Opinion

New Yorkers continue to ignore homelessness crisis at our own peril

My day job at the Chief-Leader, a weekly newspaper that covers New York City’s municipal workforce, requires that I be out and about reporting on what public workers like the police, EMTs and transit workers are doing to keep the world’s greatest city safe and running smoothly. As a consequence, I encounter the city’s social conditions on the street, in the subways and in the shadows where public spaces meet private property.

As the city’s equality gap persists, these encounters increasingly include dozens of homeless and clearly indigent people. Several times a day in the subway I am asked for money. On the street and in the underground passageways I have had to avert my eyes from a mother sitting on the floor with a drowsy toddler in her lap, begging for food or money. At the evening rush hour, half-naked men, clearly intoxicated, who appear mentally ill, shuffle through the crowds at Penn Station. Others just lay on the floor, presumably asleep, as my fellow commuters and I just step over their bodies like they were road kill. 

The National Guard stays on post looking for terrorists and the police are nowhere to be found, even though Penn Station is patrolled by several different law enforcement agencies. These indigent people are just invisible to the polite society like me that has somewhere to go. They say, “If you see something, say something” but evidently a 200-pound-plus unconscious man, sprawled on the floor at rush hour, is just part of 21st century New York’s drab furniture. 

On rare occasions I see a fellow commuter, whose developed a rapport with a specific homeless person, take the time to give them some food and share a conversation. I wish I was that kind of Dorothy Day-like person. Yet, I trudge on to cover an assignment or to go home after work. But each time I randomly encounter a member of this swelling army of the needy and fail to do something to help, a part of my soul dies.

In December of 1990, New York City had 20,239 people it sheltered, according to data from the Coalition for the Homeless. Eighteen years later, in 2008 it was up to 36,041. By 2014, at the start of de Blasio administration, the city was accommodating 53,615 people in its shelter system. Currently, that number is over 62,000. What’s most striking in the historical data is the radical shift in the demographics of the homeless from single adults to families and children. Consider that in 1990 the homeless overnight census average included 7,000 children. In the most recent count there were 24,000 children.

In his third reset on the issue last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that despite the infusion of $300 million in new capital spending, the city would only be able to reduce the number of homeless by 2,500 over the next five years, or 500 a year, roughly just 1 percent a year. That seems like a white flag of surrender, a decision lacking the requisite urgency to solve a mounting humanitarian crisis. 

If our government is failing to deal with this crisis, at what point as Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics or atheists do we have an obligation to step up and do something? Does society’s collective failure relieve us of the individual obligation to try and make a difference? 

Last Thursday I saw signs that the fraying of our collective social fabric had come to a tipping point, rotting the big apple at the core. In the morning, I witnessed a kind of homeless uprising at a Starbucks in Penn Station where older African-American homeless people were berating a young male African-American Starbucks employee, mocking him by calling him a “slave” who “owned nothing.” The more the employee kept his cool, the more belligerent the homeless became.

The place was packed and customers like myself didn’t say a word. Funny how small a big public space can get when there’s a palpable sense that violence is imminent. I greatly admired the Starbucks barista. I did seek out the manager to make sure he was aware of how well his employee performed under fire. A fellow customer, who works in a retail stores in Penn Station, said such pitched encounters happen every day. It is only a matter of time before there’s police tape and blood on the floor.

After I filed what I was working on at Starbucks, it was on to a huge lunch gala at the Plaza Hotel in honor of former Vice President Joe Biden. The event was sponsored by HELP USA, a non-profit Andrew Cuomo started 30 years ago to help the homeless that has been run by his sister Maria Cole Cuomo for the last 25 years. It has become a national organization that has helped 400,000 people offering the kind of integrated services that experts say are essential to get the lives of the homeless back on track. 

The event was one of those over-the-top, white glove affairs where the top one percent are commended for all they do. The opulence of these events reflects a dissonance that all of society's ills are being properly addressed.

Gov. Cuomo told the Plaza crowd how the nonprofit he created was an alternative to the very kind of welfare hotels that proliferated in the early ‘90s and which de Blasio now wants to shift away from. “We built safe, clean, traditional housing with support services so people literally move from the hotels to better housing – with job training, with day care, with substance abuse treatment – and we worked through the problems with families,“ he said. 

Cuomo explained the genesis of the nonprofit to the audience, “But the premise of HELP was very simple that we stand for a principle and the principle is based on an unvarnished truth that society had an obligation to help those who were less fortunate and help those that are struggling,” he said. “And back in 1986 what we did with homeless is we put them in welfare hotels…because homelessness was a temporary problem. That’s what we believed and we were temporarily going to house them in hotels until we got past this glitch in the system. If you had said to anyone in 1986, by the way, homelessness is going to exist for another thirty years, and as we sit here today the homeless problem is worse than it has ever been in the history of this city and state, believe it or not.”

Cuomo’s remarks betrayed his personal responsibility for the deteriorating circumstances of tens of thousands of New Yorkers that has proliferated on his watch. He may as well have been discussing the weather – there was just no sense of urgency about actually solving the current crisis being played out mere blocks away from the gilded Plaza. Doesn’t all of society, particularly high society where wealth and privilege are so concentrated, have a moral obligation to do more until the homeless problem is something we talk about in the past tense? 

Later that evening, Yadira Arroyo, 44, a 14-year veteran of the FDNY’s Emergency Medical Technician unit and mother of five, was killed when she was run over with her own ambulance by a man who had commandeered her rig in the Morris Park section of the Bronx.

The New York Times reported the suspect was living at a “supportive shelter” for the homeless. Evidently, not supportive enough for him or the broader community now left to mourn the loss of another heroic first responder who confronted, head-on, the on-the-street reality we continue to ignore at our own peril.

Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist and a contributor to Salon. Follow him @stucknation. 

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