Earlier this week, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton implored New Yorkers to suppress any feelings of empathy not yet flushed out of them by NYC and stop giving money to homeless people ("One of the quickest ways to get rid of them is not to give to them"). The NY Post, always so sensitive to the plight of the homeless, latched onto the quote, and held up Will Andersen—a 43-year-old homeless man who has been panhandling in Grand Central with his 9-year-old dog Rizzo—as Public Enemy #1 on their front page. In an article produced by six professional journalists, the tabloid portrayed him as a professional moocher who was living the good life on $200/hour thanks to the generosity of a bunch of well-intentioned suckers.
As with most things involving the NY Post, the reality for Andersen, like the thousands of other homeless people struggling to survive in NYC, is more nuanced than they'd have you believe.
"In my view they have portrayed him the wrong way," Natasha Scully, a freelance journalist who got to know Andersen last winter, told us. "The Post's article illustrates the larger issue of false stereotypes of the homeless instead of looking at the root of homelessness."
Scully, a 22-year-old Harlem resident, first met Andersen last October and followed him throughout the winter. "I was a commuter at the time and I would see him everyday in the same spot," she said. "Something about him drew me in and I approached him one day. I proposed doing a video story on his day to day and he said sure. His circumstances haven't changed much."
Scully's video paints a far different, and much more sympathetic portrait of Andersen.
"After spending several months following his day-to-day life, I created a video showing how he has connected a variety of commuters who otherwise would have not known each other," Scully said. She was especially incensed over the Post article because Andersen, whom she has spoken to sporadically since filming him, told her that he only agreed to be interviewed because the Post said it was for an article about dogs and the homeless.
Instead, they implied in their piece that Andersen pimped out Rizzo for sympathy. "This is far from the case," she said. "Last winter he had one of the commuters who he had befriended take Rizzo in during the very cold nights while he stayed on the street because he had no other place to go."
Since the article hit the front page, Andersen has gone into seclusion, leaving his usual Grand Central spot because of reporters and gawkers hounding him—the Post even did a followup story on Thursday just to point out that he wasn't there. Reporters for Fox 5 tracked him down and tried to interview Andersen, but he declined.
"I've been fucked left and right," Andersen told us this morning. "Everything is screwed up by the whole Post thing. I got people yelling at me, asking why you're out here, if the money you're making. I am so stressed out right now."
Andersen insists the Post repeatedly misquoted him in the article: "My original quote was, 'You can make 80 cents, you can make $200 in a day if you stay out all day, it depends on the weather and the people.' It's a crapshoot. $200 in an hour is absurd. No one makes that. I never said that. If anything, I said, 'I guess that's possible.' That is complete bullshit. If I said that, that would be amazing. I wouldn't be living like I am. It's completely untrue, they twisted my words."
According to Andersen, passersby have threatened to kill his dog since the Post article was published. "I slept on the subways for three years. My ankles are still swollen. I don't have circulation in a lot of my toes. Anxiety is through the roof. I can't keep any food down. I've gotten death threats for my dog."
Asked why he's still panhandling when, as the Post reported, he has a place to live in Inwood, Andersen points out that he's still unemployed. "A friend of mine said she had an extra room," Andersen says. "It took me three years, I'm ecstatic to find a place. But the reason I'm still out on the street is that I don't have a job yet. I'm looking. My resume is out there. I still gotta make money, I still gotta make rent. But I guarantee you I am not making $200 an hour. I have two dollars in my pocket right now."
Andersen says he hopes to return to the field in which he has the most experience: theatrical production. "I want to do lighting and theater again," Andersen says. "Anything to do with theater. I did that for a long time off-Broadway. I put in a lot of hours and learned a lot, being an electrician in theater."
Additional reporting by John Del Signore.