I spent the weekend with a homeless community in New York to see what it’s really like to live on the streets

48-year-old Malian immigrant Moustafa is homeless, but still plies his trade as a mechanic to stay afloat.

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48-year-old Malian immigrant Moustafa is homeless, but still plies his trade as a mechanic to stay afloat.
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Daniel Brown/Business Insider

Take a walk through any borough of New York City and you’re likely to encounter people living on the street.

Homelessness is on the rise in the city, up 39% from last year. And even more are opting to live in the city’s streets, parks, and alleys than shelters – nearly 4,000 as of July, the most since 2005.

There’s a vast diversity to the people living without secure housing, and the various situations they find themselves in.

In central Brooklyn, a flashpoint of gentrification in the city, we met Moustafa, a 48-year-old mechanic who lost his shop and his home three years ago.

Moustafa now lives nearby in a community of about a dozen homeless mechanics who live out of their vehicles and try to get work when they can.He invited us to spend the day and night with him to get a glimpse into what it’s really like to be homeless in New York.

Here’s what we saw:


When we first met Moustafa, he was changing the the brakes on a car in the parking lot he lived in for a seemingly affluent customer. The area is full of industrial parking lots full of diesel trucks and small buses. He and his fellow homeless mechanics often do work for customers in them.

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Some other people were hanging around the lot, but weren’t interested in talking.

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The lot had a number of small buses and vans parked in it that Moustafa said many of the homeless in the area lived in. Some people had built out patio areas in front of their vehicles with plants, flowers, and equipment for work.

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Moustafa moved to the US from Mali nearly 20 years ago and had run his own auto shop for many years until 2014. Moustafa lost his shop after a new landlord raised his rent and he couldn’t make the payments. He was evicted not long after.

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He says that these days he can earn $600 in a good week doing repairs in the lot. He makes a lot less in a bad week, and he makes nothing during the winter because there’s no roof over the lot.

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After Moustafa finished up the car, another man walked in the lot to use a hose there. The lot, and the entire block, was very fluid: people came and went, and it was hard to decipher who was living on the block and who had homes.

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Moustafa said he’d been living in a small bus in the lot for about a year. Before that he tried staying in a shelter, but left after a month because he needed his “own space to breathe.”

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The shelter rooms are about as big as the rectangular slab of concrete below, Moustafa said. “They treat you like an animal,” he added.

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He said he was only allowed to bring 2 bags into the shelter, which was a problem because he has a lot of possessions.

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There were other aspects of the shelters that he didn’t like, he said, like the strict rules about entering and leaving and the health of those staying there. “They don’t check their health,” he said. “I prefer to be in the streets.”

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There’s a strong sense of community amongst those living in the lots. Two fellow mechanics asked Moustafa if he could help them change a fuse. Moustafa obliged, and I followed them to the lot next door.

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Moustafa first checked the fuses in front.

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Then he checked underneath the car. There are no bosses or bureaucracy in the lots. All the mechanics there work for themselves, but they help one another out too.

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After waiting for a bit, I offered to get them coffee, figuring the maintenance would take awhile. By the time I got back, Moustafa had the truck running. When I asked him later if the two guys were good mechanics, he said, “I taught them.”

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Moustafa told me he made $3,000 per week when he had his own auto shop, which he ran for close to a decade.

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He showed me his old shop on his phone, and said he hopes to save enough money to open a new one in about 6 months.

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Moustafa’s friend Mark pulled up with his son in an SUV. Mark said he’s known Moustafa for 15 years, and that he is “the best mechanic.”

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Mark told a story of how someone he knew once brought their truck to Ford for maintenance, but the dealership couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. When Moustafa looked at it, he fixed it in 10 minutes, Mark said.

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When the sun went down, I asked Moustafa if I could see the bus he lives in. But he said I wouldn’t be able to see it until around midnight — when the guy who controlled the lot went to sleep.

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The block was empty when I got back around 1 am.

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I walked by the lot where Moustafa had helped fix his two friends’ truck. The gate was locked, and I peeked through the hole, but it was too dark to see anything.

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Moustafa’s lot was also locked up, and so I called him to say I was outside.

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He let me in and took me to his small bus behind two garbage trucks. Moustafa pays some money to the manager of the lot when he can, but it’s not much.

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Once inside the van, I immediately saw his dilemma with staying in the shelters. Moustafa has a lot of stuff, and he can’t afford to put it in storage, nor does he want to. Moustafa’s only other option is to try to get public housing, which is extremely difficult. The New York City Housing Authority has a waiting list of 260,000 families with a less than 3% turnover rate, a spokesman told Business Insider. Housing generally goes to those with higher “needs priorities” first, like victims of domestic assault.

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The wait times for the NYCHA can range from a few weeks to a few years. For someone like Moustafa, it might be closer to the latter. Moustafa’s living space in the bus was tidy and clean, and he told me that he showers behind the bus with a hose.

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The van had a microwave.

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But he often gets food at the nearby bodegas.

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He showed me a picture of his four brothers and sister-in-law. The one in the middle lives in Iowa, but the other three, whom he hasn’t seen in years, still live in Mali. “It’s hard,” he said.

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We talked for a couple hours about politics, religion, Africa, and more. I asked him a couple political questions, and he always answered the same kind of way: he prefers Democrats to Republicans, but respects both. He never once said anything bad about anyone.

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