From a distance, Joseph Sowards looks like any traveler stuck for the night at LaGuardia Airport’s central terminal after his flight was canceled. Get closer, and it becomes clear from his layered clothing and dirty hands that he’s one of New York City’s record number of homeless people.
“They don’t bother me here,” said Sowards, 44, an unlicensed plumber from Maspeth, Queens, who was lying on the floor. He’s been sleeping in parks and abandoned buildings for the past 10 years.
Sowards was one of about two dozen people who had taken shelter in LaGuardia’s 50-year-old central terminal on a subfreezing night this month. They slept in seats at the baggage claim and waiting areas and on radiators in the pre-security food court. They used restroom sinks to wash, and some with suitcases blended in with other stranded travelers.
Volunteers of America, which has offices at LaGuardia and JFK, counted a monthly average of 45 chronic homeless people at LaGuardia in 2014, an 80 percent increase over the average month in 2011. JFK’s chronic homeless increased to an average of 33 per month, double the number in 2011.
Conditions at the airports reflect the growth of homelessness in the most populous U.S. city. Every night, more than 60,000 people — almost 26,000 of them children — sleep in shelters, an increase of about 20,000 in three years, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, a New York-based advocacy group.
“It’s a public space,” said Carmen Keaton, Volunteers of America’s director of community case management and facility operations. “You have a place to bathe. You have a place to eat. You have a place to panhandle for money, and a warm facility.”
Security guards won’t eject the homeless from the central terminal so long as they’re peaceful and don’t create a nuisance, Keaton said. Many develop relationships with concession workers, who give them food and drinks, she said.
On a recent morning at LaGuardia, Alvaro Uribe, a 29-year- old industrial designer on his way to Chicago, sat in a waiting area looking at his smartphone. When a reporter pointed out a homeless couple sleeping behind him, he said it didn’t bother him.
“I mean, it’s New York. You get used to seeing homeless people in every public space,” Uribe said. “I don’t think they’re harming anyone. Sure, it looks weird initially, but I just thought they were waiting for a flight.”
Rachel Weinstein, Volunteers of America’s chief development and communications officer, said one man, an alcoholic, lived at LaGuardia for 20 years.
“The guys got him into rehab, he got dried up a couple of times, and he’d keep coming back,” she said.