Members of the community who live in the tunnels beneath the glittering project see it as an opportunity to earn more, while others complain its not helping us

Whatever the aesthetic judgement of Manhattans $25bn Hudson Yards development Pulitzer prize winning critic Jerry Saltz called it a corporate mega-monstrosity there is at least one group of city dwellers who are optimistic about the development: the homeless who live underneath it.

For decades, the subway and rail tunnels beneath and around Hudson Yards have offered shelter of sorts for the citys homeless population, often those who, in the social caste system of the dispossessed, have cut themselves off by literally going underground.

But now, two weeks after the vast residential, shopping, office and entertainment complex opened some of New Yorks homeless have come up to take a look. They have spied a landscape already full of visitors milling around temples of luxury and fashion, eating at high end restaurants and hiking to the top of the Vessel, a spiral staircase artwork already dubbed Staircase to Nowhere by locals.

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  • A view of the vessel from north of Hudson Yards.

Staircase to Nowhere? Thats pretty funny. Kinda like me, remarks Trudi Tinkerbelle Rippi, 35, a former Grateful Dead follower who has lived rough in and around the neighbourhood for a decade and often works the traffic coming in and out of the Lincoln tunnel during rush hour.

Why urban planners greenlit the Hudson Yards project, the largest of its kind in the western hemisphere, instead of, say, building more affordable housing is beyond her.

But it speaks to a city increasingly divided by haves and have-nots. Originally from Sodus Point in upstate New York, Rippi moved to the area around Penn Station and Hudson Yards a couple of years ago. She, her currently incarcerated boyfriend Rick and their friend Rob Staskiewicz, 45, have lived in the tunnels for two years. I had my own tent down there for a whole winter. That was bad, Staskiewicz said, rubbing his leg.

Their days are organised around the morning and evening commute when the traffic is in gridlock.

The best time is when it locks up, saids Rippi. You can make 80 to a hundred bucks in an hour easy. Rippi and Rick were planned to get married this month, a plan that has been put on hold while Rick is locked up. We all live out here together and keep each other safe. Ive been robbed out here. Its dangerous out here as single woman.

Robert

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  • Right: Rob Staskiewicz is a veteran who said he spent 17 years in prison. He was homeless for a long time but now has an apartment. He still panhandles to make money. Left: Staskiewicz presses on the soft spot in the side of his head that is a result of a fight where he fractured his skull.

Trained as a heavy-equipment operator, Staskiewicz has been out of work since he was caught by an MTA train and dragged along the platform, smashing his right leg. The side of his skull is now soft to the touch. Getting off drugs, he said, is not an option. With everything thats wrong with me, Ill always been on painkillers. Im a case by itself.

But under shadow of the Hudson Yards, Rippi, Rick and Staskiewicz have formed a community. Living in the tunnels sucks, man. Its horrible. You cant shower, you cant eat. Theres are people who only come out for supplies. You got tunnels uptown, you got subway tunnels that are cut off. Midtown is best cause theres the most people around.

When Hudson Yards is fully open business will improve, predicts Rippi. Its gonna be great. Theres gonna be more people, more money. So its gonna start really getting better. But you gotta pick the right spots. You dont want anywhere too high-profile or youll get chased off.

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  • A bed in an underground track for Long Island Railroad (LIRR), where many homeless people sleep north of Hudson Yards.

Tyson Williams, 45, has lived in the tunnels with his girlfriend Tricia for a couple of years. Home is a filthy mattress surrounded by garbage; work is scarce for him; for her its sex work. The couple preferred not to be photographed, at least not without the offer of cash a proposition the Guardian cannot accept.

As Hudson Yards starts on a new phase of construction, with hundreds of high-end residential units coming available and a new arts centre, The Shed, opening up last week, Williams can only look on in wonder. In the distance, he can see visitors climbing the $200m Vessel.

Its a beautiful thing but its not helping us, said Williams. This is meant to be the mecca of the United States. The melting pot. But how can your leave your citizens like this? Im not mad and hating on the people, but what about the original people here? Theres no way people should be living like this. We need a helping hand.

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  • Vicky and Scott in Midtown. The couple said that they had slept in tunnels in the past.

For Williams, its not that he does not want to work, its that his medical condition, which has caused him to lose part of his toes, prevents him. Its a familiar story, especially to the citys outreach services which, despite New York City mayor Bill De Blasios war on homelessness are reporting record numbers of people living rough in the metropolis.

Then theres Happy Feet, an African American middle-aged man who circles the grates in the sidewalk looking for a $100 bill he said lost he years ago. Theres C, who lives in a hut in an Amtrak tunnel and said he is mostly left alone by the authorities.

They dont mess with me. I got my own food, I got my own pantry. Fifteen years. I lived on 42nd street, had my own house. What had brought him down? The women brought me up, I brought myself down.

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  • A discarded wheelchair in an underground LIRR track, where many homeless people sleep near Hudson Yards.

Scott Polman has stayed in and around Hudson Yards for six years. Sometimes he sleeps on the ledge off the end of a subway platform at the end of the 7 line, almost directly under the Vessel.

Previously employed as an auto detailer in Las Vegas, a series of divorces and a heart condition that required a pacemaker to be placed in his chest, Polman said pedestrians have become less generous in the Trump years. Theyre walking around but theyre not really giving anything. Maybe a couple of bucks.

In December, De Blasio announced a new program, Turning the Tide, that aimed to reduce the 60,000 homeless in the city by building 90 new shelters as part of a plan to move homeless out of hotels and so-called cluster apartments.

I think weve done some really important things in terms of reducing street homelessness, but weve got a lot more to do and weve got to get the shelter population down, De Blasio remarked.

But the strength of those efforts have coming under scathing criticism from political opponents, among them former mayoral contender Christine Quinn, currently president of Women in Need.

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  • The landscape near 34th Street and 11th Avenue.

Demonizing homeless New Yorkers 70% of whom are mothers and children isnt only cruel, its disgusting and counterproductive to ending the most urgent crisis facing New York City today, Quinn said after a plan to build shelters in the outer boroughs was announced.

But to many, living on the street is preferable to city shelters where they face the threat of violence and robbery from other guests.

The Department of Homeless Services dont come down often, said Tyson, and when they do, they dont have much to offer. Maybe some clean clothes or a PowerBar, so its really rough. Youre going from sheets and bathing and eating to living with rats, skunks and squirrels and catching cold from living outside.

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