Data obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request suggests less than 5% of shelter population from out-of-town

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).

There’s a work requirement for the right to the opportunity to access your rights

We’re discerning with our rights here in the United States. Critics might call it stingy, but that’s because they’re extravagant suckers, handing out rights to everyone and their immigrant mother.

You have to earn your rights here in this country.

You don’t have a right to your rights. Rights are a privilege and we’re teaching you responsibility and gratitude by distributing them in increments.

I’ve read the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I know that Article 25 states:

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

But that’s just phony universalist BS. Where’s the incentive to work if food, clothing, housing, medical care and social services are all guaranteed??? Whenever my kid tells me he's hungry, I'll just tell him to go into the kitchen, grab a red pen and punch up the verbs on his resume.

I concede that some rights are sacred. Like the right to a work requirement. We are, of course, bestowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and a work requirement to access a basic standard of living. What does that work requirement mean in practice? Who the fuck knows? Citizens have debated it since the nation's founding.

I think it means that if you find yourself homeless, you gotta be a cashier at a Dollar Tree to get a studio apartment. Or maybe that, if you can't afford healthcare for your children, you have to fold Little Caesars pizza boxes for at least 35 hours a week to enable them to see a pediatrician. Something like that. Who cares. WORK REQUIREMENT. Just flows off the tongue all easy and memorable the way the Framers intended. 

Now, if you're asking about an individual's right to work, you're asking the wrong question (again, we don’t just give out rights all willy-nilly).

Right to Work actually refers to the unalienable right of employers to erode the workers' rights that don't really apply anymore. Like the right to organize. Or to receive compensation when your hand gets crushed by a pallet of Ragu jars.

Still confused? I recently came across this opinion piece in the New York Times by Howie Husock, vice president of the  Manhattan Institute, a think tank that pumps out vital policy papers about why basic human rights are dependent on low-wage work at corporate behemoths.

Husock captures how this notion of a "right to housing" actually harms homeless kids and inspires them to be unemployed and pregnant later in life:

“For the families with children — many headed by single parents who had been doubled-up with family but were not literally on the street -- our strategies [for housing] should not be the same [as with single adults with mental illness]. We must acknowledge the risk that offering housing units will increase demand and even the formation of more such households, which are often homes to children who will face toughest type of poverty and greatest economic disadvantage. In other words, the “homeless” family problem is actually a subset of our challenge in assisting low-income, single-parent families without encouraging their formation.

Indeed, we must take care to avoid the risk that expanded government benefit programs—such as housing based on the combination of low-income and the presence of dependent children—may discourage the steps that will help improve a household’s long-term economic condition. As the University of Maryland poverty researcher Douglas Besharov observed in 2013 Congressional testimony, “Means-tested benefit programs undermine much of the good they do because their very structure creates substantial disincentives to work and marriage.”

This guy gets it. If a four-year-old had a job, she wouldn't be homeless. These kids needs to learn that there’s a work requirement for the right to the opportunity to access your rights. It just makes sense.

Health care is a right, which makes health insurance a right, which saves people money, which enables them to afford housing

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.

Here's Lakoff: 

"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. 

 

The New York Post loves homelessness

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: 

“I’m praying to God because I don’t believe in Mayor de Blasio,” said Jesus Morales, 42, who has lived on the street since 1999.

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. 

We only have so much attention to pay and critical-thinking time to invest. How we gonna use it?

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. 

Overpowering our convenient, default thought-processes

What did he do become homeless – What bad decisions? What drugs?

That is often still my first impulse when encountering a homeless person. I default to blaming the individual for his or her circumstances. And I’m a social worker!

I know that I’ve been conditioned to respond like that. I think we all have. It’s convenient and it offers a pat, comforting explanation for someone else’s horrible, complicated situation – They did it to themselves. Phew. Thus we cling to the easy narrative.  

It takes some education and experience to override that programming. I say “override” instead of “deprogram” because we can’t get rid of old neural pathways, we can only build newer, stronger, more appropriate ones that overpower the regressive, untenable ones.

The new, stronger pathway enables us to understand homelessness as a complex social problem that screws individuals, not an individual problem that inconveniences society.

I met a formerly homeless man the other day who told me he became homeless after years of "drinking, smoking weed and doing the wrong thing." For years, his brief, rehearsed story has likely served as a simple explanation to satisfy others.

How the hell does drinking and smoking weed explain homelessness? We all drink, smoke weed and do the wrong thing. Everyone of my friends and I would be homeless if all it took was binge-drinking. But we’re not homeless because we all have families with money [a safety net], an expectation of success [the benefit of the doubt] and a society set up to swaddle and coddle us [power].

It’s just a lot easier to tap into the narrative of ‘“irresponsibility” through substance abuse to explain homelessness. Dig a little beyond the superficial story to consider the real causes of homelessness and it gets depressing and uncomfortable.

That man could easily say, “I became homeless because society doesn’t consider housing a human right. My family was poor so I did not inherit wealth. I worked – I worked very hard for many hours – but did not earn a living wage. My income did not keep pace with my rent and the cost of living in the most expensive city in the country. When I could no longer afford to rent my apartment, I had to leave. I could not find another affordable apartment because thousands of people are trying to get the same tiny number of affordable housing units. I became homeless. I drank and smoked weed more when I became homeless because it was a cheap way to ease my anxiety and mood, which worsened because not having a home is fucking hard.”

This New Year’s Eve, I propose that we all resolve to overcome our convenient, default thought-processes when we consider homelessness. We can shake ourselves back to reality and logic when we catch ourselves tapping into the tired narratives that comfort us (“That person deserves to be homeless”).

To more easily accomplish this, we can start with the premise that housing is a human right and everyone deserves a home, regardless of their decisions (and then with the fact that we don’t even know what their decisions were).