Economy

"Like Feeding a Stray Dog" What People in a Rich Neighborhood Say About the Homeless

One person actually suggested calling 911 on a guy for wearing a hoodie.

The photo shows a tiny blonde woman sitting on the sidewalk in front of a newsstand, wearing combat boots and striped blue-and-white socks pulled over her ankles. A dog is sleeping beside her, partly obscuring a sign that reads, "Anything helps."

Normally, petite blondes and slumbering dogs don't shake people to their very core, but on this Facebook page, the pair portends the breakdown of law and order, maybe even the end of civilization. "I think this war is lost now. Destruction by design," a member of a Facebook group called Third and 33rd (and Beyond!) commented in response to the photo. "Those who should represent the taxpayers and law abiding have another agenda. That's obvious. They are actively using the rule of 'law' to reduce the power of the police to halt this. This is not incompetence. It's being engineered. See how fast it's happened? It will take years now even if a clean up started today." 

Someone else on a different thread captures the true meaning of grave injustice with his complaint, "Just be thankful you don't live in the Future condo. I pay $20K in property taxes to have disgusting homeless people all over our public courtyard around our kids. And God forbid you personally say or do something then you are labeled a racist or prejudice [sic]."

A few more.

Next to a picture of a man passed out on the sidewalk:

One woman laments: 

Some unsolicited political advice for Rev. Al Sharpton: 

On another thread:

The group was founded by residents of Murray Hill and Kips Bay, predominantly wealthy neighborhoods on the east side of midtown Manhattan, where buildings have doormen and British-sounding names like the Wilshire, the Sycamore and Windsor Court. On its website the group says its mission is to "improve quality of life and public safety" in the neighborhood; it also runs a closed Facebook group where members post pictures of people they think are homeless. Some are disturbing, showing men who look to be in pretty bad shape, visibly drunk or publicly urinating (though as one member of the group points out, NYC has nothing resembling public toilets, so this practice should not be surprising). Others show seemingly homeless people standing around or sleeping or going through the trash, or just sitting there. "She looked like she was planning on staying at that spot for a long time," says the woman who posted the pic of the blonde girl.

While some members insist on leaving politics out of it, others use the forum to bludgeon New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is probably the only person in the comment threads less popular than the homeless.

"The problems in Murray Hill/Kips Bay are caused by the abandonment of the mentally ill homeless, and finally the idiot in City Hall realized the evil of his agenda," says one man. Another says, "Dinkins dayzzz are here again. DUH-blah-zio ruining everything that Giuliani and Bloomberg did. Who elected him???"

In a more recent thread, the same man notes: "If these 'people' are aggressive toward me or my wife or my family I will NOT hesitate to knock them out! But then I would be called prejudice or racist. Sad state of affairs under or Pres and Mayor #TRUMP."

Here is a good place to note who is, and who is not, responsible for the city's record rates of homelessness. Homeless advocates largely agree that the person most to blame for the city's high homelessness rate is none other than billionaire businessman and former mayor Michael Bloomberg. In 2012, when the mayor famously said no one was sleeping on the streets, there were more than 3,200 people sleeping on the streets according to city data (probably a huge underestimate because the count takes place during the winter when fewer people are outside).

Between 2002 and 2013 the city saw a 61 percent rise in homelessness, counted as people sleeping in shelters, according to Coalition for the Homeless. The biggest rise was in families with children (up 73 percent), which advocates say occurred in large part because the administration cut homeless families' priority access to Section 8 vouchers and public housing. The administration started -- and then killed -- two other temporary rental subsidies, abruptly leaving many poor New Yorkers without rent support. This was at a time of skyrocketing New York rents, a trend that will likely continue. 

Meanwhile, a de Blasio administration proposal for a city rental subsidy program calledLINC was delayed, then almost destroyed, by opposition from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Homelessness advocates have called for over 30,000 more supportive housing units -- the governor has agreed to 5,000 for the whole state. Although the mayor has been criticized by many homelessness advocates for not doing enough, others point out that his policies are better than those of many previous mayors. 

As Joel Berg, executive director of NYC Coalition Against Hunger told DNA Info: "Is the mayor perfect? No, and that's why I continue to advocate. But he's the best mayor on this issue in decades."

But thanks in no small part to the formidable shaming powers of the New York Post, there seems to be a general impression that de Blasio has conjured armies of homeless people to terrorize the women and children of Manhattan's tony neighborhoods. This attitude is evident on the Facebook group. 

"I just want out of this neighborhood at this point. So sad but I don't want to be a part of de Blasio's New York," a woman in the forum says. 

