On a chilly Christmas Eve, it took only a minute for a group of staff and residents at a homeless shelter in Harlem to list what the city's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, needs to do when he takes office on 1 January.
"Reinstate rent-subsidy vouchers, bring back after-school programs to keep the kids away from drugs and violence, supply more affordable housing for low-income families, sort out food stamps," one woman rattled off sternly, as she dashed from the anonymous red-brick building on a quiet residential block to talk to a staff member on a cigarette break. "You want me to go on?"
The woman wasn't a user of the facility, listing demands for herself. She was a security guard, angry at the deterioration in the circumstances of the people she is employed to supervise and protect. Her colleague, shivering in the freezing temperatures, flicked his cigarette butt into the road and pointed to a building across the street - a typical example of low-income housing subsidized by the city but owned and run by a private landlord, he said.
"Housing like that is becoming less affordable. Landlords used to take families that made as little as $17,000 per household but now they demand $30,000 or sometimes $40,000, and who can afford that on minimum wage or disability payments? That keeps people in the shelters."
When asked for their names, the staff members stiffened in alarm.
"We have too many victims of domestic violence here," said the guard. "We can't identify anyone or disclose the location - especially at Christmas, when abusive partners are looking for their spouses and children. For real."
A resident in a green puffer jacket emerged from the shelter with her 10-year-old son.
"I had to leave a violent relationship in the Bronx two years ago," she said. "I'm trying to get an apartment of my own but it's close to impossible at the moment and I'd like the new mayor to make it easier."
The staff member and security guard nodded, sympathetically. They pointed out that the waiting list for public housing in the projects can easily be 10 years, while subsidized low-income housing is increasingly hard to come by. The resident said:
The children are the ones who suffer. Maybe their parents made mistakes. Maybe the economy pulled the rug out from under. Saying "I've got to get this one to school", she disappeared back inside.
On a chilly Christmas Eve, a few days before De Blasio becomes mayor on the back of his "tale of two cities" campaign cry, the Guardian asked a random selection of homeless people and those working with them what the new mayor's priorities should be.
According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of homeless people in New York City has increased by 69%, to a record 64,000, since Michael Bloomberg became mayor in 2001. A large part of the rise has occurred since the financial and economic crisis hit in late 2008. Then, the city's homeless population numbered 37,000. In 2013, New York City's homeless population grew by 11%, compared with the previous year. Nationwide, the number of declared homeless decreased by 4%.
Most homeless people in New York - 52,000, of whom 22,000 are children - reside in temporary shelters.
At the shelter in west Harlem another mother, with three neatly dressed children, rushed from the shelter and started a quick march to the nearest bus stop. What did they want to tell De Blasio?
The middle child, carrying a basketball, piped up. "We want more police. It's dangerous."
Had he witnessed violence on the streets?
"I heard shooting from my bedroom window one night, they woke me up and I was really scared, wondering what if a bullet came through the window and hit me." The boy's mother said he was nine today. "It's my birthday," he grinned.
His sister, 11, said a man had tried to steal her mother's purse on a bus, a few weeks ago. "He had a knife," the mother said. "But I shout 'Help, help, help' to other passengers and he run."
A bus came to a stop on Malcolm X Boulevard, and they boarded. It was not yet 9am, but several people walking past were intent on scratching off lottery cards, hoping for a magical escape.
Then, in 2011, the state and federal governments withdrew funding for Bloomberg's rent-subsidy homelessness prevention program, which had offered temporary support for those in low-paying work or training who faced the threat of eviction. In November of this year the food stamp program was slashed nationally, by Congress.
In New York since 2009, according to several children's advocacy groups, city-subsidized childcare places have fallen by 18% and the number of places for children in after-school activity programmes has fallen by 40%. Services for the homeless cost the city $1bn a year, Independent Budget Office figures show, a 68% increase from a decade ago. This reflects the Bloomberg administration's policy of getting people off the streets and into shelters, which are often privately run. It also absorbs the rise in homelessness during the recession.
De Blasio has accused the Bloomberg administration of encouraging gentrification, luxury property development and unscrupulous landlords, all at the expense of affordable housing. A recent New York University Law Centre analysis found that from 2007 to 2011, the median rent in the city rose 8.5%, while the median income fell by 7%. Earlier this month, the federal government acknowledged a national crisis in affordable housing.
A Harvard University study found that between 2001 and 2011 the number of renters in the US with incomes below the $19,000 national median quadrupled, from three million to 12 million, while the number of homes with rent deemed affordable to that sector remained steady at seven million. The study cited San Francisco, New York, Washington DC and Seattle as cities suffering particular "affordability gaps" as their economies improved but low-income housing became scarce.
Back in Manhattan, just north of Central Park on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, people bustled in and out of a soup kitchen and food bank that sits a few yards from designer beer halls and hip restaurants that have sprung up as the area attracts more professionals, students from nearby Columbia University and tourists.
The charity-run soup kitchen serves around 400 meals a day to anyone who turns up, no questions asked. And it runs a food bank "supermarket" in the basement, which on Christmas Eve was packed with families whose low incomes qualify them to stock up on basics such as rice, pasta, meat, dairy, cereals, canned vegetables and fruit using a points system devised by the charity. Fresh vegetables cost no points.
