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.
I noticed two stories about voting among the homeless this week that reminded me of my experience organizing a voter registration drive at an organization that serves homeless teenagers and young adults. The first, in City & State, asks the question "Do the Homeless Vote?" and details the various barriers – including polling site confusion and inconsistent addresses – that can prevent homeless people from heading to the polls in New York City. In the second, "I'm Homeless and I Vote" - from the Seattle magazine The Stranger - a former business owner who is now homeless in the Seattle area describes the experience of modern homelessness and the lack of response from politicians to the root causes of homelessness like poverty and limited affordable housing.
From City & State:
The homeless often move in and out of homelessness, and by definition often do not have a fixed residence, but [the National Coalition for the Homeless] estimates that only 10 percent of homeless people actually vote in a presidential election. Among the U.S. population as a whole, it’s about 60 percent.
Income statistics reveal an unsurprising trend. New Yorkers in households making less than $25,000 a year, which includes many homeless people, made up 21 percent of the state’s population in 2014, but less than 15 percent of its voters.
When I worked at a drop-in center for homeless LGBTQ teenagers and young adults in Northern Manhattan, I organized a month-long voter registration drive in Spring 2016, just in time for the New York State presidential primaries. I printed a bunch of voter registration forms and went table to table during breakfast and lunch encouraging people to sign up. I ended up registering about 25 people, including a few staff members, and I used agency postage to mail the forms before the primary deadline. It was easy to do, but it was one of the most satisfying things I've accomplished in my social service career.
Skepticism was a problem. Many of the young people parroted the familiar "What's the point? My vote doesn't matter" refrain. I couldn't blame them — they were mostly gay and trans people of color kicked out of their homes and discriminated against because of their identities. Many were skeptical that a politician would genuinely represent them.
Sometimes, however, peer pressure overwhelmed their guardedness. Excited teenagers won over those lunchtime companions who affected a hardened cynicism.
The other, much more tangible problem was what address the young people should include on their registration form. Some stayed at the drop-in center overnight when there was space. Others lived in transitional housing or engaged in survival sex, spending the night with strangers in exchange for sex. Meanwhile, others crashed with friends or slept on the street and in the subway. Overall, few maintained consistent addresses. The City & State piece addresses this issue.
I recommended that the individuals without a stable address list the address of the drop-in center or a friend's house where they often stayed.
One young transgender man was particularly excited to vote. For a few weeks leading up to the election, he discussed the research he was doing and the tough decision of whether to vote for Bernie or Hillary.
Yet, on election day, he seemed reluctant to visit the polling place. I reminded him how excited he had been for weeks, but he still seemed apprehensive. It took me a little while to realize that he was nervous to vote for the first time. He wanted some support.
So I said I wanted to check out the energy near the polling place and suggested I walk over with him. He agreed to accompany me and we walked a few blocks to a school. As we approached, I told him how to check in to the table by last name and that he didn't need to show ID. I remembered the first time I voted when I was 18 — I also felt scared to try something new, to make a mistake, to be an adult.
Finally, the young man started to walk inside and I told him I'd see him when he returned to the drop-in.
"You're not going to wait for me?" he asked, betraying his apprehension.
"Na, you don't need me," I said. "You've already done the work getting here."
He laughed nervously, said I was right and walked inside.
A half hour later, he returned to the drop-in center bubbling with energy. He showed off his 'I Voted' sticker and shared the experience with other clients, encouraging them to register and vote in November's general election.
It was beautiful.
So how to replicate this experience, especially among young people and new voters?
We have to make it easier for transient individuals to update an address and we have to provide support on Election Day. Bureaucracy and governmental proceedings can be intimidating, especially for people long screwed by policy and by those in power. We always hear that we 'should' go vote, but we rarely hear about the actual (pretty simple) process.
Here are two solutions:
1.) Make voter registration a part of the intake process at shelters, social service organizations and supportive housing sites.
2.) Go to the polls as a team. Social service staff can rally a group of new voters to serve as a support system, arrange a time to head to the polling place and get an experienced voter to lead them.
Here is an excerpt:
Four Attributes of an Effective Program
During the past year, I have identified four core attributes of the programs that effectively foster an atmosphere of health within the community and that enable individuals to attain their physical health, mental health, and recovery goals.
First, the programs provide preventive, holistic healthcare by addressing chronic health problems proactively—a key to improving quality of life and reducing emergency room visits.
