Chinatown resident Manni Lee said she knew 83-year-old Chuen Kwok for years before she realized he was sleeping on the street. "He carried on his homelessness with a lot of integrity," Lee told Gothamist. "Talking to him makes you feel better as a human being, he makes you feel good about who you are."
Kwok was sleeping in his usual spot outside of 2 Bowery early Saturday morning when police say he and three other homeless men nearby were bludgeoned to death by a 24-year-old man who was also homeless. A fifth victim is still in critical condition. The NYPD has not yet released the names of the dead.
"He did try and go to the shelters," Lee said of Kwok. "Last year I remember going to the rescue mission with him, he had small luggage and he was limping. I was really glad he was in a warm place that evening."
When Lee saw Kwok back on the street this year, she said she asked him how the shelter was.
"The way that he said it, was: it’s not a place he can adjust to," Lee said. "In the end he chose to be on the street. He felt safer, he’s with people he knows, there are local neighbors who would offer him things to help sustain. That for him was a better sense of safety than being in the shelter."
On Monday morning, dozens of elected officials and community advocates gathered at Chatham Square in Chinatown to mourn the lives of the victims and to call for the city and the state to do more to house the homeless.
"This is a wake up call to all of us," Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, who organized the event, told a huge scrum of reporters. "This is a symptom of a broken system that ignores the voices of our most vulnerable community members. We need a systemic change and we need it now."
Comptroller Scott Stringer called Mayor Bill de Blasio's now twice-reset homelessness policy "fundamentally wrong."
"It says we're building affordable housing in exchange for great density in our community. But in our neighborhoods the affordable housing is unaffordable in our communities," Stringer said. "We need a policy that builds housing for people [making] under $30,000 a year in income to move people from homelessness into apartments."
The majority of de Blasio's housing plan to build or preserve 300,000 affordable units by 2026 has targeted New Yorkers who earn 51 percent to 80 percent of the area median income, or from $36,550 to $58,480 for an individual, according to the city's most recent figures. So far, 17 percent of the 135,437 units built and preserved are for "extremely low" income individuals earning from zero to 30 percent of AMI, and 8.5 percent are designated for the homeless.
"For the mayor, please, for the love of god, build housing for homeless New Yorkers," Giselle Routhier, policy director for Coalition for the Homeless said at the press conference. "They’re the most in need, everybody supports it."
Routhier added, "We need housing. We need the governor to fund supportive housing he promised three years ago."
Supportive housing gives people who find it hard to live on their own because of an illness or disability a permanent place to stay, along with the attendant services they need. It’s a proven method for housing the homeless and has a 95 percent retention rate.
Steven Banks, de Blasio's Human Resources Administration/Department of Social Services commissioner, which oversees homelessness outreach and the shelter system for the city, did not say what immediate changes would be made to the city's policy following the killings.
"Something as horrific as this reminds me that we have to work harder and we will redouble our efforts to continue to bring people in from the streets to prevent them from ending up on the streets and falling through every social safety net that exists," Banks said.
The Mayor's Office said that the City was deploying more police and outreach workers to the area after the attack, but the press release doesn't make any mention of permanent affordable housing.
Around 60,000 people sleep in the city's shelter system on a given night, including more than 21,000 children; the number of families sleeping in municipal shelters has increased by 64 percent over the past decade, and the number of single people in shelters has increased 143 percent over the same time period. Roughly 4,000 homeless New Yorkers choose to sleep on the street. The homeless are also disproportionately black and Latino.
Listen to Mirela Iverac's report on the vigil on WNYC:
Assemblymember Niou stopped short of saying whether she'd push Governor Cuomo accelerate the construction of the 20,000 units of supportive housing he promised, but did say that the state should create a form of rent subsidy like the bill that currently has bipartisan support from both houses, called Home Stability Support.
"I think that we need to pass something like that, we need to make sure that people get the support that they need," Niou said. "We need to make it so people have access to more than just vouchers, vouchers are crap. We need something that doesn’t help developers, but helps people, and actually gives people access to homes."
The Assemblymember also wondered aloud about the $450 million in aid that the governor promised NYCHA years ago that has been held up: "Where is it? And still people are living with mold and no hot water and no heat."
In an email, Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state budget division, said, “The State and NYCHA worked closely together and achieved an agreement on the plan for spending these funds in the first week of September and the Federal monitor is reviewing it. We look forward to NYCHA moving forward with these important projects and the State will reimburse them for the work accordingly.”
Caitlin Girouard, Governor Cuomo's press secretary, declined to say whether the governor would accelerate the supportive housing goal, but said that the state is "entirely on track" towards meeting its original goal of creating 20,000 units of supportive housing over a 15-year period.
"The horrific and senseless murder of four innocent people on Saturday was a devastating tragedy that should never have happened," Girouard wrote in an email. "Governor Cuomo has been on the frontlines fighting homelessness in New York and across the country for decades and under his $20 billion housing plan we are well underway to creating or preserving 100,000 units of affordable housing and creating 6,000 new supportive housing units in New York."
While the press conference was happening, a group of men drank beers and wept next to a makeshift vigil in Chatham Square, where some of the victims slept.
"They were working too, but sometimes in the nighttime, we need a place to sleep," said Alex Flores, who sometimes slept in the park and knew a couple of the men who were killed over the weekend. "We don’t have a place to sleep and the park is the only place we have to relax for a couple hours."
Shirley Ng held up a photo of Chuen Kwok and asked public officials for more resources to help the homeless.
"Although Mr. Kwok and the other victims were homeless, they are not nameless. I am 100 percent positive they were once loved by someone and cared for by someone they loved," Ng said. "There is so much attention a few blocks from us where billions of dollars are spent and exchanged. Chinatown and the entire Lower East Side wants that same attention too. We want the city to know that our community matters."
This story has been updated to include responses from the city and the state.