I remember traveling to Harlem for the first time and being slightly scared. I took the 4 train to 125th Street and walked out towards the Metro-North train tracks. I remember a long stretch of chain link fencing surrounding a vacant lot on Martin Luther King Boulevard, and the vagrants and idlers leaning against it or lying down on the sidewalk beside it. I wasn’t sure what they were up to, but it certainly wasn’t any good. At the time, I was looking for a new apartment, and I wondered if I would fit into Harlem. There seemed to be a wide chasm, socio-economic and behavioral and cultural, separating me from the people beside the chain-link fence.
I ended up moving to Harlem anyway. Several months after I had started living there, a pair of friends came to visit me. They live in London, in a quiet, suburban, leafy home about an hour from the city center. We went on a walk to the Post Office, and ventured underneath the same set of train tracks. It was a weekend, and there was a tent set up on the sidewalk providing services to the local population – food, medical treatment, and a sympathetic ear. My friend seemed to have the same Harlem moment that I did, remarking “You certainly picked an interesting place to live.” I replied, “It helps me keep in touch.”
It’s almost a cliché to say that New York is an exceedingly unequal city. But I think it bears repeating because the inequality isn’t always immediately evident. There is a hidden city within The City, as Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker. On one side of my apartment is an “Addicts Rehabilitation Center”. But just a few blocks away is a WeWork and a soon-to-be-opened Whole Foods and one of the hottest restaurants in New York. The New Yorker mapped out income inequality in the city by subway stop. The stop I got off at during my inaugural journey to Harlem is one of the poorest in the city, with a median household income of $15000. Just one express stop away is 86th Street, nestled in the heart of the Upper East Side, with a median household income in the six digits.
Frazier unveils the Hidden City in rich detail in his essay. I found one passage particularly affecting:
In Bedford-Stuyvesant, I got off a C train at Nostrand Avenue and walked a few blocks to the vast old armory building that is now the Bedford-Atlantic men’s shelter. People in soup-kitchen lines have told me that this is one of the worst shelters in the city. Sunlight glinted on its acres of gray slate roof, and its crenellated tower stood out against the sky. The guy I met here is Marcus (Country) Springs, originally from Lake City, Florida, who prefers to sleep on the street near the shelter—“Under that pear tree,” he told me, pointing to a Callery pear up the street.
“In this shelter they treat you like an inmate,” Springs said. “I stay in it only in inclement weather. It is not doing me no good, being in there. In a shelter you get what they call situational depression, but if you remove the person from the situation sometimes the depression goes away. These other guys you see on the corner are like me, hoping to meet someone who can help us. Sometimes contractors or movers come by with day jobs. Families visit and bring food. But the D.H.S.—man, they have forgot us. The last person from this corner that got housed was like two years ago.”
I lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant for a few months, near the Nostrand Avenue stop. I’ve walked by that armory building probably dozens of times. It’s the most striking structure in the area, seemingly plucked from a different era (according to Wikipedia, it was designed in the “Romanesque Revival” style). But until reading Frazier’s article, I didn’t realize it was a homeless shelter, not to mention one of the cruelest in the city. Just a few blocks away, actually, was my intended destination on those walks: Berg’n, one of Brooklyn’s contributions to the “fancy food hall” trend sweeping the country. New York harbors many such contrasts and contradictions. It’s not just the white hipsters drinking craft beer and eating Asian fusion bowls a few blocks away from the brown and black men looking for a bite to eat and a clean bed; it’s also, for instance, the fact that one of the most retrograde prisons in America sits in one of its most “progressive” cities.
So, as I was telling my friend, it’s good to stay in touch – to avoid spending all of one’s time in the rarefied world of educated professionals and six-figure salaries and endless mimosas. And I don’t mean in the David Brooks’ sense of venturing to lower- or middle-class areas as a sort of poverty tourism; I mean instead trying to live humbly in the midst of others doing the same. I try to shop at reasonably priced grocery stores and liquor stores and convenience stores and eat at reasonably priced restaurants. I try to act like I’m part of the community I want to see persist and survive, not the community that is trying to push them out. The forces of gentrification triumph, I believe, when the market demands more artisanal cheese stores and juice shops than it does the cheap eats and bodegas that they are replacing. So, as a privileged person living in an area that is certainly not privileged, I strive not to support these forces, even though I could afford to. I don’t say this to congratulate myself: I could and should be doing much more to assist the community – from volunteering at local schools to helping out at the soup kitchen. But I think I am at least succeeding at not being the kind of person that I hate.
Most New Yorkers, though, probably lack even the minimal awareness that I have. Returning to the subject of homelessness, I thought this passage from Frazier’s article (written in 2013) was interesting:
In any case, it’s inescapably true that there are far more homeless people in the city today than there have been since “modern homelessness” (as experts refer to it) began, back in the nineteen-seventies.
Most New Yorkers I talk to do not know this. They say they thought there were fewer homeless people than before, because they see fewer of them. In fact, during the twelve years of the Bloomberg administration, the number of homeless people has gone through the roof they do not have. There are now two hundred and thirty-six homeless shelters in the city. Imagine Yankee Stadium almost four-fifths full of homeless families; about eighteen thousand adults in families in New York City were homeless as of January, 2013, and more than twenty-one thousand children. The C.F.H. says that during Bloomberg’s twelve years the number of homeless families went up by seventy-three per cent. One child out of every hundred children in the city is homeless.
