Saheed Adebayo Aare survived physical abuse, homelessness and gang violence in his native Nigeria before making his way to the United States as a wheelchair athlete and gaining asylum.
Now the 26-year-old is struggling to navigate the city’s homeless system after staff at a Wards Island shelter mistakenly threw out two of his three wheelchairs when he was transferred to an inaccessible Manhattan isolation hotel, according to Aare and city officials.
“[I was] depressed, because I have my problem that I’m facing. That’s why I try to go outside and do something — [to] be free,” he told THE CITY.
“I can’t play sports, I can’t do anything. I just stay inside because I can’t do anything now.”
Left Chairs Behind
Aare said he was suddenly moved from his room at Ward Island’s Clarke Thomas Men’s Shelter — a city facility run by HELP USA — about a month ago amid the pandemic.
He said he was given little time to grab his belongings — including two wheelchairs, one he uses to play tennis and the other for accessing narrow bathroom stalls.
And when he arrived at the Wall Street Radisson in an Uber, Aare said he was faced with yet another obstacle — a staircase leading from the street to the lobby. The motorized lift outside wasn’t working, Aare said.
He eventually got staff to help bring him up the six steps so he could take an elevator to his seventh-floor room. But he quickly found himself at their mercy, having to call the front desk for help down the stairs whenever he wanted to leave to look for a job.
Staff manning the front desk at the hotel’s entrance on William Street on Sunday said they were unsure whether the lift was currently working. They confirmed homeless people were isolating at the hotel.
A ramp leading up the staircase is for deliveries, workers said. Aare noted it’s too steep for him to safely navigate.
Isolation hotels are overseen by the city, and house many homeless shelter residents who have tested positive, shown coronavirus symptoms or may have been exposed to COVID-19.
‘It’s Like a Prison’
Aare tried to make the best of life at the hotel, using the free wifi to study for his high school equivalency exam and apply for security jobs. He also felt safer in a room by himself, instead of in the dorm-like shelter.
But he eventually grew frustrated and asked to be moved.
“I told [staff at the hotel] I’m not comfortable there,” Aare said. “I can’t go outside when I like. It’s like a prison.”
Instead of sending him to an accessible hotel, Aare said staff at the hotel informed him he was being moved back to the shelter.
Aare said when he arrived back on Wards Island about two week ago, he discovered both of his extra wheelchairs had been thrown out.
Without access to his chairs he was unable to play tennis, the sport that helped him move to the United States, and was forced to wait up to two hours to use the shelter’s only accessible bathroom.
After inquiries from THE CITY, a city Department of Homeless Services spokesperson said the “mistake by the provider is unacceptable” and promised at least one new chair used for sports would be purchased for Aare.
“Since this incident has been brought to our attention, we have directed HELP to do everything they can to expedite this replacement,” the spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for HELP confirmed the agency was in the process of purchasing a new “sport-specific” chair after Aare signed off, and offered to rent a replacement until the custom-ordered model arrives.
“The 1,600 employees at HELP USA who dedicate their lives to caring for homeless New Yorkers are extraordinary people. But they are still people, and people make mistakes…. This was a terrible mistake, and one we take full responsibility for,” the spokesperson added in a statement.
‘One Stumbling Block After Another’
Disability rights activist Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, who got to know Aare through a Queens tennis league, said the athlete’s struggles were emblematic of the city’s lack of accessibility 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“It’s a crazy time and a lot of agencies are working really hard and I don’t want to discount that, [but it’s] one stumbling block after another,” Blair-Goldensohn said.
The latest setbacks follow an extraordinary string of challenges Aare has faced.
He was born in rural Nigeria to a father he says was so ashamed of his disability he would not allow him to leave the house — and beat him and his mother, according to Aare.
He eventually went to the police, but said they did nothing. At age 13, Aare dragged himself to a truck stop where he managed to get a ride to Lagos.
Once in the big city, he had nowhere to go. Aare eventually found a man in a wheelchair who brought him to a bridge near a sports stadium where other homeless people with disabilities camped out.
He and some other men started to go to the stadium to cheer the tennis players, who would sometimes give them money for food. A coach at the stadium soon took notice of Aare and invited him to play basketball using a spare wheelchair — the first one he’d ever had access to.
He soon started playing tennis, making friends and contacts who helped get him a permanent wheelchair.
Aare excelled at sports, joining a national team and traveling outside the country for the first time.
But he was still forced to sleep under the bridge and eventually, Aare said, a street gang tried to get him to use his wheelchair to smuggle weapons. Aare refused.
“They said that they’re going to end my miserable life,” he recalled.
He knew then he had to get out of the country.
‘I Can Do It’
In 2017, he secured a two-year visa for a tennis tournament in Michigan and over the next year raised enough money to get a plane ticket to Newark Airport.
Aare landed in New Jersey in the summer of 2018.
He again found himself homeless.
Aare made his way to Manhattan, where he got into the shelter system and joined a tennis league. He gained asylum in the spring of 2019, legal papers show.
Now he is focused on getting an education, but said it’s not easy to study at the shelter.
“When I [woke up in the hotel] I’m working on my laptop,” Aaer said. “But here you can’t do that. [There’s] a lot of noise. You can’t sleep for nights. [Other shelter residents are] drinking, smoking.”
Still, he’s determined to find a job so he finally can have a safe place of his own.
“I believe anything, I can do it,” Aare said. “Leaving my country, sometimes I would cry, but I just thought I have to find some way to survive. I’ve faced so many challenges in my life.”