Kitty-corner to the Chanel boutique at Spring and Wooster streets in Soho sits a vacant lot surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. Locked to the outside of the fence is what appears to be a black wooden Dumpster, tagged by a graffiti artist. It’s the kind of thing you see all over the city and think nothing of. But this wooden bin doesn’t hide trash cans — it houses a man.
“A lot of people come by with big bags on their shoulders and try to throw them out,” said secret resident Damian “Dean” Cummings, 39. They try to open the fake lid, only to realize it’s fixed (Cummings enters through a door on the side). “It’s really funny. One time I laughed a little too hard, and the guy was like, ‘Hello?!’ ”
Since June 2016, Cummings has lived in the box, which is insulated and weatherproof and fitted with shelving, carpeting and solar panels that power LED lights, a phone charger and even a hot plate. It measures 4 feet wide, 4 feet tall and 6-foot-3-inches long. Cummings is 6-foot-2. But he’s not complaining about his cramped living quarters.
“I’ve been ecstatic,” he told The Post. “Sitting in there feels like you are actually in a home.”
The human container is the brainchild of male models Shane Duffy, 37, and Phil Sullivan, 28, who was homeless before competing on “America’s Next Top Model” in 2013. The two decided in 2015 to found a charity, I Am Supported, that would raise money on social media and sponsor one homeless person at a time, with the goal of getting each one back on his or her feet. The men have filed paperwork to secure nonprofit status for the group.
They met Cummings during the deep freeze of February 2016 when they went undercover for four days as homeless men, filming footage for a potential future documentary and hoping to find their first sponsorship recipient.
At a Soho Starbucks, they struck up a conversation with Cummings, who told them about a good place to sleep on the Mercer Street loading docks, between Spring and Broome streets, and even shared blankets and food with them.
A week later the two tracked down Cummings and told him the truth: They weren’t actually homeless. And they wanted to help.
“We came back and said, ‘We’re grateful for what you did for us. We want to pay it forward,’ ” Duffy recalled. “Dean said, ‘What if you built something for me to live in?’”
Duffy, who also works as a contractor, thought that was impossible until a stroll in the East Village provided a eureka moment. “I noticed all of the Dumpsters attached to buildings,” he recalled. “Then it dawned on me — what if the home was hidden” in plain sight?
Duffy built the box at his contracting-business partner’s New Hyde Park, LI, shop for $1,500, splashing out on pressure-treated wood meant to withstand New York City’s winters.
The box was moved to Cummings’ preferred neighborhood of Soho, which he considers the safest streets in the city — first to Mercer and Broome for four months, then to its current location. For the most part, Cummings has gone undetected.
Duffy admitted he is shocked by how long the unit has lasted without being discovered.
“We thought the unit would last a week at best,” he said. “This was really a test.”
Two months ago, the police — alerted by a curious neighbors — called the Sanitation Department, but they ended up just warning Cummings to keep the area clean. Authorities haven’t bothered him since.
His home has been vandalized a bit. Recently someone put dog feces in the lock and smashed his solar panels. Graffiti artists have tagged it, and Cummings has painted over the mischief five times.
For the most part, though, “The people in the neighborhood are real nice and friendly,” he said. “One guy stuck a $20 bill in my padlock” while he was sleeping.
During the day, Cummings uses the restroom at Starbucks; at night, he urinates in a bottle inside the box. He showers at city churches where the needy can wash themselves and their clothes.
Having a place to lock up his possessions — including his laptop and clothing — has changed his life.
“Carrying your stuff around every day, even when you are looking for work, is ridiculous,” explained Cummings, who said he doesn’t panhandle or use drugs or alcohol. He earns cash by doing pick-up construction work or making occasional deliveries for local restaurants.
Because he has a protected space to keep his things, he added, “I’m able to find more work. It’s changed my life immensely.”
Previously, it had been more than seven years since he had a home.
A native of Trinidad, he moved to Toronto as a teen and then later to Yonkers. He butted heads with his family and moved from relative to relative while holdings jobs as a bike messenger, a bouncer and a door-to-door salesman.
But in 2007, Cummings’ transient lifestyle caught up with him when he discovered his legal-immigrant status had lapsed.
“I had put my [immigration] status in my family’s hands,” said Cummings, who was told by authorities that they sent a paperwork letter to a relative’s home. He never received it, and said he appealed to a state senator to no avail.
Without his papers, he said, he couldn’t work and ended up in the New York City shelter system. But he found the shelters too dangerous, so he moved to the streets of Soho, where he lived for four years before receiving his home.
Now, he loves watching downloaded episodes of “Homeland” on his laptop and cooking vegetarian meals on a hot plate in his box home.
Although telling the world his secret may mean Cummings loses his home, he’s ready.
“We wanted to raise awareness that there is a problem and that we thought outside the box to find a solution. And Dean says he wants to help the next person. That makes us want to help him even more,” said Duffy, who added that he and Sullivan will make sure Cummings has a place to live regardless.
And if the city is interested, Duffy is ready to build more units.
“There is no running water [in Cummings’ home], so I can see it being a sanitation issue with them. We would love to work with the city on something,” said Duffy.
“We found a way to get one person off the street. And we would do this again.”