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.
Giving Tuesday may have passed, but one homeless man is embracing his new role as a philanthropist after an inspiring act earned him hundreds of thousands of donated dollars.
Johnny Bobbitt, Jr., a former paramedic experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia, came to the aid of Kate McClure when her car ran out of gas on a strip of highway. Bobbitt walked two miles to the nearest gas station, used his last $20 to buy gas and delivered the fuel to McClure.
Instead of simply paying Bobbitt back, McClure shared the story and established a GoFundMe page that quickly went viral. Less than three weeks later, the fund has raised nearly $400,000 from 14,000 individuals inspired by the Good Samaritan act.Read More
As an offensive lineman for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, Joshua Garnett excels in one of the most macho cultures in the US, but he’s using his platform to tackle an issue long treated as too gross or too uncomfortable for men to talk about — periods and menstrual hygiene.
Garnett has teamed up with his sister Rachel’s organization Kitty Packs to help homeless women who experience “free bleeding,” which is what happens when a woman is unable to access expensive sanitary pads or tampons to manage her period.Read More
This lazy editorial encapsulates the New York Post's perception of homelessness in #NYC. To them, the only #homeless people are the prominent & disruptive—yet statistically small—group of men and women with mental illness on the street. Meanwhile, 22,885 kids slept in a DHS shelter last night.Read More
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.
On Thursday, I covered the annual City Council Candidates' forum at St. John's University for City Limits. The event gives Queens councilmembers and their primary challengers a chance to share their positions on a range of hot topics, including homelessness. Sixteen council candidates (including five incumbents) attended the event and each demonstrated
Anti-homeless policies (not necessarily anti-homelessness policies) appeal to a lot of voters, especially in the suburban, upper middle class districts near Long Island. For those candidates, it's not 'How will you address homelessness?' It's 'How will you keep homeless people out of our district'.
Here's an excerpt on homelessness from my article:
All candidates addressed the impact of homelessness in their districts, but few provided specific proposals for addressing the housing crisis. Instead, their responses contained varying shades of “NIMBY-ism” regarding shelter placement: few were willing to welcome shelters, though only District 32 overlaps with a community district that ranks among those with the highest ratio of shelter beds to population.
During the second session, Councilman Barry Grodenchik and challenger Concannon from District 23, candidate Anthony Rivers from District 27, candidates Mike Scala and William Ruiz from District 32 and candidates Adrienne Adams, Hettie Powell and Richard David from District 28 – a seat vacated by Ruben Wills’ corruption conviction – said new shelters shouldn’t be built in their home districts.
“We have been the dumping ground for everything that every other community does not want,” said Adams from District 28, which includes parts of Jamaica and South Ozone Park. “We continue to fight for equity. Everybody needs to bear this burden – not just Southeast Queens.”
Vallone, whose district spans Northeast Queens neighborhoods like Bayside and Little Neck, said he and other shelter opponents are not “bad guys” – their opposition reflects the need for more community participation in deciding where to place new shelters.
“We want to have a say in the process,” he said. “We’ve stopped every attempt to put them in our district because it doesn’t make sense. Make sure there’s input from everybody before you just stick one in our backyard.”
Graziano, the primary challenger, also said he opposed any shelters in District 19 and called Holden – president of the vocal Juniper Park Civic Association – a “hero” for confronting the mayor’s shelter expansion plan.
“Our area shouldn’t have any homeless shelters because there’s about forty homeless families in all the 19th Council District,” he said. “We need homeless shelters and we need affordable housing in the places that need them.” (The mayor has also expressed interest in siting shelters near to the places where homeless families live before becoming homeless.)
Meanwhile, Crowley and Holden each claimed responsibility for rejecting the use of a hotel to house homeless families in Maspeth, a flashpoint in the debate over housing homeless New Yorkers in commercial hotels and opening shelters in middle-income communities.
“We were out there every night protesting,” Holden said, as a small band of his supporters cheered. “We stopped that Holiday Inn.”
After moderators prompted candidates about what to do with vacant NYCHA units, Ruiz suggested filling the vacancies with homeless families.
