NEW YORK (AP) — The homeless man remained unseen for much of the winter day, nestled in a sleeping bag on a New York sidewalk, as pedestrians hurriedly walked along a busy street in lower Manhattan.
Unbeknownst to hundreds of bystanders, Abdoulaye Coulibaly’s body was stiffening in the cold, nearly 12 hours after an assailant fell on him at dawn and shot him.
The murder nearly two weeks ago might have gone unnoticed in a city that has long struggled with homelessness, where violence against the homeless rarely attracts public attention or outcry. But a series of similar shootings in New York and Washington have raised fears that a serial killer is on the loose, preying on the homeless. A few days later, a suspect was in custody.
As Coulibaly’s family made arrangements Thursday to lay him to rest, the shooting refocused attention on homelessness, an issue that has long irked elected officials in New York and other urban centers.
For years, Coulibaly’s family had tried to convince him to return with them to Ohio. But he refused, said his cousin-in-law, Bakary Camara, who only met him once about two decades ago, when Coulibaly first arrived in New York.
“He was never forgotten,” Camara said.
In an annual report on New York’s homelessness, released on Tuesday, the Coalition for the Homeless said the recent shootings underscore “the true precariousness of life for homeless people.”
A record number of homeless people – 640 last year, down from 404 two years earlier – have died from a variety of causes, the coalition says, including COVID-19, drug overdoses, exposure to the elements and untreated medical conditions.
“While the brutal nature of the shooting has rightfully drawn media attention and public concern, the 18 homeless people who died last year due to exposure to natural cold or heat died quietly. , without notice – invisible victims of our city’s neglect,” the report said.
The coalition urged elected officials to refrain from treating homeless people as criminals, saying homeless people are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. He also called on public officials to do more to reduce homelessness by providing appropriate shelters, more mental health services and access to affordable housing.
Coulibaly was one of five men who police say were shot dead by Gerald Brevard, 30, who is currently being held in Washington.
Two died: Morgan Holmes, whose body was found in the nation’s capital, and Coulibaly, who was found dead by another homeless man in New York’s SoHo neighborhood.
For years, Coulibaly’s family thought him lost and adrift.
“We didn’t know he was sleeping rough until we found out he was dead,” Camara said.
If they had known, he says, the family might have pushed harder to take him home.
His mother and siblings never gave up on him, said Camara, who lives in the Bronx: “Every time they visited him, they would pick him up and beg him to come home.”
Many die alone and forgotten, said James Winans, chief executive of the Bowery Mission, a nonprofit that provides nightly shelter and services to hundreds of New York City’s homeless people.
“So often our homeless neighbors live a life of anonymous obscurity, completely disconnected from community and family,” Winans said.
The mission is holding a memorial service on Thursday for Coulibaly, who over the years was an occasional guest at its shelters.
“He was someone who came to the Bowery Mission occasionally for various services – not a regular but certainly a guest that we know of,” Winans said, adding that the memorial “is recognition that his life is worth eternal”.
For years, the mission has trained concerned souls — ordinary New Yorkers, fashion designers, bankers, real estate agents — to participate in a program it calls “Don’t Walk By” to get citizens ordinary people to engage with the city’s homeless.
Last weekend Coulibaly was found dead, police searched for other possible victims of the gunman, Winans said, and came across another sleeping bag containing a person who had died in his sleep.
“You have to wonder,” Winans lamented, “how long this person went unnoticed in his sleeping bag.”