Diane Nelson, 43, had walked from her rent-subsidized apartment 10 blocks away to stock up on groceries, in order to make Christmas dinner for her two sons. She said she had been a single parent since her husband was killed in a car crash 10 years ago. She had been looking for a job for nine months but had just landed a position as a nanny for a family on the Upper East Side, starting in January.
She said:" In recent times the streets of New York have become a lot cleaner but finding a job has become a lot harder and that's something I hope the new mayor is going to attend to. I looked every day for nine months and it was a struggle."
She said the food bank helped stretch her pantry. "I got potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and onions on top of all my allocated groceries. I'm looking forward to cooking at Christmas."
A 49-year-old man who had arrived from a nearby homeless shelter, and would give his name only as Kevin, was not feeling so lucky.
"I was laid off in 2010 from a company making metal doors where I had worked for nine years," he told the Guardian. "I was making $17.50 an hour, then they merged with another company who were using undocumented workers and paying them below minimum wage and next thing I was out of a job. I'd also taken a bad fall at work and had to have surgery on one of my hands, which didn't help."
When his workers' compensation ran out, his marriage hit the rocks. Now, he was having trouble finding work "at my age". Last year he was evicted from his apartment in Brooklyn; he had been to a shelter in the Bronx before arriving at one in Manhattan.
"It's going to be closed tomorrow, so I guess I'll look for a church to get Christmas dinner," he said.
What did he need Mayor De Blasio to do?
"Raise the minimum wage and take companies in hand who pay below minimum wage off the books to undocumented workers. That's bad for them and it's bad for me." The particulars of Kevin's account of becoming homeless are hard to verify, but he was certainly not alone that day in appealing for an increase in the minimum wage.
Exiting the subway at 42nd Street, next to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, it's easy to encounter homeless people who don't stay in shelters and are less able to articulate a personal message for De Blasio. Two men lay fast asleep near the ticket office, propped against a wall and next to a giant plastic bag of salvaged plastic bottles and cans. One man, with wild clouds of tangled grey hair, brought his head up from the tall subway station trash can into which he had practically upended himself, to fish for discarded Metro cards. He told the Guardian he was living rough in Morningside Park.
How had he found himself in these circumstances?
"That's a long story that I have no wish to tell."
What could the new mayor do for him?
"I don't know," he growled, and walked away.
Outside the bus station a tall, thin woman in her 40s or 50s with a twitching manner had a black eye under her filthy blonde hair. She could not put words together to tell her story.
Soaring overhead, closer to the Hudson River, was the forest of luxury condominium skyscrapers that has transformed the previously dilapidated far west side of midtown Manhattan. Round the corner was a tiny brick house called the Dwelling Place, a homeless shelter for women run by the Catholic Franciscan Sisters.
"I want three things from the new mayor. Affordable housing, affordable housing and affordable housing - including permanent housing for people who are struggling," said Sister Margaret, 74, who has volunteered at the Dwelling Place for 21 years. She said the rundown neighbourhood, crowded with tenements, had been in need of development, but not to the extreme that landlords had sold out to large developers building apartments for people moving to New York to work on Wall Street, while lower-income people were forced out.
Years ago the concept of homelessness was drug addicts and bag ladies - now there is a new wave of homelessness since the economy dived - people who are older, had savings and a home, but lost their jobs and their health insurance and finally ran out of money and turned up on our doorstep with a suitcase.The city's largest drop-in centre for the homeless, the Open Door on 41st St, behind the bus station, was closed in 2010. It has not been replaced.
Bloomberg has fiercely defended his record. At a press conference earlier this month, he said: "If you are poor and homeless you'd be better off in New York City than anywhere else."
On Christmas Eve, as the temperature plummeted and darkness beckoned, two men stood outside the iconic Bowery Mission, in the Lower East Side and next to the trendy New Museum of contemporary art. They begged to differ.
"If I had the money I'd be on the first plane out of here back to Memphis, Tennessee, where I was born," said Ray Daniels, 55. He had strapped a pink and purple umbrella to a small wheelie suitcase that held, he said, his "whole kit and caboodle".
I've had it with this city. There ain't no work here, I'm tired of it. Who'll give me a job? No damn body.He said he had arrived from Memphis, where he made sewer pipes, eight years ago, after a relationship broke down. He had occasional jobs cleaning parks and in car body shops but had not found work in the last few years and now kept getting moved on for panhandling, he said.
"I've never had a home here," he said. "I stay at the mission or if they're full I'm on the street right here."
Daniels wanted De Blasio to "come down here and find out what is really going on, how people get stagnated in the system". "Skyscrapers are going up, shelters are closing down," he said.
A friend, Michael Bailey, 60, an out-of-work cabinet maker from Marietta, Georgia, said he sometimes slept on subway trains, to keep warm. He also disagreed with Bloomberg's notion that New York was the best place to be homeless.
"In January I'm going to Fort Lauderdale to sleep on the beach," he said.
His message for De Blasio?
"Everyone needs a home. The shelter system isn't working."