“If we have a huge problem with the homeless and we have all these empty apartments, let’s fill them,” he said. “Instead of paying thousands of dollars to landlords, let’s fill in NYCHA.”
(NYCHA, according to a 2015 report, has a very low, one percent vacancy rate. The authority has committed to providing at least 1,500 units to homeless families each year through 2020, though some advocates would like to see even more given to homeless families.)
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.
A friend asked me that a while ago and I struggled to articulate a succinct answer. I talked about HIV's direction correlation with poverty and about discrimination against people of color and LGBTQ individuals who experience HIV/AIDS at a vastly disproportionate rate. I talked about the government's campaign of fear, neglect and prejudice at the onset of the crisis and the stigmatizing that persists 30+ years later.
I work at four sites for formerly homeless adults with HIV/AIDS so it was important for me to better explain the reason why people with HIV/AIDS deserve a strong safety net and government assistance.
Fortunately, a friend of a friend is a scientist researching the potential for immunotherapy – using the body's own natural defenses to fight disease, cancer or viruses – to treat or even cure HIV. So I asked her for a response. Here's what she said:
Picture a map of New York City where darker shades of red indicate poverty. The richest neighborhoods – Upper East Side, Cobble Hill, Tribeca, Forest Hills – would be faint pink. The poorest neighborhoods – Mott Haven, East New York, Brownsville – would be bright scarlet. Middle income neighborhoods – much of Western Queens, much of Staten Island, Kensington, Ocean Parkway – would be varying shades of red.
Now picture a map of HIV/AIDS prevalence in New York City where darker shades of red indicate a higher rate of HIV/AIDS. The HIV/AIDS map would look exactly the same as the poverty map, aside from Chelsea, a wealthy neighborhood with a high concentration of older gay men who survived the initial HIV/AIDS outbreak.
You could lay the HIV/AIDS map right on top of the poverty map and they'd be nearly identical.
It's a simple mental infographic for understanding just how closely HIV/AIDS correlates with poverty.
It helps to think of HIV/AIDS not as an STD or intravenous drug-using disease but as a disease of poverty prevented by access to financial opportunities and health care.
Now consider HIV/AIDS rates across the country. In The New York Times Magazine last week, Linda Villarosa described the startling rates of HIV/AIDS among gay and trans people of color in the South, a rate that exceeds even the African nations most ravaged by HIV/AIDS.
I envision my acquaintance's description of the poverty map stretched across the United States. The bright red areas where HIV/AIDS rates surge are concentrated around the South, places like Jackson, MI, Columbia, SC, El Paso, TX and Baton Rouge, LA.
Now lay a map of the poorest regions of the country on top of that HIV/AIDS map. The scarlet splotches that represent increasing rates of HIV/AIDS correspond with the the bright red poverty splotches that mottle the South, the region with the poorest states and cities in the country. With 22 percent of its population living below the poverty line, Mississippi has the highest rate of poverty in the nation.
Let's take the mental map infographic one step further.
Picture a map of healthcare access in the United States. States that have near-universal healthcare coverage like Massachusetts, Vermont and Rhode Island are pale pink. States with the highest percentages of uninsured citizens – Texas at nearly 17%, Georgia at 14% Mississippi at 13% – are bright red. These are the states that did not elect to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Again that map mimics the patches of red on the HIV/AIDS map.
Poverty, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare and HIV/AIDS are interconnected. Addressing the underlying causes of poverty can also serve as preventive Rx for HIV/AIDS, which will protect us all from illness and save on money on healthcare expanses. And, of course, it's the humane thing to do.
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).
The disorienting adventures of a social worker who envisions himself as more highly evolved – and with 'it' all figured out. [Inspired by real events]
We pulled into Penn Station and rushed off the train.
On the ivory tile, we noticed a stain.
A man on the floor like a spill or a smudge,
Which we all stepped around – the man didn't budge.
The manager knocked on the maintenance door,
And told them ‘Go clean up the mess on the floor.’
The janitors sick of such mopping and sweeping
Propped up a sign that said Caution: Man Sleeping.
