“Maybe if you shake that cup a little harder I’ll throw a penny in!” cackled two college-aged boys wearing color coordinated pastel polo shirts paired with overpriced designer winter coats, near a well-regarded university in upper Manhattan on a below freezing winter night. Clearly, the boys were well off. Shivering, the homeless man, draped in various scraps of fabrics, bundled as well as he could, brushed off this remark — just as if he had heard it before. Fortunately, those in earshot both scolded the boys’ horrific behavior, and some gave the homeless man money or food. However, despite the compassion of those who reached out to this man, discrimination towards the homeless is rampant — perpetuating unfortunate circumstances that inevitably and systematically target them as scapegoats.
Currently, the homeless population in New York City is larger than it’s been since the Great Depression. In December of 2015, according to the New York Times, a citywide poll revealed that “62% of New Yorkers disapproved of [Mayor Bill de Blasio’s] handling of this issue.” If he truly meant it when he promised New York City would never return to the “bad old days,” why is it that as of February 8, 2016, the homeless population is near 61,000 — making up at least ten percent of our nation’s homeless population? Perhaps this is why the majority of New Yorkers surveyed were unhappy with his implementation to combat this epidemic that consisted of empty promises of mental health assistance, more warm and safer shelters for the winter, and rental assistance programs. New laws require the homeless to be forced into shelters for subjective circumstances based on law enforcement’s observations. While many would welcome housing, as Governor Cuomo stresses, the shelters are notoriously dangerous and unsafe for proper living; thus, why thousands more people choose to live on the street everyday.
Through talking to people on the streets, despite their unique stories, it became clear that they all had one commonality: the shelter was not the right choice. Often, the main issue with the shelters is safety. Residents with medicine will likely not have a secure place to store their pills without getting them stolen. One man reported needing diabetes medication along with another psychoactive prescription for vital medicinal use. However, in the shelters, it was stolen from him by other residents because they either wanted to take it recreationally or sell it on the black market. He decided it was better to sleep on the steps of a church in the freezing cold than to have his medication taken from him. For years, in and out of shelters, this was the case. Unlike many other homeless people, his story has a silver lining. As of mid-2015, he is currently living in a safe privately-owned shelter in the Bronx that ensures his personal items are kept securely locked up somewhere. New York needs more stories like these. New York needs more shelters like these. New York needs to create a system where people should not have to rely on a stoop to be a bed because the government didn’t provide them with the safe space they promised.
On a recent trip to California, I noticed the saturation of homeless people in the Bay Area. San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley. In a 2015 report from the San Francisco government, they reported 6,686 homeless people in total (unsheltered and sheltered); this was a seven percent increase from 2005. Unlike New York, in San Francisco, the homeless population is continually pushed from neighborhood to neighborhood due to gentrification. They are being reshuffled to be more concentrated in certain areas than others. Their visibility is so noticeable, given that they are being forced together rather than spread out. Moreover, to enforce these relocations, in 2010 they passed a citywide law stating between 7AM and 11PM that sitting and lying down on public streets was not permitted. For these reasons and more, a woman in San Francisco was quoted in the New York Times on February 26, 2016, and summed this crisis up succinctly, calling it “the most unequal city in the United States right now.”
Certainly, homelessness is a complex issue. Some people pushed out of their homes due to foreclosures, unemployment, arrests, or even serving for our country. In a recent study, it turns out that 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and were forced out of their homes and forced to survive on a practice known as “survival sex” (for example, in exchange for warm food or a real bed to sleep in for the night). The reasons for homelessness are multidimensional, and the effects impact each victim differently. The situations vary from drug addiction, mental illness, poverty, teens in foster care, and so on. The needs of each of these fractured groups is so very different. We can’t put them in a box and define them as one — they are not a homogenous group. Criminalization, cut backs of government funding and programs, and the economy have heavily exacerbated the problem, especially in major metropolitan areas where the epidemic is becoming more prominent. These are people’s lives in our hands, and it is crucial we act on these injustices with respect and in haste. We need to be the voice for those underrepresented. We need to speak out for those who have been silenced and reduced by the status of their (lack of) housing. When you speak to these people on the street, each has a story that reminds you they are human too. They have mothers, children they have been separated from, nieces, nephews, grandchildren. The man I referenced earlier is tied to New York so he can have contact with his grandson. He wasn’t always homeless.
Short film below:
“I Am Somebody” – run time 3 min