Not forgotten: Community honors homeless man killed in NYC

NEW YORK (AP) — The homeless man lay unseen for much of a winter’s day, tucked in a sleeping bag on a New York City sidewalk, as pedestrians hurriedly walked along a busy street in lower Manhattan.

Unbeknownst to hundreds of passersby, the body of Abdoulaye Coulibaly was stiffening in the cold, nearly 12 hours after an assailant came upon him at dawn and shot him.

The killing nearly two weeks ago could have gone unnoticed in a city that has long grappled with homelessness, where violence against the unhoused rarely draws attention or public outcry. But a spate of similar shootings in New York City and Washington stoked fears that a serial killer was on the loose, preying on homeless men. Within days, a suspect was in custody.

As Coulibaly’s family was making arrangements Thursday to lay him to rest, the shootings refocused attention on homelessness, an issue that has long vexed elected officials in New York City and other urban centers.

For years, Coulibaly’s family had tried to convince him to return home with them to Ohio. But he refused, said his stepcousin, Bakary Camara, who met him just 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 City’s homeless, released Tuesday, the Coalition for the Homeless said the recent shootings underscore “the true precarity of life for those without homes.”

A record number of homeless people — 640 last year, up from 404 two years earlier — died from various causes, according to the coalition, including from COVID-19, drug overdoses, exposure to the elements and untreated medical ailments.

“While the brutal nature of the shootings rightfully garnered a significant amount of media attention and public concern, the 18 homeless people who died last year due to exposure to natural cold or heat passed away quietly, without notice — invisible victims of our city’s neglect, the report said.

The coalition urged elected officials to refrain from treating those without homes as criminals, saying that unsheltered individuals are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetuated. It also called on public officials to do more to ease 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 by Gerald Brevard, 30, now in custody 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 district.

For years, Coulibaly’s family thought of him lost and adrift.

“We didn’t know he was sleeping on the streets, until we knew about his death,” Camara said.

Had they known, he said, the family might have been more consistent on returning him home.

His mother and his siblings never gave up on him, said Camara, who lives in the Bronx: “Every time they visited, they went to look for him and begged him to come home.”

Many die alone and forgotten, said James Winans, the chief executive officer of the Bowery Mission, a nonprofit that provides shelter and services nightly to hundreds of New York City’s homeless.

“So often our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness are living lives of anonymous obscurity, thoroughly disconnected from community and family,” Winans said.

The mission on Thursday is holding a memorial service for Coulibaly, who over the years was an occasional guest at its shelters.

“He was somebody who occasionally would come to the Bowery Mission for different services — not a regular but certainly a guest that we are familiar with,” Winans said, adding that the memorial “is acknowledgment that his life is one of eternal worth.”

For years, the mission has been training concerned souls — everyday New Yorkers, fashion designers, bankers, real estate agents — to take part in a program it calls “Don’t Walk By” to get ordinary citizens to engage with the city’s homeless.

On the weekend Coulibaly was found dead, police searched for other possible victims of the shooter, Winans said, and came across another sleeping bag containing someone who had passed away in their sleep.

“You have to wonder,” Winans lamented, “how long that person went unnoticed in their sleeping bag.”

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