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.
The City, State and Federal Government, in descending order, do a very poor job of helping those who experience homelessness get a home. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers contend with an insane rent burden (>50% of income on rent) and there's little relief in sight. The State has not fulfilled its commitment to affordable housing – a commitment announced to much fanfare by Gov. Cuomo in January 2016 – while the City has faced huge opposition from neighborhoods wary of any rezoning plan, even if creates affordable housing.
Yesterday, Dr. Kim Hopper – Columbia professor, cofounder of the National Coalition for the Homeless and an eminent activist-scholar on homelessness and homeless policy – wrote a CityViews editorial in which he summarized the seemingly intractable systemic roots of homelessness and expressed some cautious optimism about the efforts of the DeBlasio administration and some State lawmakers at homelessness PREVENTION:
Advocates argue that shelter should be a buffer, a last dignity-shielding redoubt, not a degrading penalty for failure to plan or cope. In a weak welfare state, it will probably never be that. But we can commit to making it a decent way-station, not a grim terminus. Better still would be targeting resources where they can do the most good—in prevention.
Unfortunately, because of out-of-control rent and little commitment to affordable housing development, shelters will remain an important part of dealing with the homelessness crisis, Hopper continued.
So there’s no evading this awkward truth: Whether as prevention, deterrence or respite, the shelter system will continue to anchor and belay the housing struggles of low-income New Yorkers. What was once a rude salvage operation targeting the disreputable poor is now an integral part of how those disfavored by fortune get by.
In such an environment, it’s folly to subscribe to “disparate missions” for housing and homelessness divisions within city government. It’s cynical for the state to play coy. Intensified preventive efforts and set-asides in existing housing will surely help; so would more rational institutional placement. But without a serious reckoning with what it will take to integrate affordable housing and shelter policy in the long run—and a significantly greater commitment from the city and state to creating housing affordable for those earning 30 percent of area median income or less—the specter of enduring mass homelessness will continue to haunt New York.
But if we can’t “build our way out of” this crisis, there is promising news on a parallel front. The “Housing Stability Support” policy being developed by State Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi draws upon the demonstrable success of a host of targeted (if often time-limited) rental subsidy programs, programs that have operated at varying degrees of visibility. Left to its own devices, of course, the private market is an inconstant partner. But the focus on enhanced demand (rental subsidies to be used in existing housing), in addition to expanded supply (developing affordable units as contingent “set asides”), is a welcome one. The devil, as always, will reside in the details.
I took me a while to comprehend that there are people who I will never agree with. We just have fundamental philosophical differences that we will never reconcile. I used to believe that goodwill and empathy eventually win out. That with enough exposure to alternate ideas and experiences with people who share those ideas, people will find middle ground or shift toward inclusiveness. Unfortunately, that isn't true.
In his book Don't Think of an Elephant, which discusses how liberals can effectively frame issues to present an inclusive, progressive moral vision for our country, George Lakoff writes:
"The . . . mistake is believing that, if only we could present facts about a certain reality in some effective way, then people would 'wake up' to that reality, change their personal opinion and start acting politically to change society . . . The reality is certain issues have to be ingrained in us – developed over time to create an accurate frame for our understanding."
Like the issue of health care.
Consider this excerpt from an interview with Iowa Rep. Steve King, who introduced the House bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, on NPR's All Things Considered last night:
HOST ROBERT SIEGEL: Donald Trump's adviser Kellyanne Conway recently told an interviewer, we don't want anyone who currently has insurance to not have insurance. Would that be for you the test of a new law or the test of what happens after Obamacare is repealed - no one who's gotten health insurance through Obamacare losing it under its repeal and replacement?
KING: I think that's a fine and shining ideal, but it wouldn't be my standard. We have about 20 million people that they say would be pushed off of Obamacare if we just repealed it and did nothing. I look at the numbers on the 20 million. It's about 10.8 million that were pushed onto Medicaid, and so I don't really look at Medicaid as a health insurance policy that you own.
