Life goes on in Syracuse: a vacant building is secured, and a homeless man sleeps outdoors at 2-below zero

My homeless friend James was fortunate to be elsewhere Wednesday when about 10 police cars descended on the vacant Syracuse office building where he has slept for over a year.

The police weren’t after James, who sleeps outside in a doorway of the 10-story building in the heart of downtown. Officers were there to remove others who, according to James, have had free access to the building day and night for illicit activities.

James, a homeless man in Syracuse, NY, near the abandoned building where he sleeps outdoors.

James, last winter at the vacant building where he sleeps outdoors.

The building — across the street from city hall and the mayor’s office  — has been vacant for 20 years. It’s more than $2 million in arrears to Syracuse, a city that struggles to pave or even stripe its streets properly.

I couldn’t find James Thursday, and I feared he had been evicted or arrested. I spoke with workers installing plywood over the revolving doors near where James sleeps year round. (Overnight temperatures dropped below zero four times last week.) The workers said they hadn’t seen him that day.

But James was back in his doorway Friday, huddled under a sleeping bag and blankets while several pigeons fought nearby over a frozen loaf of bread. James regularly feeds them extra bread he collects from a food pantry. He usually breaks it into pieces, but this loaf was frozen solid and the pigeons pecked their way into the middle of it.

Less than 10 feet from where James sleeps is a brown, frozen puddle of excrement, left there, he said, by a man who used to hang out in another doorway. The puddle has been there three or four months, although the frigid air kills the odor.

I tried again Friday to reach Syracuse police for an official explanation for their sweep of the building, but had no luck.

James said police arrested a few people who were inside. Police were there several hours, he said, because one guy had a good hiding place and it took a while to find him. Another got away, James said, and said he’d be back. He told James he knows of a way to get back inside.

I stopped by to see James Saturday night and noticed a couple of hardcover books on top of the boarded-up revolving doors. One is a Stephen King novel. The other, James said, is a Gideons Bible one of the trespassers left behind and asked him to hang onto.


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
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15 Responses to Life goes on in Syracuse: a vacant building is secured, and a homeless man sleeps outdoors at 2-below zero

  1. ksbeth says:

    it is a hard life and though for those who live on the fringe and off the grid. i wish there was more compassion and support for them, instead of them being seen as an annoyance and an invisible part of a city.


  2. markbialczak says:

    James soldiers on, invisible to the city but more plugged in to the pulse than the officials. Thanks, Jim. I’m glad he’s safe.


  3. I’m glad James is alright Jim. I love the picture of him. I zoomed in and his eyes are so clear and piercing. They say the eyes are the mirror to the soul.

    I’ve met some, who like James, would rather sleep rough than in a shelter. Some because they feel endangered in overcrowded shelters and others because they choose street life, they feel free living outside, not under anyone’s thumb.

    I wonder what James would say, what he dreams of… ❤
    Diana xo


    • Jim McKeever says:

      Good question, Diana. He jokes that all he needs is a million dollars, and he gives me grief every visit when I don’t have it. He’s a smart man, fiercely independent. He knows. The city streets and businesses better than the Chamber of Commerce, I’d bet. Passers by who are looking for a different building with a similar address look shocked when he — unsolicited — gives them directions.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. chmjr2 says:

    Not to offend anyone who may think James has the right to live as he does on the streets, but it is wrong. They should be in a warm bed and fed and cared for. It is wrong to let anyone live like that. I am certain I would not last a week out there in this weather. I am glad the James is alright. But is he really?


  5. Jim McKeever says:

    Good question, Charles, I think the answer is he’s as all right as he can be, given the realities of his situation, which I don’t want to go into here in detail. He has good reasons for avoiding the shelters. Unless someone comes up with an apartment or a room for him, and allow him to live on his own terms (he doesn’t bother anyone, doesn’t do drugs), he’ll stay on the streets.


  6. I’ve had others tell ‘us’ at work they refuse to go the shelters, for their own reasons. They prefer to ‘make do’ where ever they are. They’ve created their own niche in what ever place they have found safety. It’s so hard to see a human being like this. I can’t help but wonder James’ story. There seems to be safety, for him, not being in the world “we” find comfort and safety in.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. JF says:

    I know good shelters in New York City that always have vacancies. I spoke with people there, with members of Salvation Army and with the city’s employees. Homeless people in NYC choose to live in the streets. What do you think can be done about it?


    • Jim McKeever says:

      That’s a tough question, JF. James avoids shelters in part because of bad experiences, not because he’s into drugs or other activities not allowed there. He’s a loner and a survivor. He’s lived in apartments, but says he’s had bad experiences there as well. He takes care of himself pretty well, considering. I saw him this morning, and he had gone to a dental clinic. I just don’t know how much longer he can continue sleeping outdoors in our harsh winters.


  8. Jim, by telling James’s story you make him visible. Most people brush the homeless off with a shrug and barely a look. Thank you for bringing James’s life into our reality. I cannot imagine what it must be like for him out there in the cold.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Kath … I’ve written several posts about him in the past year. The fact that his “home” is plainly visible from across the street, where city hall and the state office building are located, is particularly galling. I guess no one over there “sees” him, or gives a damn.


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