This is a zine I put together a few months ago with poems and art based on my travels throughout The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Newark. The poems are inspired by observations and one in particular, The Rationale, is based on common justifications for not helping the homeless. It's about how we turn our discomfort into anger and prejudice when we see a street-homeless person whose existence forces us to confront injustice.
If we start with the premise that housing is a basic human right we cannot accept homelessness. It's simple. And yet not one municipality in the country considers permanent housing a human right.
New York City is going through a humanitarian crisis with more than 60,000 people staying in municipal homeless shelters each night. In addition, countless others experience housing instability but are not counted in the official homelessness figures because they're not logged by a city agency. They crash with friends, family, acquaintances and strangers or they sleep on the street or the subway or church steps.
But it could be worse. New York City, at the very least, provides shelter to anyone who needs it. It is the only municipality in the country that guarantees shelter to anyone in need based on a 1979 ruling known as Callahan v. Carey, after the lead plaintiff - a homeless man - and the then-governor of New York.
Seattle is also experiencing its own homeless crisis right now. More than 12,700 people live on the streets, in cars, in dangerous encampments or in shelters. A study conducted by Zillow rates Seattle as having the third highest homeless population in the country after only New York and Los Angeles. Seattle is more than ten-times smaller than New York.
Moon said she does support a mandate. Durkan proposes 700 new shelter beds but said she does not support a legal right to shelter.
The effect, she said in a statement, would be “diverting millions of dollars in scarce resources to warehousing people experiencing homelessness in sometimes degrading shelters rather than providing people the housing they need to permanently exit homelessness."
I hear what she's saying - shelters are notoriously nasty and potentially dangerous. But why do they have to be?
More importantly, why build and guarantee shelters when we can build and guarantee housing?
We severely limit our thinking and capacity for innovation when it comes to homelessness, here in New York City and across the country in Seattle. We allow shelters to remain dirty and dangerous, even as families with children comprise the majority of the homeless population.
We say the city doesn't have enough money to build affordable housing for the homeless, but we don't seem to analyze whether that's true. Or what it would take to build housing. We dismiss the idea as unrealistic — it's not. We just don't have the will to accomplish it.
We point to NYCHA and say city-operated housing is inevitably crappy and unsafe. But it doesn't have to be. We don't have the will to fix and maintain public housing.
We need to expand our thinking and consider how the city can compel private developers to build truly affordable housing. Or how the city can build the housing itself.
Expanding our minds also means that we cannot accept subhuman conditions for people in homeless shelters as though it's a natural phenomenon.
Homelessness is not natural; it's a human-made crisis. One that we could address immediately — if only we had the will to.
But right now, it's news when a long shot candidate in Seattle musters the will to pledge temporary shelter for all.
Earlier this week, I wrote a story about nutritional deficits for young people in foster care as well as young adults aging out with limited social supports for City Limits. People who have experienced foster care speak about entering adulthood – 'the real world' – without the soft skills (cooking, hygiene, cleaning, using health insurance) that people with consistent family structures tend to take for granted. Guardians either model behaviors or remain readily available to share guidance about confusing adult topics.
Young people who have been in the foster care system experience a higher rate of preventable health problems, like diabetes and hypertension, than their peers, even when compared to other low-income young adults who did not spend time in foster care.
There are some supportive housing sites for young people who have aged out of foster care. They also receive priority for NYCHA vacancies. But many fall through the cracks, either neglected by foster agencies or eager to leave the system and never look back. That means people who spent time in the foster care system have a higher risk of becoming homeless and thus a higher risk for the related health problems.
I peeled my face off my phone this morning and noticed eight people slumped in the subway sleeping, each person spaced just about evenly through the car – an old one with the red, yellow and orange seats; the faux wood paneling.
One, a hipster in a blue peacoat and brown desert boots who clutched the canvas knapsack on his lap. He roused himself near 125th Street and headed above ground.
The others, well, they at least looked homeless, hunched in a light blue pleather jacket, bulging workboots, a natty patchwork skirt under a brown trench coat.
with layers. Too many layers on a 70-degree day. Black winter coats over hoodies with scarves dangling to the floor.
This must be the quiet car.
The A Train at 9:30 am may be the ideal subway for sleeping as it completes its route from Far Rockway to Inwood with long, uninterrupted periods between a few stops. The cars rock gently, squeak lightly as the train whooshes under Central Park. Too early for Showtime, too late for work. Out of the shelter and down underground.
With bags. Shopping bags on the nearby seat or on the floor, tucked under the chair.
The ideal subway for sleeping. What amenities. What solitude.
An old woman in an inflated beret like a bowling ball rested her head on her chest and tried to sleep.
Department of Homeless Services security guards – called peace officers or special officers – earn a starting salary of $31,482/year to maintain order at shelters where many of the residents have severe mental illness and where everyone experiences the anxieties, agitations and heightened stress levels associated with poverty. At family shelters, young children mingle with teens and adults and domestic violence is common. So is substance use.