Second, the programs fuse fitness with mental health in a setting that contrasts the traditional seated, face-to-face counseling experience. The transference experience is quite different when a client and worker chat while pedaling stationary bicycles next to one another. Individuals often seem more comfortable talking while exercising and frequently share information with me that they have not yet talked about with their social workers or case managers. For example, a client recently disclosed to me how his family dynamics influence his substance use while he rested between sets of 10 push-ups. I am able to discuss such experiences with clients and encourage them to share these issues with their social workers.
Third, clinical evidence indicates that exercise serves as an effective tool in the substance abuse intervention toolkit by affecting the brain’s reward system and serving as a positive, non-drug reinforcer (Smith & Lynch, 2012). In a practical sense, exercise provides a structured alternative to substance use during the period in which one prepares for and engages in it.
Fourth, exercise programs build community among staff and tenants and promote egalitarianism in the client-worker relationship. Typical barriers disintegrate when a case manager and client try to complete one last squat or shoulder press together.
Shelter population data obtained from the New York City Department of Homeless Services through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request demonstrates that less than 5% of the city shelter population provided a most recent zip code outside New York City on February 28, 2017.
Nearly as many people provided the Bronx zip code of 10456 (2,252) – which includes parts of Morrisania and Claremont Village – and the Brooklyn zip code of 11207 (1,910) – which covers parts of Bushwick, East New York and Brownsville – as provided 'No Verifiable Associated NYC Address' (2,278).
I went down to the subway at about 6:30 this morning and came across the remains of a campsite just outside the turnstile.
I rarely ride the train so early and, in four years, I have never encountered an intimate scene like this at my local station. A new box of toothpaste sits in a plastic basket. There's a 2L bottle of Coke – with a few sips left – and a package of disposable razors in a cardboard box on top of a bathrobe. The not-quite-empty bowl of soup and the frozen, half-eaten banana seem to suggest that the squatter left in a hurry. What made them leave?
I wonder if they'll come back for their stuff.
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.
Maybe it seems like homelessness is a superficial wound that affects only the very poorest people while the rest of us thrive, unscathed. But, actually, homelessness infects society to its core:
- It strains our economic resources (spot-treatment for homelessness is expensive).
- It disintegrates our quality of life (it sucks to encounter the street-homeless whose very existence forces us to confront systemic failures and random inequities).
- And it challenges our very identity as caring individuals. If we were caring people, wouldn’t we do something to end homelessness and uphold the human right of housing?
Fortunately, homelessness is preventable, treatable and curable. And ending homelessness is cost-effective.
"We can end homelessness in a matter of years, not decades," Care for the Homeless Policy Director Jeff Foreman told me. "It would cost less to end homelessness than we’re spending right now to not end homelessness."
According to the Coalition for the Homeless, more than 127,652 unique people, including more than children, slept in a New York City shelter in FY2016. The 2016 Mayor's Management Report (p. 96) found that the average cost of housing a single adult homeless person in a shelter was $94.57 in FY2016. The average daily number of homeless adults in NYC shelters FY2016 was 12,727. That's $1,203,592.39 per day and $439,311,222.35 for the year.
The average cost of housing a family with children was $120.22 and the average number of families with children in the shelter 12,089. That's $1,453,339.58 per day and $530,468,946.70 for the year.
All together, that's about $1 billion a year to NOT provide permanent housing.
There is no free alternative, but there are ways to satisfy our humanitarian impulse to house homeless AND our straight-up financial interests at the same time. It's pretty easy: PROVIDE HOUSING TO PEOPLE WITHOUT HOUSING.
One solution is to develop more supportive housing units to provide housing for homeless people. Supportive housing is permanent housing with social service and mental health support on site. It's not a hand-out; tenants pay rent – typically 30% of their income with Section 8 providing the additional 70%. Individuals who earn more money, pay a higher proportion of their rent. Some pay 100%. (I had a tenant who served in the military for more than thirty years. He earned more from his pension than I earned from my job. Yet he had experienced homelessness. He paid the market-rate rent, but he valued the social services and the camaraderie within the building).
An oft-cited 2014 report by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Human Resources Administration and Office of Mental Health stated that supportive housing saves taxpayers $10,100 per person just the first year that the people are housed, which is generally the least stable year for people in permanent housing.
That report doesn't even account for the various secondary economic benefits of supportive housing, such as how housing stability promotes employment and educational attainment or how the individuals living in permanent housing become active consumers in their neighborhoods.
Homelessness isn't just a tragedy, it's an unnecessary financial burden we can solve right now.