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Airport homeless not ‘Terminal’ cases

Staff Writer

June 17, 2004, 10:02 PM EDT

A homeless-outreach worker at an airport terminal needs special powers of observation.

"We don't have the obvious homeless people here. Not the ones with the shopping carts and the bags," said Mike Noel, the head of a Volunteers of America homeless outreach team at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports.

The guy in the Polo shirt and pressed pants pulling a black Samsonite looks like a business traveler. But when Noel and co-worker Howard Cunningham see him two days in a row, they make a note of it.

When they see him at Terminal 4 one day, then at Terminal 1 the next, they know the man must be a stranded traveler or an out-of-luck New Yorker.

"We walk through daily, and our instincts just make us stop. Didn't we see that guy yesterday?" Noel said. "They blend in with the travelers. Either a smart cart with luggage or just neatly dressed."

Noel and Cunningham are part of the four-member team that scours the airports for homeless people five days a week under a contract with the Port Authority.

They make hundreds of contacts a year with people who have decided to live, at least for a while, in an airport terminal. Their job is to coax the people into shelters. It sometimes takes months of persuasion.

The Port Authority has a policy against forcibly removing the homeless. Noel, 53, says the airport homeless are more professional looking than street homeless, yet most are significantly less resourceful than the character played by Tom Hanks in the movie "The Terminal."

The movie tells the story of Viktor Navorski, who is stranded at Terminal 4 at Kennedy Airport when there is a coup in his Eastern European country. He is allowed neither to return home nor to leave the airport. While stuck for months in the terminal, Navorski finds an airport job and love with a flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. The film opens today. Kennedy workers got a special screening.

In the real life of the homeless at the airport, there is no glamorous flight attendant, but there are happy endings.

Noel and Cunningham, 52, remember a woman from St. Louis who traveled to India with plans to get married. The marriage was cancelled, and she returned but refused to contact her family.

"She was hanging out here in Terminal 4," Noel said. "She must have stayed here a good two or three weeks before we were able to motivate her to say 'yes.'"

She agreed to go into the city's shelter system. Several months later, she called from St. Louis, where she had returned and found a job.

"She wanted to apologize for causing us so much trouble," Noel remembered.

Then there's the story of Timothy Wigfall, who lost his job as an airport cleaner about two yers ago, but decided to stay. "This was my home," said Wigfall, 49.

He slept for a year in Terminal 3, which he said has softer chairs than Terminal 4.

Wigfall survived, he said, because of his MetroCard. He traveled to soup kitchens for food and the YMCA for showers. Meantime, the outreach team was trying to coax him into a shelter.

Last year, a swollen leg placed Wigfall in the hospital. A social worker there found him a group home in Jamaica, where he has lived for nine months. Wigfall still visits the airport, where he affectionately greeted Noel and Cunningham yesterday.

"Even though we didn't place him, it's good to see that he's got somewhere to live and that he's safe," Noel said. "All the social workers work together."

While talking to Wigfall, Noel and Cunningham had one eye on another man. They first met him April 6, and he has been hanging out at the airport, off and on, ever since. On that first day, the man was wearing three coats, so they nicknamed him "three coat."

Yesterday, he had shed his coats and had on a blue knit shirt, and he looked much thinner. He was slumped on a plastic seat when the two workers approached him.

"We really don't know what his story is," Noel said. "He says he's good. Everybody's good. When somebody's good, we know he's bad."

"Three coat" hasn't admitted he needs help yet.

Until he says "OK, Howie and Mike, I'm ready" he'll be living at the terminal.

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.


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