Braving the Mean Streets of de Blasio's New York

On a sunny afternoon in late summer, I decide to bear witness to the horrors of Bill de Blasio's New York and head toward 33rd Street on Third Avenue (and Beyond!), mentally girding for assault by aggressive, violent hobos. But as I walk up the street I'm actually surprised by how few visibly homeless people there are in this part of town, seemingly fewer than in other areas, like Union Square. A shirtless guy around a 20th Street phone booth is asking people for money, but when I say, "Sorry, I don't have any cash on me right now," he just asks the next person. I survive the encounter.

It must get worse closer to 33rd, I think. I reach 28th. No homeless people. 29th, nothing. Where are all the homeless people? What if I can't find any to interview? Am I going to be that person who writes about homeless people without talking to any, like these New York Times reporters who managed to interview a ton of not-homeless people for their homelessness story and seemingly not one homeless person?

30th, nothing. Aha! They all must be hiding in the public library on 31st. Nope, no one there looks homeless. I finally see a guy who seems a little worse for the wear sitting in a wheelchair by Gristedes supermarket, but he's neither shooting heroin nor defecating on a child; he appears to be packing up some wraps and spread he just ate. 

Finally I hit the epicenter: Third and 33rd. Not a single homeless person in sight. 

OK, surely, I can find some homeless men at a homeless men's shelter. I head to Bellevue Men's Shelter, the cause of much ire on the Third and 33rd (and Beyond!) group. Bellevue is a foreboding brick building that looks disturbingly like a haunted mental hospital in a horror movie. Dried, brown ivy climbs the walls and the windows are filthy. Men of all ages and races mill around in the courtyard and walk in and out. 

I talk to Ali, a 68-year-old vet sitting by a bus stop across the street. Ali says he moved to America from Puerto Rico when he was a kid. He went to Vietnam when he was 21, took five shots to the chest for America, came home to a country that seemed to hate him, and now cannot afford New York rents with the measly amount of cash he gets from the Veteran's Administration every month, he says. PTSD, depression, anxiety, he's got them all.

When I uselessly say I'm sorry, he replies, "There's nothing to be sorry about, it's just life."

"It's an experience that stays with you forever," he notes of a war he fought in four decades ago. 

Ali is on the "veterans" floor at Bellevue. The shelter tends to stick the men from America's wars on the same floor, he tells me. He ticks off all of the wars represented on the veterans' floor. "Vietnam, Korea ... sure, there's guys [who fought] in Iraq and Afghanistan," he says, when I ask if there are younger men.

He says the shelter is disgusting. "It's filthy, dangerous." The metal detectors keep out guns but not razor blades, he says. He and a friend say that only employees get air conditioners. His friend, a mid-60s-looking man with a heavy accent tells me, "I asked the lady, miss, the room is very, very hot. 100 degrees! Buy me air conditioner. She said, 'Fuck you.' He laughs.

Ali admits that he understands why some neighborhood residents have concerns about the homeless; that some of the behavior he sees might be offensive to women and children. But as far as his presence is concerned: "Where else can we go? We have no money to go nowhere," he says.

David Kennedy, a 33-year-old black man in a loose undershirt, falls on a different place in the tragedy spectrum. He says he's in possession of a housing voucher and he works at Eately, the upscale Italian eatery frequented by tourists, and probably, residents of Murray Hill. 

A series of brutal logistical complications have kept him from finding an apartment, so he's been in the shelter for about two months, he says. When people see him rounding the corner from the shelter, they just assume bad things about him.

"Not everybody in here has attitudes or is all crazy or all on drugs. There's a lot of different people here from all kinds of walks of life: jail, strung out on drugs, family kicked them out," he says. "Or some people just lost their homes, so they end up here."

"You don't know what half of these people are about. A lot of the men that's in here, some of these guys are college grads, they have two, three masters, some of them have doctorates. So, for you to just walk past somebody and never say Hello or Good Morning? You just look down on them? It doesn't make sense," he says. 

"A lot of the guys are vets," Kennedy says. "They should be well taken care of, but they're not. They [should] have more rights than the people walking around here in order to get what they need to get, and they get treated unfairly, you know?"

I pop into a bar a block away from the shelter and ask the bartender, KC Washington, 45, about homelessness in the area. She tells me that sometimes men from the shelter come in and ask for money; sometimes they get mad and sometimes it's hard to get rid of them, she says. It can be uncomfortable. 

But when I ask if it's a major problem, she emphatically shakes her head and says, "No."

"It doesn't drive business away, if that's what you mean." Sure, a lot of guys come in; after all, there's a shelter close by. "In the 10 years I've been here, nothing bad's happened," she notes.

