Stealing the Streets

How One Couple Survives Without a Home — By Choice

One December afternoon last winter in New York City, in Tompkins Square Park, Lisa McAllister*, 20, fiddled with her newest nose piercing (left nostril, to match her right and septum). Her boyfriend, Ben Wright*, sat on the bench beside her, taking sips from the green-brown canteen he keeps in his pants. “I’ve always wanted to get this piercing done, but it makes blowing your nose impossible,” she said. “At least if I’m stuffed up I can’t smell how bad I smell.” Lisa and Ben never know when their next shower will be, simply because their home doesn’t have one: it’s a public park.

Lisa loved that Ben, 24, is always prepared for their life on the streets. His large, dirty hiking backpack is filled with canteens, a change of clothes or two, wipes to make sure they smell somewhat fresh, and beer to drink on the go. The pair is spending the December night bundled up in winter coats smudged with dirt and grass stains on a spacious bench in Tompkins. “If it gets really cold, we’ll go to C-Squat,” Lisa said to Ben. “I’m not going to freeze here if there’s room there.”

When Lisa and Ben met through Ben’s sister, Stephanie, in 2009, Lisa was comfortably living in the Sarah Lawrence dorms as a student. Although she was at her dream college, by time her sophomore year rolled around, she didn’t feel like it was for her. She found Ben’s lifestyle of living on the streets, traveling by foot and hopping trains fascinating. “I want to learn about what I’m interested in in my own time,” Lisa said. “Do you really see me sitting at a desk in a cubicle? I’d go crazy. No piercings, no tattoos, it’s just not me. There’s no point in paying thousands of dollars for college to get a job I don’t want.” If it weren’t for her mother’s job in the communications department at Sarah Lawrence, which allows her free tuition, room and board, she wouldn’t be able to afford school.

Since she left school, where she was living, her mother temporarily kicked her out of their house in Connecticut, leaving Lisa to sleep in her car or squat in abandoned buildings with Ben. The pair cannot afford an apartment together with their small paychecks unless they are squatting for free. Lisa prefers the lifestyle, though; she even tested it out during her last semester at Sarah Lawrence. She slept on the benches outside dorms, in the woods without a tent, the laundry room of her residence hall, and her car, among other places.

On June 22, the Obama administration announced “Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness,” a plan aimed at ending homelessness for veterans, families and the chronically homeless. In the past, the Bush administration only focused on the chronically homeless.

The 74-page plan offers 10 objectives and 52 strategies to get as many of the 1.5 million homeless people in the country into homes and shelters. Some of the key details of the plan include placing homeless in permanent housing, not shelters; giving more funds to the National Housing Trust to keep apartments affordable; providing homeless veterans with skills training and assistance in job searching and linking federal housing vouchers with Medicaid.

Lisa now stands in Tompkins in a pair of torn brown leggings that were once black, worn Converse sneakers, a denim skirt caked in dirt and a puffy coat. Her choppy brown hair is tied in a low ponytail, revealing multiple piercings in her ears. She rotates between a small handful of clothes she keeps in her backpack that she only able to wash at a laundromat occasionally. The couple earns money to wash their clothes and buy food by answering dump run ads on Craigslist, but they don’t always make enough.

“If you try hard enough, you can steal anything,” she said. A visit to a nearby Food Emporium in Union Square proved just that. The pair strolled through the aisles as if they were any other paying customer, picking up items and checking expiration dates. The only suspicious moments were when they would occasionally look up at the ceiling. They put a few groceries in a hand basket and paid for them at the cashier. Once we were outside the store, both Lisa and Ben pulled a number of groceries out of their pockets, jackets and bags that no one saw them pick up.

“Once, our friend Macaulay managed to steal a 24-pack of beer,” Lisa said. “He also stole a bagel with cream cheese from Dunkin’ Donuts — he’s the master at it.”

Both Lisa and Ben don’t see Obama’s plan as any help for their situation. “The government is fucked up,” she said. “I don’t care who is in the White House; they are all the same. He’s not going to do anything for me. “

“I want to live in the woods government-free and build and environmentally-friendly community based on sharing, creativity, self-sustainability, peace and having a good time all the time,” she added.

*Name has been changed