Off the Street and in an Apartment, but Unable to Escape Homelessness

The New York Times had another in their series of articles on Johnny Five in today’s edition. online they have two videos and a link to one of the previous articles. Johnny Five has lived in a cave and last year was able to secure permanent housing. this article focuses the difficulty of adjusting to having an apartment after living in a cave since 1986.

The following is a partial extract of the article. To read the full article and to have access to the videos and the prior articles click here.

The New York Times, June 11, 2007

Off the Street and in an Apartment, but Unable to Escape Homelessness


For years, Johnny Five lived not on the streets but below them, in the dark underworld beneath an abandoned train station in the Bronx.

He had to crawl in the dirt at the edge of a concrete platform to get in and out. He bathed with rubbing alcohol, but still his skin was covered with insect bites and infections. He said God talked to him there, sometimes through a portable radio, yet he considered his cave a kind of hell: overheated in the summer, frigid in the winter, a sunless place hard on the body but worse on the soul.

It was Christmas Eve when he first heard the news: Someone was offering him a way out. After reading an article about Johnny in The New York Times, Peter D. Beitchman, the executive director of the Bridge Inc., a nonprofit group that provides housing and services to mentally ill homeless people and others, immediately arranged for him to move into an apartment.

Days later, Johnny celebrated with the one person who had looked after him, Sister Lauria Fitzgerald, a Roman Catholic nun who helps the homeless in the Bronx. They ate dinner with another nun at an Italian restaurant in the Arthur Avenue section, three miles from the cave and around the corner from Johnny’s new home. He feasted on a plate of eggplant parmigiana and enjoyed his first taste of tiramisù.

But he didn’t want to touch the white linen napkin on the table. It was too clean.

“I thought I wasn’t worthy to use it,” said Johnny, 45, who said he suffers from schizophrenia and whose real name is John Carbonell. “I used the one that was in the basket where the bread was.”

For the next several months, Johnny would drift between his old life underground and his new one above it, struggling the way a man freed from prison must readjust to society. It is easy in a sense to take the city’s homeless people off the streets, but it is harder, as Johnny’s odyssey illustrates, to take homelessness out of them.

Even after Johnny moved into the apartment the first week of January, he returned to the wooded area around the cave to feed Meow Meow and the other stray cats he had named. His first several days in the apartment — a light-drenched one-bedroom unit with hardwood floors and a large kitchen in a five-story building — he did not bother locking the door. “There’s no doors in the cave,” he explained.

He had bold ambitions of starting over: He talked about getting a sewing machine, so he could design clothes, and he refused to move his belongings from the cave to the apartment because he worried about bringing in bugs. He wanted to put up “No Smoking” signs, vowing not to indulge his old addictions in his new environment. Johnny, an ex-convict who served time in the early 1990s for a drug-related offense, has been smoking cocaine since he was a teenager.

One Sunday in January, Johnny slept on the bed, on top of the covers, wearing a leather jacket and muddy boots. He resembled not the sole occupant of Apartment 3B, but a visitor. He said he spent the night in the apartment, then went back to the cave at 6 a.m., then returned later that morning to the apartment. The flashlight he used in the cave still shone inside his jacket pocket.

He woke up and sat outside on the back fire escape, smoking a cigarette. Behind him, he could hear the water running in the bathtub, his bathtub. On the streets, he used to wash up at an open fire hydrant.

Johnny survives on a monthly check from the federal Supplemental Security Income program. As part of his arrangement with the Bridge, the nonprofit group that provided the apartment, his rent would be $168 a month, about 30 percent of his government check. Sister Lauria and two case managers, one from the Bridge and one from the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, planned to help him make the transition.

The bed and the furniture had been supplied by the Bridge. Yet furnishings were not new to Johnny. In the cave, he had created a makeshift home: Sleeping on a quilt-covered mattress atop milk crates, keeping a bottle of cologne near the bed, cooking with cans of Sterno, using a car battery to power a DVD player. He was not awed by 3B, but somewhat suspicious of it.

“Sometimes the one living in that cardboard box is happier than the one living at the penthouse,” he said.

Johnny had been living in the cave off and on since 1986, and for the last nine years or so he had settled in permanently. The abandoned train station sits in a fenced-off area thick with weeds and trash not far from Yankee Stadium.

Sister Lauria tried for years to persuade Johnny to get out of the cave, but it was not until last year that he told her he wanted to leave. “I realized I would have been better off doing 10 years in prison than nine years in that cave, crawling in and out, getting scabs, bugs,” he said.

Johnny’s homelessness was not about a lack of housing. It was more complicated, a result of a variety of spiritual, psychological and emotional causes. “Everything just bothering my conscience,” he said of the reasons he was homeless. “How can I ask God for forgiveness when I don’t forgive myself? So I’ll torture myself and go to the cave.”

To read the full article and to have access to the videos and the prior articles click here.