As long as there have been homeless people sleeping in Times Square, there have been social workers and city officials trying to persuade them to leave.
In the past, the homeless were offered a free ride to one of the city’s warehouse-like shelters. These days, workers for nonprofit groups help people move into apartments, keeping track as the number of the chronically homeless in Times Square goes down.
According to their records, by 2005, there were only 55. Last summer, it was down to 7.
Now there is one.
His name is Heavy, and he has lived on the streets of Times Square for decades. Day after day, he has politely declined offers of housing, explaining that he is a protector of the neighborhood and cannot possibly leave, said the workers who visit him every day.
Yet they are determined to get through to Heavy, the last homeless holdout in Times Square.
“I just have this dream that all of a sudden something will snap, and he’ll say, I’d love to have housing,” said Amie Pospisil, an associate director at Common Ground Community, a nonprofit that conducts street outreach. “I don’t rule out that it could happen.”
Little is known about Heavy, even his full name. Heavy is a nickname, part of his last name, a fact he surrendered after more than a year of daily visits from workers. He declined to be interviewed.
According to neighbors and social workers, he is a gentle presence, possibly delusional and mentally ill, a quiet man who does not harass passers-by or panhandle aggressively. An employee in a deli on Eighth Avenue said that he usually gave Heavy a few pieces of bread at lunchtime. Neighbors bring him hot coffee, loose change and warm clothing in the winter.
“He is a sweetheart,” said an 82-year-old woman who gave her name as Nanny and stopped to talk near her home on 48th Street, where she has lived for 44 years. “He sees me coming and says, ‘Hi, Mommy,’ and I say, ‘Hi, honey.’ And I give him his quarter, and I go on with my business.”
The most recent annual estimate of the number of homeless people sleeping on the streets of New York showed an increase, but Times Square has been an exception. Heavy is the last member of what social workers called the Times Square Seven, the only homeless people remaining last summer out of the dozens they had been placing in housing for years.
Of the seven, three men were regularly sleeping on the steps of churches. All of them had been homeless for a long time — on average, 17 years. One man, a middle-aged Southerner, had been homeless for 40 years.
One by one, from last September to January, the men were convinced to accept housing.
“I think it’s fair to say that we gave all seven people the same attention and effort,” Ms. Pospisil said. “Heavy is still there.”
The outreach teams had long since memorized his location and his habits. For a long stretch, he had been camped out on Seventh Avenue, until a city sanitation crew disposed of his belongings, which had become an eyesore on the sidewalk. Then he found a new spot nearby, under the fire escape of a theater. Now he is usually seen around the corner of 48th Street and Seventh Avenue, a block or two from the heart of Times Square.
During the day, Heavy is typically seen wearing a red knit cap, sipping coffee and smoking a cigarette, sitting on a makeshift chair near his black-and-red suitcase. At night, outreach workers often find him nestled within a thin cardboard box, near the scaffolding of a building under construction.
Heavy was far from alone on the streets of Times Square in the 1990s, when he began sleeping there frequently in the midst of a roiling mess of drug dealing, prostitution and crime.
“Times Square has always been this signpost for whatever’s going on in New York City, for good or ill, and when there was a very heavy homeless population, it all contributed to a larger perception that New York City had lost control of the public realm,” said Tim Tompkins, the president of the Times Square Alliance. “I think there was a time at the very beginning of the homelessness issue when it was like, let’s squeeze the balloon and get them out of the way.”
But tactics changed. Nonprofit groups began sharing information about the homeless people who were anchored in Times Square, gathering names, ages, medical conditions and the personal issues that might be keeping them homeless.
The street outreach teams from Common Ground and the Goddard Riverside Community Center, both nonprofit groups that hold contracts with the city, began maintaining close ties with the Times Square Alliance and the Police Department. More units of supportive housing and specialized shelter beds were opened up to the chronically homeless, as an alternative to the sometimes-unruly and intimidating general shelter system. And the more commercial, safer and more tourist-friendly Times Square slowly became less comfortable for the street homeless.
“Whether by accident or not, certainly over the last 10 or 15 years, the cleaning up of Times Square and the street traffic in Times Square may have been an issue,” said Stephan Russo, the executive director of Goddard Riverside. “It can be a little daunting for them.”
The area still attracts its share of panhandlers, especially during the day, and a few emotionally disturbed people who occasionally draw the attention of security employees of the Times Square Alliance. This month, for example, they intervened when a man began tearing flowers out of a planter.
The social workers at Common Ground said they have no intention of pressuring Heavy to leave the streets. But Tim Marx, the executive director, said neighbors might not be helping in the long term by giving Heavy food and clothing. Directors at Common Ground are considering posting one of their outreach workers to stay with Heavy all day, study his habits and movements, and talk to neighbors about what is best for him.
“We’re devising a strategy to encourage people not to support him in his homelessness,” Mr. Marx said.
Rosanne Haggerty, the president of Common Ground, says she has known Heavy since at least 1990, early in the days when she was working to end homelessness in Times Square. In those days, there were more than 70 people sleeping in the area on a typical night.
“He’s kind of iconic,” Ms. Haggerty said. “He would leave for periods and then return, and some days we would actually succeed in getting him inside. But he has this fascination with the life in Times Square.”
She added, “We are continuing to plug away to find the right housing solution for Heavy.”