NIMBY 3.0

A few weeks ago, a data engineer named David Fox who recently joined Third and 33rd (and Beyond!) developed an app inspired by the group. Users take pictures of homeless people and mark their locations with dropped pins, like when you ask Google Maps to find you the nearest Starbucks -- but for homeless people. I tapped a few of the pins and saw a man looking through a recycling bin, tagged #man #trash #trashdigger. Another shot, taken from so far away on a subway platform you can barely make out the person sitting behind a sign, tagged #begging #citysamess #distance ... #in, #man, Off# #police, #the #unkempt. A man shielding his face with his hand from the photographer: #man. The blonde woman makes an appearance on the app, too, this time with a blurry profile shot from afar, hashtagged #encampment, #needsmedicalaid, #woman. It looks like she's bandaging up her knee so perhaps the photographer was concerned for her well-being, but it's not clear how she'd receive medical treatment by way of an anonymous app with no current relationship to health providers. 

But this is not the only venue for publishing pictures of homeless people. On August 10, the NY Post reported (gleefully) that the Sergeants Benevolent Association, a law enforcement union, created a Flickr account for police officers to post pictures of homeless people. The endeavor is charmingly titled, "Peek-a-Boo, We See You!" 

In a mind-boggling letter to the Post, SBA president Ed Mullins explained that publicly shaming the city's poorest residents is meant to impose "accountability" upon public officials (read: de Blasio, who is reviled by the city's police unions) and also serve as some sort of cosmic retribution for the fact that more cops are being recorded by the public on the job. The NY Post set the public-shaming-of-street-people bar high earlier in the summer, sending more than 16 reporters to follow one homeless man on the Upper West Side, as Gawker reported. The results of that deep-dive investigation was a picture of the man plastered on the cover and headlined, "20 Years of Cleaning Up New York City: Pissed Away." 

Fox News also did its part with two homeless-shaming segments on the Bill O'Reilly show, suggesting that de Blasio is ruining the city by not locking up the homeless. 

But back to Third and 33rd (and Beyond!), or NIMBY 3.0. Unlike SBA president Ed Mullins, who freely admits he's exploiting the homeless to stick it to de Blasio, and the NY Post, which is doing the same, David Fox appears to be genuine in his desire to help. He tells AlterNet that he hopes the app will yield data that can aid service providers and law enforcement in learning which areas of the city need more attention. 

"A good majority of the homeless are not violent,” he wrote over g-chat. “That doesn't mean they belong sleeping on the street as that is extremely unsafe for them. Again, the app isn't about passing judgement."

But isn't there something creepy about a bunch of people who seem furious about homelessness, sneaking around, taking their pictures and tagging them like they're potholes? I ask. How would he feel about an app that, say, encouraged users to snap pictures of attractive women without their permission and mark their location as dropped pins?

"Yes, definitely creepy, and I would look at the motives of that app,” he replied. “Doesn't seem to have much room for anything good to happen. [Just] sexual assault and other stuff like that. So I don't think it's comparable.” (As the New York Observer reported, another app, WeShelter, which does not allow users to post photos, connects to 311 in cases where the person looks like they need help.) 

Like Fox, probably many people who use the app may want to help. And there are also members of the Facebook group who express serious concern about the plight of the homeless. "So sad how people just walk right by him...like he is invisible," one woman says, a sentiment echoed by Fox, who thinks it's wrong for most people just to look the other way. Another guy points out that it's sad we spend billions to help people in other countries but can't help people at home. "We treat stray animals better," another notes. 

But a big contingent express mockery, disgust and outright hatred of the men and women pictured. Here are a few more examples:

  • A photo of a man sleeping on the sidewalk: "We almost tripped up over this guy on 27th street! Just now. 311 called. Going to be a long hot stinky summer!" 
  • Shirtless guy falling asleep against a building: "Nodding out today at 3pm, 30th & 2nd. I guess he is dreaming about exercising his right to vote, or something equally monumental."
  • A man sitting on a park bench: "Fancy taking the kids to Vincent Albano? With this guy sat there staring at the play area? Not me!" 
  • "Just to remind everyone. It is really important that we never give money to any vagrant, it is just like feeding a stray dog, if they get some scraps, they will keep coming back." 
  • "They take food stamps on our dime and take over our neighborhood that we all worked hard to live in. Enough is enough. I am all for supporting the handicapped but not lazy, freeloading scum." 
  • A guy with a cart full of belongings that includes a stuffed toy. "I'd call 911 and say he's soliciting children. It's time to take this up a level and get these guys out."

A picture of a man in a hoodie, who actually doesn't look homeless, triggers a meltdown from several members. "Why would anyone wish to wear a 'hoodie' pulled up over their head on a mild day? Panhandler this morning, [name redacted] are right they sure are revenue raisers! 911 called." It continues: "Yeah, whenever I see a hoodie pulled up like that it's suspicious. The individual is attempting to conceal their identity. On a mild day it's very suspicious." Another says he misses the "old days when a person loitering with a hood over their head on a warm day would be busted."

When a woman on the thread points out that it is not illegal to wear a hoodie, one of the members replies, "let me know your address and next time I'll let him know and he can stand outside your building then." (A moderator tells AlterNet that group members are only concerned with improving the neighborhood, including helping homeless people, and that moderators don't "censor" people's comments.)