I would argue there is no constitutional - you have no right to a health insurance policy. Whatever our hearts tell us, we can provide those things, but there's not a right to them. The roughly 9.2 million people that are insured under Obamacare that would presumably lose their insurance if it were repealed - they're living under a subsidized premium, and that subsidized premium is paid for almost a hundred percent by the taxpayers.
"You have no right to a health insurance policy." That is simply an ideological position I fundamentally oppose.
Health care is a human right.
In our society, access to health care largely depends on access to health insurance because without health insurance, we tend to forgo health care, settle for haphazard remedies and neglect preventive care. Therefore, there is an implied right to a health insurance policy because that policy is a prerequisite for affordable, appropriate and necessary health care.
Lakoff chastises liberal leaders for failing to present the right to health care as a moral imperative and for not reaching enough people with their vision.
"Conservatives understood that politics is a matter of morality and decided to attack [the Affordable Care Act on moral grounds. They chose two moral domains: Freedom and Life. On Freedom, they attacked it as a "government takeover." On Life, they said it contained "death panels." And they repeated "government takeover" and "death panels" over and over, month after month. And every time the president said "It is not a government takeover" he used the words government takeover, which activated the idea of a government takeover, thus reinforcing the conservative attack."
"If the president had understood the conservative framing tactic, he could have undercut it in a simple way. He could have adopted the same two moral issues, Freedom and Life, from a progressive perspective."
"If you have cancer and you don't have health care, you are not free. You are probably going to die (a Life issue) . . . Even if you break your leg, do not have access to health care and cannot get it set, you are not free . . . Ill health enslaves you. Disease enslaves you."
Seven years later, is the rejection of the ACA still an issue of insufficient framing and presentation? Or is that rejection actually a GOP rallying cry, a piece of conservative canon, a repudiation of Obama and progressivism fueled by mythical individualism and infused by racism against the perceived undeserving recipients of Obamacare (poor people of color)?
I think commentators tend to overstate the framing argument. I think a certain segment of the population would reject anything Obama championed or achieved.
But with Trump and the GOP about to invalidate expanded health coverage, kick millions off health insurance and prevent millions more from obtaining affordable coverage, I constantly dwell on the threat to Life and Freedom, as Lakoff put it.
Poor people who lose or who are denied health insurance –– like those covered by the ACA Medicaid expansion or those who do not get coverage from their jobs but received access to subsidized health insurance through the ACA –– will suffer injuries and illnesses catastrophic to their health, their finances and their tenuous housing. Many people live paycheck to paycheck and spend a significant chunk of their income on rent or mortgage – often more than half their income. If they incur a medical expense - such as an ER visit or diagnosis of a chronic illness – and lack health insurance, they will owe thousands of dollars that they do not have. They can't pay the bill and their rent at the same time. The medical debt collectors will never let them off the hook. So they'll have to stop spending money on other things, like housing. In other words, they won't be able to afford rent or mortgage payments.
So health insurance preserves peoples' finances and enables them to afford housing. Coverage preserves their life and freedom. Conservatives either don't consider that position or don't care. Many of them will never change their minds. So we have to stand up for our convictions and outnumber them.
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.
The New York Post loves homelessness. The paper uses stock images of disheveled men with matted beards and old sneakers shuffling along the sidewalk as a weapon against the leaders, laws and causes they oppose. Look at their Rotting Apple coverage. It's basically a series of photographs of adults in dirty clothes napping in uncomfortable positions with some unflattering photos of Bill de Blasio at press conferences mixed in. Homeless person - de Blasio. HomelesspersondeBlasioHomelesspersondeBlasioHomelessdeBlasio. Get it?
Even stories that seem like red meat for scandalized conservatives immediately adapt an unexpected anti-de Blasio bent. In December, cops cleared a group of men from the area beneath the MetroNorth tracks on Park Ave. in East Harlem. After sanitation workers threw out their possessions, including vital documents, the men sued the city. The city, meanwhile, claimed the men had slept on school grounds, which created an unsafe environment for kids.
