The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

Homeless Performer Faces Uphill Battle From Shelter to Spotlight

 Freddie Cosmo performs at the Stonewall Inn.
Freddie Cosmo performs at the Stonewall Inn.
View Full Caption
DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

QUEENS — Wearing just a hint of eye makeup and a modest necklace on top of a simple white T-shirt, Freddie Cosmo took to the stage last Wednesday at famed gay bar Stonewall Inn for several songs during a show for charity.

His friend and the club's flamboyant entertainer, Susan “Lavinia Draper” Campanaro, who ran the show, introduced him to the audience.

“He still has problem finding housing, still has problem getting a really decent job, but still fights every day to be who he is," she said.

Not coincidentally, one of the songs Cosmo chose to perform was Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless).”

Cosmo, 30, whose real name is Lester Hussie, calls Stonewall his second home — but he doesn’t have an actual home.

The aspiring actor and performer has for the past year and a half lived in the New York City shelter system, which is bursting at the seams, as the city “remains in the midst of the worst crisis of homelessness since the Great Depression,” according to the State of the Homeless 2017 report issued by the Coalition for the Homeless in March.

Currently, more than 59,000 men, women, and children live in the city shelter system, statistics published on the Department of Homeless Services website indicate.

For the past two months, Cosmo has lived in the Skyway Men’s Shelter in South Jamaica, near JFK Airport, a former motel turned shelter, which houses about 150 men. 

“But I'm still trying to pursue entertainment no matter what,” Cosmo said. “I can’t really wait.”

Cosmo, a Philadelphia native with a bachelor's in music from the University of Miami, moved to New York six years ago to become an entertainer.

“I saved maybe $1,000, I had a few friends that I could rely on here in New York and I said, 'I’ll go for it,'” he said.

For the first few years, he lived with a group of other aspiring artists in an apartment in Astoria, where they all chipped in to pay rent.

He worked on his own gigs and promoted various shows.

He also trained to become a certified home health aide and currently takes care of several seniors, mostly in Manhattan and Brooklyn, with hours that vary from week to week.

But he rarely gets more than $250 a week as a home health aide, and gigs in the clubs usually pay only in tips.

In 2013, the landlord sold the house, forcing him and his friends to look for new places to live.

“After that I had trouble finding an affordable place, things just got more and more expensive, a lot of neighborhoods got gentrified,” he said.

He managed to rent a room in Bed-Stuy for awhile, but when at some point his work dried up, he started falling behind his payments.

Without family nearby, he was becoming overwhelmed and started having panic attacks.

By the end of 2015, going into the shelter system “started becoming very realistic,” he said.

Shortly after, he had a mental breakdown.

At first, he was placed in a MICA (mental illness chemical abuse) shelter, and spent the following year in therapy, taking several antidepressants.  

“I just really really wanted to get better and I wanted a place,” he said.

Photos: DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

Last summer, he hoped to turn his luck around when he qualified for a voucher under the Living in Communities (LINC) rent subsidy program which seeks to help homeless individuals and families pay rent in private apartments.

“I looked at a few different places, I tried to get something through word of mouth, I also went through a broker, and I paid like $250,” he said.

But several landlords who initially agreed later told him that they couldn’t accept his voucher.

A housing specialist found him a place but at that point his voucher, which is valid for 90 days, had already expired.

The city and advocates for homeless people acknowledge that finding an apartment with a voucher can be a difficult task.

“It is extremely challenging for people to find landlords who would take the vouchers,” said Giselle Routhier, the policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless.

“It is actually illegal for a landlord to deny someone solely based on them having a voucher, but landlords often get around that by using other excuses like requiring a specific credit score, and other things they know a homeless person might not have," Routhier added.

The city's Human Resources Administration has even set up a special unit which seeks to intervene in such cases, including sending letters to landlords, and working with legal advocacy groups to bring cases on behalf of homeless people.

And as the city seeks to cut the city's homeless shelter population by 2,500 over the next five years, LINC and other housing assistance programs could be instrumental to achieving the goal.

“These programs are both better for families and individuals and cheaper for taxpayers because rental assistance is much less expensive than the cost of a homeless shelter,” said Lourdes Centeno, a spokeswoman for HRA.

From the time the program was introduced in 2015 through February of this year, it has helped nearly 16,000 New Yorkers living in shelters get permanent housing, the city said.

Yet, most homeless New Yorkers have not been able to use their vouchers, according to published reports.

“I’m still here,” said Cosmo, who is now working on getting another LINC voucher. “I’m really upset with the system.”

Cosmo's commute to the shelter, which often takes more than two hours, is another source of frustration.

His jobs make his schedule unpredictable, often making him miss the 10 p.m. curfew, something the shelter would not tolerate.

If he is late, he said, he often has to wait for hours before a bed is assigned to him.

One night, he waited until 4 a.m., and then a few days later he had to wait until 7 a.m.

“Then I just left because at that point it’s time to kind of start the day,” he said. “It’s humiliating to say the least and it’s unnecessary,” he said, adding that while waiting, he does not have access to his clothes and hygiene products which are kept in storage.

The Department of Homeless Services said that, according to the rules, shelter residents need to have a valid late or overnight pass if they come after curfew. If they don’t, their bed is no longer available, and they have to wait until another bed that is still available is found within the system. 

Cosmo admits that in some cases he did not have the pass. But waiting until early in the morning felt like a punishment and proof of how inefficient the system is, he said.

“The city runs capacity very tight with the amount of the people that actually need shelter,” said Routhier, noting that waiting for hours to get a bed is a common complaint among people living in shelters.

“If this person is working, it’s the city’s responsibility to accommodate that person, provide them with the late pass and make sure they have the bed when they get back from work," she added.

Discouraged by the long wait at the shelter, Cosmo prefers to sometimes sleep on subway trains instead.

But he tries to stay upbeat and creative, as he focuses on pursuing his dreams.

Using computers at public libraries and with a help from his friends he has recently created a web series called Freddie Cosmo's Online Presence. He also performs at various clubs throughout the city and workshops a new musical called “Bring the Beat Back."

“It's really really difficult to see a solution,” he said. “But I still have these big visions for myself and I know I want to get out of the system.”