For Homeless, NY Airports Are Shelter from Streets

By Lynette Holloway 1995, New York Times News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), February 5, 1995 | Go to article overview

For Homeless, NY Airports Are Shelter from Streets


Lynette Holloway 1995, New York Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Mary Vierck sat patiently in the TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, her eyes freshly made up with powder-blue shadow, her salt-and-pepper hair pinned in a tight bun.

At her side stood a cart piled with luggage, including a black vinyl suitcase - filled with blankets and pillows.

Vierck, 58, was indistinguishable from the travelers around her. But she was not on her way anywhere, not to Phoenix or Chicago or even to Manhattan. She lives at the airport.

She has lived there for more than four years, waking each morning at daybreak to wash, paint her face and change her white shirt for her black one, her blue cardigan for the forest-green pullover. She has a favorite chair (facing a snack bar, near the ladies' room), she eats three hot meals a day, and she even gets her mail at the airport chapel, where the chaplain holds her letters.

"I feel safe here," Vierck explained. "This is where I live, and it's peaceful."

Eight years ago, when there were several hundred homeless people at the three airports in the New York area, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey hired social workers to counsel the homeless and, ultimately, move them into transitional housing.

The program largely succeeded, but a couple dozen people, like Vierck, simply refused to budge.

"These are the hard-core homeless who will say no to shelter every time," said Rita Schwartz, director of government and community relations for the Port Authority.

About a dozen people now live permanently at Kennedy Airport.

As a group, they are different from the homeless people who sleep on the streets or in the subways. They are, in effect, invisible, working each day to blend in with the human traffic. They do not seem dirty or aggressive, and they rarely panhandle.

Most are mentally ill, but not a threat to themselves or others. Some are well-educated. They prefer the conditions at the heated, air-conditioned, relatively crime-free airports to those in the street. But their lives are as mottled as those of other homeless people.

Vierck, who was born in Wisconsin, said she was sent to the airport by Jesus Christ after a short-lived dalliance with a man named Joseph from Queens.

***** View Of The Bay

Al Samuel, 32, a string bean of a man who grew up in Co-op City, the Bronx, became homeless after losing his job as a data-entry clerk on Wall Street in 1988.

Jolted out of a deep sleep on a subway train by a police officer one morning in 1991, he saw a sign advertising buses to the airport. …

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