NEW YORK -- 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 laid him to rest Thursday at a New Jersey cemetery, 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 Columbus, Ohio, where his family settled after uprooting themselves from their native Gambia. 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 perpetrators. 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 insistent 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.”
Leo Gonzalez, who himself had recently lived on the streets, crossed paths with Coulibaly many times over the years. They talked about nothing just to while away time, or about staying safe from the elements and staying out of harm's way. Now and then, they would chat about the comforts of the homes they once knew.
Coulibaly had rejected the notion of returning to Ohio.
“He would always say, ‘No, I want to stay with my family that I have here,'” Gonzalez said, referring to his friend's little patch in Manhattan's lower eastside, at the corner of Canal and Lafayette streets, near where he died.
Gonzalez was among three dozen people who took part in a memorial Thursday for Coulibaly at the Bowery Mission, which over the years had provided shelter and services to the slain man.
“So often our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness are living lives of anonymous obscurity, thoroughly disconnected from community and family,” said James Winans, the chief executive officer of the mission, a nonprofit that provides shelter and services nightly to hundreds of New York City’s homeless.
“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 acknowledgement 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.”