In that case, I would expect the Post to just hammer the quality-of-life angle: homeless men are invading our children's schools??? Rotting Apple indeed! Instead, they ignored that easy narrative in favor of another. Here's the very first quote from the story:
Morales became homeless when Guiliani was in office? He was homeless through all three of Bloomberg's terms? The Post exploits homelessness to stoke anger among their small-minded audience?
It's almost like they have an agenda.
Earlier this week, the city agreed to pay the men $1,515. The short Post story features a large picture of a homeless stereotype above a few words.
It's uncomfortable and depressing to consider the roots of a social problem because that means taking a broad view and not just defaulting to individual experiences or anecdotal information ("I knew this one guy in high school who was super lazy, dropped out and never wanted to get a job– no wonder he kept getting evicted and ended up back at his mom's house."). It's also straight-up hard. We have to devote time to learning, reading and listening; we have to challenge some of our default narratives and biases.
We only have so much capacity for compassion, so much attention to give! Digging into the complex causes of homelessness is time-consuming and confusing. It's way easier to direct our attention and outrage to the nasty symptoms of poverty, like a guy pissing on the street, or the sad consequences of poverty, like two little girls burned to death in a steam explosion. Lucky for us, that particular story has a very convenient plot line: Apparently, the girls' parents abused drugs. Therefore, we can blame them for killing their daughters because if they didn't use drugs, they wouldn't be poor. If they weren't poor, they wouldn't have had to live in a shelter. If they didn't live in a shelter, their kids wouldn't have been burned to death. If that sounds cruel, know that a lot of people hold on to that notion. We gotta blame someone and it's just so much easier to blame a specific person or family. Check out the comments on this blog post to see those thought-processes at work.
That kind of blame narrative is also very helpful for distracting us from the roots of homelessness.
It goes like this: Shelters are shitty and poor people are disgusting with no self respect. Comfortably focus your anger on that shit instead of deeper causes of homelessness.
Again, we only have so much attention to pay, so much critical thinking time to invest. Why sink it all into understanding uncomfortable, complex crap when we don't have to? It's certainly not regarded as a social responsibility.
Growing up in a small, conservative, rural town, I was constantly exposed to those simple, convenient responses, usually presented as anger, world-weariness and superiority. From a pretty young age, I knew that blaming poor people for poverty or ranting about more superficial storylines didn't seem accurate or honest. I couldn't put my finger on it and I definitely didn't have the vocabulary to express what I sensed, but I could tell that there were structures and systems that punished, obstructed and screwed certain people while rewarding others. In order to understand better, I needed to keep questioning the simple narratives and seeking the alternative ideas and explanations. These were generally more comprehensive and certainly more accurate.
It's hard to break away from the easy-to-parrot narratives, especially if you're young and lack a foundation of knowledge. I needed jump-off points to better understand and to express my positions. Reading the 2016 State of the Homeless report composed by the Coalition for the Homeless reminded me of my early experience with struggling to put words and arguments behind what I perceived. It is a clear and concise resource we all need.
This particular paragraph, for example, serves as a handy summation of a key cause of homelessness:
Rents in New York City once again soared in 2015, the market continued to hemorrhage affordable units, and incomes have not kept pace with housing costs – most significantly for the lowest-income New Yorkers. Between 2010 and 2014, the median household income across New York City rose by 2 percent, while the median rents rose 14 percent. In the lowest-income neighborhoods, the median income decreased by nearly 7 percent, while rents rose by 26 percent. At the same time, the number of units renting for less than $1,000 (including both regulated and unregulated units) decreased by over 175,000. This dramatic and growing gap between incomes and rents continues to drive countless New Yorkers into financial crisis, all too often culminating in homelessness.
The bad news is, ending homelessness requires prioritizing affordable housing (attitudinal change) and then actually building and preserving an adequate amount of truly affordable permanent housing (policy and system change). That's a lot of work.
The good news is, it's possible to end homelessness because homelessness/poverty is not an inherent trait. Massive homelessness is the obvious outcome of bad housing policies and trends, which we can change.
I think those who are new to advocating against homelessness might start from those two positions and then fill in the details.
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.