The New Yorker: “Hidden City”

This week’s New Yorker has a remarkable article about New York City’s historic homelessness crisis, and highlights the essential role of Coalition for the Homeless and advocates in fighting to address that crisis.

The sprawling article, “Hidden City,” is written by legendary writer Ian Frazier, and is available here. It highlights the record rise in NYC homelessness under Mayor Bloomberg, but also includes compelling portraits of the gritty, day-to-day reality of homeless families and individuals, as well as a deep dive into the history of the struggle to secure the legal right to shelter for homeless New Yorkers.

All in all, it’s an article that deserves to be read in its entirety, and we urge you to do so. Again, you can read it here.

Following are some key excerpts:

For baseball games, Yankee Stadium seats 50,287. If all the homeless people who now live in New York City used the stadium for a gathering, several thousand of them would have to stand. More people in the city lack homes than at any time since . . . It’s hard to say exactly. The Coalition for the Homeless, a leading advocate for homeless people in the city and the state, says that these numbers have not been seen in New York since the Great Depression.

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.

By foot, bus, and subway, I backtracked to Brooklyn, changing at outlying stops. Broadway Junction, near the Queens-Brooklyn border, was jumping like Times Square. 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.”

Next, I made a stop at the Bellevue Men’s Shelter. For gloominess of aspect, Bellevue is unique, with its high columns near the entryway surmounted by the words “Psychiatric Hospital” (the building’s original function). Bellevue has eight hundred and fifty beds and is also called one of the worst shelters in the city; in general, the smaller shelters are said to be much less bad, and some are even nice. Ellis, the dollar-apiece Newport cigarette seller on the street out front, suggested I go to Intake and register myself if I wanted to see what the place was like; I took his word for it instead. Then I subwayed up to 103rd Street on the Lexington line and walked across the footbridge to Wards Island, where a three-hundred-bed men’s shelter occupies another former psychiatric hospital. That shelter, called the Charles H. Gay Building, is a lonesome place; constantly you hear the tires bumping on an approach ramp to the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge up above it. I asked a guy sitting on the curb in front of the shelter what he thought of it. He considered for a moment and said, “Jail’s worse.”

That is one philosophy. To some degree, though perhaps not as much as Mrs. Lowell, the Bloomberg administration has subscribed to it. The Mayor’s plan to reduce homelessness has always stressed “client responsibility.” In an interview in 2003, Linda Gibbs talked about the new outlook at the D.H.S. She said that a lack of standards had helped to create “passivity” among shelter users, and that the new goal was to “manage this in a way that people change their behavior.” For the services homeless people were being given, conscientiousness and diligence were asked of them in return. To begin with, they had to look for jobs and apartments, attend regular meetings with social workers, and obey all shelter rules. Their homelessness was mostly their fault, and so their behavior had to change.

Then, there’s the other philosophy, which says that it’s not their fault. What the homeless need, this other philosophy says, is a stable place to live, not a system telling them what to do. Once stable housing is achieved, changes in behavior, if necessary, can follow. The problem is not the poor’s lack of character but a lack of places in the city where they can afford to live and of jobs that pay a decent wage. The problem is not inside but outside. No change in personal behavior is going to make rents cheaper. According to this philosophy, the PATH center’s relentless search for relatives with whom applicants for shelter can double up or triple up just crams more bodies into the too short supply of moderate- and low-income housing in the city, and sends people into unhealthy or even dangerous situations.

Manhattan is now America’s most expensive urban area to live in, and Brooklyn is the second most expensive. Meanwhile, more than one in five New York City residents live below the poverty line. Nearly one in five experiences times of “food insecurity” in the course of a year—i.e., sometimes does not have enough safe and nutritious food to eat. One-fifth of 8.3 million New Yorkers equals 1.66 million New Yorkers. For people at the lower-middle and at the bottom, incomes have gone down. The median household income in the Bronx is about thirty-three thousand dollars a year; Brooklyn’s is about forty-four thousand. Meanwhile, rents go steadily up. A person working at a minimum-wage job would need 3.1 such jobs to pay the median rent for an apartment in the city without spending more than thirty per cent of her income. If you multiply 3.1 by eight hours a day by five days a week, you get a hundred and twenty-four hours; a week only has a hundred and sixty-eight hours.

The number of market-rate rental apartments available to those of low income is extremely small. A metaphor one often hears about the homeless is that of the musical chairs: with such a small number of low-income-affordable apartments, the players who are less able to compete, for whatever reason, don’t get the chairs when the music stops. Every year, more and more chairs are taken away. The existence of so many people who are homeless indicates that a very large number of renters are close to that condition. Housing advocates in the Bronx report that some of the people they try to help are paying seventy per cent of their income in rent and that others are living doubled up and tripled up and in unimproved basements and in furnace rooms—conditions that recall the days of Jacob Riis.