Fancy Luxury Building Paradise... 

The same day I went to Bellevue, I passed Windsor Court, a luxury apartment complex in the same neighborhood. Windsor Court basically looks like Heaven. The gold awning shines in late afternoon sun, light filters through beautiful floral arrangements, a kindly doorman greets people as they come in and out of the revolving doors. The only thing marring this paradise is a pair of young, beefy Wall Street types outside the courtyard loudly discussing recent heroic feats of drinking. A description of Windsor Court amenities on the website includes, "24-hour concierge and doormen, valet and package rooms and, of course, on-site attended parking with direct access to the building. There is a large roof-top health club with spectacular views, a pool, exercise rooms, steam and sauna, sun decks and many other amenities."

Earlier in the summer, the building offered another, less publicized perk: the services of a private security company to deal with homeless people in the vicinity. 

Michael McCutcheon, an ex-NYPD cop and member of MG Security Services, patrolled the area around the building for eight hours a day, he says. He calls this "omnipresence." It's suppossed to stop criminal or other bad behavior that the NYPD, which has to go out on other calls, can't manage. 

"If you're just standing there, people aren't going to obviously light up a marijuana cigarette or open up a beer container, they're not gonna do lewd acts," he tells me. 

"Unfortunately it's a condition that's citywide," he says of homelessness, "And especially in this neighborhood we clean up one block and unfortunately they go somewhere so they have to move to another block and you know it's just... an epidemic."

McCutcheon says he uses a variety of tactics, from surveillance to working with informants on the street to keeping track of people on his phone. 

"I'll be hanging out and watching retail shops... and they don't know I'm there, and I'll be observing them — it could be from 15 minutes to an hour— and they don't see me, but I see them," he says. 

If there's illegal activity going on, he says, "I could tell them to get lost and then they'll move just because my voice command and my experience you know, I know what to say and how to say it, and problem solved." 

McCutcheon stresses that he has no problem with people who are just down on their luck. He points out that it's not against the law for homeless people to sit in public. "A lot of homeless people are decent people, and we treat them with respect." He claims he only targets people who are breaking the law or acting in a violent or aggressive manner. I can't help but think, though, that when I went to check out Windsor Court, there were no homeless people in sight, trouble-making or not. Wonder where they went. 

Everything gets blurry when you're talking about homeless people and crime. All over the country, laws criminalizing public activities — loitering, public urination, "camping" regulations — are, a) mostly in place to target the homeless; and b) inherently more likely to be applied to the homeless because they have to perform life functions like sleeping or eating outside. 

I ask McCutcheon what the big deal is about a homeless person smoking some weed, and he points out that it's against the law; if we make marijuana legal, it wouldn't be against the law. 

That's hard to argue with. But think about which habits of yours might get you into trouble if you had to live on the street. Smoking pot? Drinking a beer? What if you were a traumatized vet who had to sleep in a dangerous shelter and then sit on the street all day? How would you like to be totally sober through that experience? 

Failure to Harrass

One of the days I went to Murray Hill, I passed five men slumped against a building, They seemed very drunk and had open containers — exactly the kind of scene that would be documented on Third and 33rd (in fact, I recognized one of them from the Facebook page) and the SBA Flickr account. The NY Post would happily post their picture on their cover with a screaming headline about the Dickensian nightmare of de Blasio's New York. Maybe O'Reilly reporter Jesse Waters could, like, poke them with a stick and get them to say something on camera about how they'd vote for the mayor if they could (journalism!). They would probably be shooed away from whatever fancy apartment complex or business hired MG Security to clean up the area. 

It's not a pretty picture. for sure. But the men mostly seemed sad and far more interested in drinking than in bothering me, even though I was rudely staring at them. I passed them a second time and again they failed to harass me, which, to make an obvious point, is not something that can be said for many non-homeless men in New York. Does the city really need social media vigilantes and increased police presence on top of private security and a Bloomberg-Giuliani super-hybrid to protect people from these guys?

I don't live in the neighborhood and only spent a few days there. And it's true that some homeless people who suffer from untreated mental illness and substance abuse can act in ways that are disturbing. Like all people, some homeless people can be violent. Homelessness is a problem that the city and state must do an infinitely better job of addressing. But the imagery of nightmare urban decay pumped out by the NY Post and other local outlets makes me wonder if perhaps it's the amped-up media coverage that makes everyone so fearful.

 

Tana Ganeva is a reporter covering criminal justice, drug policy and homelessness. Follow her on Twitter @TanaGaneva.

Stay Ahead of the Rest
Sign Up for AlterNet's Daily Newsletter
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Rights & Liberties
Education
Drugs
Economy
Environment
Labor
Food
World
Politics
Investigation
Personal Health
Water
Media