The number of homeless single adults is up, too, but more of them are in programs than used to be, and some have taken to living underground, in subway tunnels and other places out of sight. Homeless individuals who do frequent the streets may have a philosophical streak they share with passersby, and of course they sometimes panhandle. Homeless families, by contrast, have fewer problems of mental illness and substance abuse, and they mostly stay off the street. If you are living on the street and you have children, they are more likely to be taken away and put in foster care. When homeless families are on the street or on public transportation, they are usually trying to get somewhere. If you see a young woman with big, wheeled suitcases and several children wearing backpacks on a train bound for some far subway stop, they could be homeless. Homeless families usually don’t engage with other passengers, and they seldom panhandle.
The hidden city analogy is also apt in a way that Frazier might not have intended. The little experience that New Yorkers do have with homelessness comes in its most aggressive and worst forms: the in-your-face panhandling and busking near any highly-trafficked place, the disheveled people lying in makeshift beds on the sidewalks, the stench of urine and garbage in the subway stations, the obvious mental illness and drug abuse that many of them suffer from. Most homeless people don’t live this way. They reside in shelters or are on the move or are trying to contend with an implacable bureaucracy. The public face of homelessness is much less sympathetic than its hidden face.
This fact might explain Kevin Drum’s rather awful take on homelessness. (Drum is a liberal blogger at Mother Jones.)
A pair of researchers conducted a survey on homelessness and claim to have been surprised at the results:
We uncovered a strange pattern. On one hand, majorities support both aid (60 percent) and subsidized housing (65 percent), with only a small percentage opposing these policies — by 19 and 17 percent, respectively. On the other, a majority supports banning panhandling (52 percent) and a plurality supports banning sleeping in public (46 percent) — while only about a quarter of the public opposes these policies, by 23 and 30 percent, respectively.
This does not seem strange to me at all. Most people don’t like being accosted by panhandlers and don’t like their park benches being taken over by potentially dangerous vagrants. At the same time, most people aren’t heartless bastards and understand that the homeless need somewhere to live and sleep. Both of these are perfectly understandable reactions:
The researchers solved their conundrum by suggesting that most people are disgusted by the homeless. No kidding. About half the homeless suffer from a mental illness and a third abuse either alcohol or drugs. You’d be crazy not to have a reflexive disgust of a population like that. Is that really so hard to get?
None of this means we can’t or shouldn’t have empathy for the homeless. Of course we should, if we want to call ourselves decent human beings. In fact, overcoming reflexive feelings is what makes us decent human beings in the first place. There’s just no need to deny that these reflexes are both innate and perfectly understandable.
Drum is the type of liberal that bothers me. He arrives at most of the same conclusions that I do, and he does indeed have the empathetic nature that so many conservatives lack. But he fails to realize how his own privilege blinkers him. Drum focuses on the “perfectly understandable” awful thoughts of people who are disgusted by the homeless, because those are the people he feels close to. He spends no time considering what the homeless themselves are thinking. It is not enough to talk about having “empathy for the homeless”. We must demonstrate that we truly believe in that proposition, by weighting equally the opinions of both the privileged (who would like to see homelessness go away), but also with the downtrodden (who would also like to see homelessness go away, but for different reasons). Otherwise we arrive at the Bloombergian solution, which is to push homeless people out of sight without improving their material conditions. If disgust is the primary emotion that homelessness evokes, then our laws will be designed to minimize disgust, and nothing more.
In this spirit, I’d encourage Drum to read the NYMag interview series of the homeless in New York. Here’s my favorite passage, from Abena Walker in East New York:
I save money. I’m still sitting on tax money. I know if my paycheck is a week away and my child needs something, I can go in there and pull it out and get what I need to get. Listen, I’m the type where you ain’t gotta teach me how to hustle. Don’t nobody give me anything.
I’ve heard the terminology “easy.” People would tell me that it’s “easy,” that we “want” to be there. That is the biggest misconception. Come experience my life. I guarantee in a week you’ll want to go home. I have to fight for basic necessities, how is that easy? To be displaced, and at any given time, somebody can decide they’re sick of seeing my face, and you have to pack up everything you own and go. If you get too many FTCs, [“failure to comply”] you’re going right back to PATH. To be in the shelter you have to have an active case. If you close that active case by missing an appointment, you get FTC’ed. Other violations that can result in a case being “closed”: failure to seek other housing, to carry out an independent living plan, to participate in employment and training programs, to participate with child-support enforcement, to apply for Supplemental-Security Income benefits, or to maintain general shelter cleanliness; exceeding the personal bag limit; possession of alcohol; improper attire; excessive noise; disrespectful behavior; nonapproved visitors. If you don’t sign the logbook before curfew, that’s an FTC. If you make repairs in your own apartment, that’s an FTC. FTC is: We have the power to throw you out. That’s pretty much what they use to keep people in line around here. It’s their form of retaliation. Sometimes it feels like anything you do can be an FTC. We can get FTC’ed for breathing the wrong way.
Just to be treated as a human is a pain in the ass. Picture that every day except for when you go to work, you don’t hear your name, you’re a number. That’s the common problem with this whole system is that we’re not looked at as human beings. Since I’ve been in this system, the only time I hear my name is when I see my case manager. Otherwise, I’m a 12-digit number. I’m not a person. I’m an ID. This is why I say it’s like jail, because when you go to jail, you are not a human anymore. It kind of reminds me of Full Metal Jacket: “Name, rank, serial number.” My name? Irrelevant. My rank? It’s still irrelevant. But my serial number, they make sure that they get that.