Here is a list of special working conditions copy and pasted from the DHS Special Officer application:
"Some of the physical activities performed by Special Officers and environmental conditions experienced are: working outdoors in all kinds of weather; walking and/or standing in an assigned area during a tour; driving or sitting in a patrol car during a tour while remaining alert; running after a fleeing suspect; climbing up stairs; may assist in carrying an injured adult; gripping persons to prevent escape; restraining a suspect by use of handcuffs; may be required to detect odors such as those caused by smoke or gas leaks; engaging in hand to hand struggles to subdue a suspect resisting arrest; being physically active for prolonged periods of time; understanding verbal communication over a radio with background noise; reading and writing under low light conditions; carrying or wearing heavy equipment and wearing a bullet-resistant vest."
It's a demanding, physical job. As the face of authority and of the shelter itself, peace officers tend to bear the brunt of shelter residents' anger. Yet, they lack the de-escalation training of a social worker or the authority of a police officer. Social service staff and mental health workers do not spend nights at the shelters - the special officers are the only ones there. The officers deserve extensive social service training and support to better work with clients who experience emotional disturbances as well as those who need to save face and never back down from perceived challenges. Meanwhile, residents deserve compassion, patience and understanding of their day-to-day frustrations, including those that stem from discomfort, powerlessness and lack of solitude.
Two days ago, the City announced that the NYPD will broaden oversight at city shelters and assign additional cops to manage the whole force of 771 peace officers. This could be a positive development: NYPD will provide more training on working with emotionally disturbed persons (EDP) and victims of abuse. The move will likely foster more accountability.
Nevertheless, When the law enforcement presence increases, arrests increase. The new chain of command could lead to many unintended consequences.
For every 'bad apple' violent offender who makes the environment dangerous or unhealthy for everyone else, there are certainly many more low-level offenders whose minor misdeeds (open containers, sex work, marijuana use) ensnare them in the criminal justice system. That's what happens at public schools where the presence of police officers means the criminal justice system now punishes issues (like petty theft or hallway scuffles) previously handled in-house by the school. That has led to more children and young adults yoked with records that weigh them down for life, lead to more severe sentences after violations (accumulating offenses or 'strikes') and inhibit employment and housing opportunities.
NYPD Deputy Chief Edward Thompson said the new oversight structure will promote collaboration between peace officers and police. Again, that is a mix of good and bad.
Would police encourage peace officers to carry broken windows policing into shelters in order to make more arrests for minor quality of life violations? Would they impose a form of indiscriminate stop-and-frisk? Would police and collaborating peace officers safely and reasonably manage individuals with mental illness? Or would they try to overpower emotionally disturbed people rather than patiently work with them?
Last year, NYPD officers, plus cops from New Jersey and Long Island, combed shelter rolls to hunt residents with outstanding warrants. Such warrants often relate to unpaid citations for quality of life violations like open containers or public urination, the violations that already disproportionately punish low-income people. Such fines also pose a more severe financial burden to the working poor or individuals on a fixed income.
Perhaps this is a smart structural change when we consider the sprawling, unsafe shelter system, but, we gotta remember, the move does not treat the core issues of an over-reliance on temporary shelters and the failure to prioritize and develop permanent supportive housing. It's just a different style of managing the warehouse.
Bottom line: However the City restructures the security system within shelters, we really, really need more supportive services to assist homeless individuals and to prevent homelessness. A smaller homeless population means fewer problems at overcrowded homeless shelters.
Friends sometimes ask me what do when they encounter “homeless people” panhandling on the subway or street. Should they give money? Should they feel guilty about not giving?
I think it’s up to each individual to make that decision for themselves (so do other homeless advocates). I also inform my friends that not everyone asking for money is homeless. I have run into a few of my housed clients on the subway or the street before. Personally, I think your money would go further if you donated to a homeless services agency or a food bank. You could save up the money you'd otherwise hand out dollar-by-dollar to individuals and instead donate larger sums to the organizations working for homeless and poor people. Here are a few organizations to check out:
Now the guilt question. I don't think we need to feel guilty about not giving money to each individual who asks for it, but I think we probably should feel guilty that anyone in our rich-as-hell city needs to ask for money to survive. Every single day, I encounter panhandlers on the subway and it really sucks. I am crammed in this uncomfortable tube, the doors open and a person enters asking for money or food. Now I’m forced to consider social inequities, discrimination, mistreatment and indifference. I feel helpless.
What if society ensured that everyone had what they needed to survive and thrive: a home, healthy food, medical care, mental health care, substance use treatment, jobs. What if we ended homelessness? What if we guaranteed permanent housing to all people? What if we valued social service organizations and budgeted enough federal, state and city money to enable them to serve those in need?
Maybe the best question is, How can we answer those other questions?
To start, I think we can identify some worthy organizations and donate money to them (not old crappy clothes, not boxes of pasta – money). Next, we can encourage our lawmakers to actually talk about poverty and homelessness. We can educate ourselves about solutions to homelessness (like MORE HOUSING and MORE HOUSING VOUCHERS). And we can elect leaders who will seriously work toward those solutions.
Think of it this way: We'd sure have a more comfortable subway ride.