On most days during my morning walks, it’s just me, my bulldog, and the brightening sky. One day, last August, before honking cars crowded Ditmas Avenue, an ambulance stood in the middle of the street, a motionless body covered in a white sheet on the ground in front of it.
The ambulance was parked in front of Mr. and Mrs. Hall’s home, next door to the small business I own. I saw them peering out their living-room window, the blue and red lights of the ambulance transforming their complexions every few seconds. He can help, they told the EMTs, motioning toward me.
“What’s his name?” an EMT asked, gesturing toward the body.
“Nobody knows,” I replied.
I called him Julio, but maybe it was Refugio. From about April 2020, he and eight other homeless men had slept in a huddle of dirty quilts in front of the so-called nonessential businesses ordered by Governor Andrew Cuomo to lock their doors. For a few months, these men had the streets to themselves.
Because of Covid, they had been released from mental facilities and prisons. When restrictions were eased, returning business owners found more than rats to shoo away when they rolled up their gates.
Julio was about 30 and had come from either Mexico or a place that sounded like “Ha-la-wa-la.” He might have had a speech impediment; his English was poor. The men spoke to one another in an indigenous dialect. The only one I could clearly understand was the one they called “El Viejo.”
When the weather was warm, El Viejo would sit on a crate next to Julio, smoking weed and telling everyone who passed by to have a good day. He was about 70 and, if what he says is true, he used to “shoot faces off” in Vietnam. “Shoot them in the front—they get a hole in the back of their head. Shoot them in the back—their face blows off.” One day when I was nearby, his cell phone rang. It was his daughter, he said, before becoming annoyed and raising his voice at her. I left.
I once gave the men a bag of apples. They ate quickly and chucked the cores on the pavement. “Over there,” I said, pointing to the trash can at the corner. They left.
The men showed up later, asking for money. “Here’s 20 if you sweep the front,” I told them. They refused. I offered them bags so that they could collect cans. They walked away.
I rarely saw them during the winter, but by spring 2021, they had returned. Passersby would leave beer and Chinese takeout by their quilts. Julio and the others would leave behind trash and urine. Fights often broke out among them. They threw bottles and drew blood. The police said that they couldn’t do anything about it.
One day, I heard Mr. Hall yelling, “Get out!” He was shuffling toward his empty driveway. Mr. Hall, who no longer drives, hadn’t used his driveway in ages. Julio and his friends had found a purpose for it.
“They’re using my driveway as their toilet,” he said, pointing to two homeless men rising from a squat in the rear of his driveway. Under the rosebush, next to the hydrangea, were piles of excrement.
The men were belligerent but listened when I told them, “You guys gotta clean that up.” There was nothing around that they could use, so I reached into my pocket and handed them one of the poop bags that I use for my dog.
City agencies could not force the men to stay at a shelter. Instead, they stayed in the streets, sleeping, eating, fighting—and driving away business. When they weren’t in sight, their broken bottles and piles of feces were.
Whenever I was nearby, they stayed away from Mr. Hall’s driveway. And they weren’t around when Julio was lifted into the back of an ambulance. I glanced at the driveway, and then went into my store and returned with cleaning supplies. I barely heard when Mr. and Mrs. Hall thanked me from their window as I rinsed away the stench of urine. A river of suds made its way down the sidewalk and into the gutter and stopped in almost the same spot where a man with no name and no home took his final breaths.