James Lilley leaned against the wall, resting on his walker.
He was on Broadway south of West 231st Street, holding a paper cup with a few coins in it as the 1 train roared overhead.
Born in Queens but raised in Brownsville and Bedford Stuyvesant, Lilley said he graduated from George Westinghouse technical high school in downtown Brooklyn, where his favorite subject was history. He also enjoyed dancing to disco music at house parties.
Now 57, Lilley said he used to work — in catering, and as a messenger — until a heart condition changed all that.
At first he stayed with family in Brooklyn and Queens, but eventually he “fell on hard times” and found himself on the streets. Rather than go to a shelter, Lilley chose to ride the subway, “off and on” until he found a home at Riverdale Manor on Broadway, where he not only draws meals, but gets much-needed medical attention for his heart.
New York City needs to keep pushing toward a solution for homelessness, he said, focusing on what people need: jobs, showers, doctors, education.
As the city continues to wrestle with a colossal homelessness problem driven by years of wages not keeping up with exorbitant housing costs, part of the solution may be on the way.
The city has asked elected officials and community boards to weigh in on potential locations for new shelters in their neighborhoods as it enters the second year of its push to build 90 citywide, said social services commissioner Steven Banks.
The homeless services department sent a letter from Banks to community boards ahead of a budget hearing before city council last week inviting them to suggest sites.
Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his “Turning the Tide” plan on giving the homeless “the opportunity to be sheltered in their home boroughs near their support networks” as a way to more quickly stabilize their lives, Banks wrote.
That means ending the 18-year-old so-called cluster or scatter-site housing program — using private apartments, often in run-down buildings, as an expensive way to help the city fulfill its legal obligation to provide shelter to those eligible. Instead, the city has turned to a smaller number of higher-quality, borough-based shelters.
“Making these changes is not only the right thing to do for homeless New Yorkers and communities, but will also help families and individuals remain close to their schools, jobs, medical care, houses of worship and families as they get back on their feet,” Banks wrote.
The shelter system as it currently stands is not one-size-fits-all, DHS officials said, with facilities dedicated, for example, to serving people with mental health issues, as well as offering assistance to people actively seeking employment or looking to earn more money.
But when it comes to addressing homelessness in neighborhoods like Marble Hill, Kingsbridge and Riverdale, Community Board 8 chair Rosemary Ginty has a clear message for the city.
“Tell us what the problem is, we will be your partners in finding the solution,” she said.
In fact, identifying the underlying causes of homelessness in CB8, Ginty said, is an issue the board — and in particular the housing, and health and human services committees — has been mulling over for some time.
“If (DHS) were to say 40 percent of people who are homeless from CB8 are homeless because of domestic abuse, or 30 percent are homeless because they don’t have a job and therefore can’t pay the rent, that tells us something,” Ginty said. “We want to know that so that we can spend our energy dealing with the primary issues.
“Every community is different, and our community is different from every other community.”
Identifying the root causes, however, shouldn’t mean compromising anyone’s privacy.
“You don’t have to give me names or addresses, but tell me what is making 380 people homeless in our community,” Ginty said. “We will go to work on those issues. Isn’t it better if people are in their homes? Get them a job so they can pay their rent.”
With one new transitional shelter already opened at 5731 Broadway this past year, Ginty does not see more shelters as part of the solution. Yet so far, finding answers has been frustrating, with DHS referring the board to the mayor’s citywide report rather than providing the targeted data CB8 is seeking.
“The day that they announced that they were going to open the shelter on Broadway, they sent ‘Turning the Tide’ to the community board,” Ginty said. “I read that then. Why do they keep sending it?”
Councilman Andrew Cohen says CB8 is doing its fair share in working with the city to address homelessness in its neighborhoods, but like Ginty, doesn’t see need for another shelter.
“Community Board 8 does not send an enormous amount of people into shelter,” Cohen said. “So I don’t anticipate DHS trying to develop another shelter in Community Board 8 any time soon.”
DHS officials, however, were more cryptic, saying only that “communities will be the first to know as we identify shelters in their neighborhoods and citywide.”
Cohen has worked with DHS in other parts of his district as well, including addressing a cluster site problem in Community Board 7, and “it’s been a productive collaboration, and the community has been involved in it.
“There are a lot of neighborhoods throughout the city,” he said. “And I think it’s incumbent upon everybody to try to do their part.”
But for his part, James Lilley said he’s glad to be off the subway, and grateful for the care, food and shelter he’s receiving outside the system at Riverdale Manor.
“God,” Lilley said, “watches over us.”