Do you work now?
Yeah, I have a job as an usher at Brooklyn Academy of Music. It’s not much but I can use the $200 a month they give me.
What’s it like living in a stairwell?
Well, obviously space is limited. And I can only stand in one section. I’ve put a lot of time thinking about the setup and how I want it to be arranged.
I have my bed down there, it’s not the most feng shui’d space because my head faces away from the entrance but I’ve had to sacrifice certain things just to fit my limited possessions into this space.
Do you imagine you’ll be living here for a while longer?
Well, I used to be stressed out about it. Now I’m much more zen about the whole thing. Do I want to be living in a stairwell? No, it’s not my first choice.
But I’m dry, mostly, protected from the elements, there are limited rodents, and it’s fairly quiet except when there’s a party on the roof and a lot of people clomp through the stairs with no manners or no awareness that people live here. Open your eyes and look around you. It’s not always about you.
What have you learned living in a stairwell?
So many things. A lot of time, I think, I can’t do this anymore, I should just kill myself, what’s the point of living?
There is no point, I think, I’m a poor man and it’s not going to get any better, My prime years are behind me. I should just ingest this rat poison the exterminator leaves by my bed and get it over with.
But I think, no, I still get joy out of living. When that sliver of light comes through the hole in the crumbling wall that the landlord refuses to fix, I think, that makes me happy.
I’m still capable of happiness. I’m still capable of joy. I go for a walk outside and I come back and no one’s peed or thrown trash on my bed, I think, there’s good in the world.
When I wake up in the morning and there’s not any mice licking my forehead I think, Okay, maybe I can do this.
We all have our bad days though. When it becomes too much maybe I’ll just jump off the bridge or slip off the Staten Island Ferry or jump in front of the L train.
New York is such a great place with so many options here about how to kill yourself. We’re really spoiled for options. Sometimes it’s too hard to choose.
What do you do during the day when you’re not working?
I’m writing my congressman and senators to get them to respond to the homeless crisis.
We have the most homelessness in NYC since the Great Depression. It all comes down to more affordable housing and better mental health services for everyone.
I’m lucky here, I have this stairwell, but not everyone’s so lucky.
There are some people with real needs out there and we got to help those people.
A lot of people are beaten up, mugged, abused, sleeping on the street.
There’s no protection, you’re vulnerable. Some guy pissed on me. He and his friends were drunk and they thought it was funny. They pissed on me.
People are terrible. How do you cook and eat?
I have this little portable hotplate that’s really great and I got a microwave back here and some water. I’m doing pretty good, actually.
This is a great place and sometimes the cats come and cuddle with me to keep me warm.
I’d like to get a cat or a dog but my lease says I’m not allowed to have pets.
No pets it says. But I’m thinking of getting a goldfish.
So, just to be clear, where do you use the bathroom?
I use this little jar here for piss. It’s not pretty I know, or ideal, but it’s all I got when it’s 4am and I have to pee. During the day I go out and use a coffee shop.
Any last thoughts?
Yeah, I know you called the management to complain about me. But I'm here to stay so you better get used to it.
Sorry, man. If you ever want to take a dump in front of my door, I understand. I'd rather you do it in front of 3A, since they throw cigarettes off their balcony onto ours, but whatever you prefer.
No, I'm okay, thanks. I use the coffee shop.
Really, go ahead. I insist.
Jesus Christ, leave me alone!
Thanks for your time, Jeff. Sorry for all the horrible people in this building.
I'm just going to enjoy my sunlight now.