Sunday, August 15, 2010

Week 32: New York's Hapless Homeless

I've been meaning to research and write about this topic for some time now. Since I started living in New York City in 2007, there has been an undeniable increase in the sheer number of homeless people on the streets. Just last week, a group of three chose the stoop outside my girlfriend's house as their new pad before yesterday deciding to move on. The Coalition for the Homeless claims New York City shelter inhabitants are at an all-time high of 39,000 per night. If accurate, that represents about one half of one percent of the city's population. The range of homeless in the city spans from the depressing - from Vietnam vets to the severely mentally and physically disabled - to the entertaining
Fifth Avenue drummer and the many subway system

In resesarching this topic, I'm sad to say it was difficult to find an objective view or analysis of the problem of homelessness in New York City. Almost every video or article began with the homeless but ended with some kind of politics-driven diatribe. My perhaps cynical impression is that many making these documentaries were using the homeless as nothing more than a political tool. That said, I'm not blind to the fact this is a social issue and social issues are inherently political issues as well. And it isn't terribly controversial to say the bleak economic situation is driving the wedge between the "haves" and the "have nots" even farther apart.

But from these documentaries there was one oft-repeated refrain: how could there be so many homeless in such a rich city? Many made references to the fact that Mayor Bloomberg is a billionaire, and suggested it is outrageous that a city run by a billionaire should have any homeless people. Aside from the simple answer - it's just not that simple - I'd like to point out that Bloomberg just accepted Buffett and Gates' challenge to donate over half of his net worth to charity. And as for a rich city, I'd like to note that both New York City and New York State have incredibly high tax levels and both institutions are running massive budget deficits. But the point isn't really about what is or is not "rich" - the point is in New York we are surrounded by tall buildings and fancy restaurants and men in suits... sharing the streets with some down on their luck people who for many reasons are not in a position to help themselves. And trust me - as someone who gets asked at least 5 times a day for money, the stark contrast between these two worlds is eye-opening.

To be frank, these repeated and forced encounters are awkward. Of course I want to help, and I suspect others do as well, but how? One solution is to give food and not money - a few weeks ago I gave a homeless person a granola bar - he seemed surprised but happy. It reminded me of a time when my Mom was once approached by some homeless children in a parking lot. They asked for money and she refused, but gave them a pack of yogurt. Out of empathy or perhaps guilt I do occassionally give a token amount of money (when I don't have a granola bar). And yes, I know it will not change the situation... I also know they will probably spend it on booze or drugs. But I do it anyway. What else is to be done? The scary part is that at some point - perhaps the 4,000th time you've been asked if you can spare some change - your mind glazes over and that initial empathy isn't there. Hey not my problem, man.

But if you don't want to give money directly to the homeless because it might go to poor habits, surely you can give to an organization that advocates for the homeless? Unfortunately, it's not that simple either. Perhaps the biggest and certainly the most visible organization in Manhattan was the United Homeless Organization (UHO). Their tables were planted on just about every other block with a red table cloth and an old water jug into which you were implored to contribute. Well, it turns out the whole thing was a fraud. The founders used the money for themselves and the volunteers took the balance of the funds. None of the money went to help anyone else. A judge recently ordered the "charity" to be shut down. I'm positive that most charities are not like this one, and that there are many worthwhile organizations that strive to serve the homeless. My point is, it's difficult to make an individual contribution to this problem on the margin, because everywhere you look there are "feel good" opportunities that ultimately do nothing and perhaps exacerbate the underlying problems.

From a practical perspective, it seems to me that there is no way to solve the immediate problem with a sweeping, top-down idea. One of the homeless women whose interview I watched put it best: "how do you even begin to find a job with no address, no phone number?" Without treatment, how can those who have serious but treatable mental disorders be anything but homeless? The fact is, I am incredibly lucky to have never been in a situation without some support network. I can't imagine how scary it would be to have nothing. So I do believe there has to be a focus on the basics - that which is just enough to help people help themselves... to get the positive feedback loop going. While this may not be enough for many of the worst cases, there are no doubt some bums who just need another shot.

As I anecdotally notice a larger and larger homeless population, I can only imagine that the status quo is becoming less and less acceptable. The humane case for help goes without saying. For those who don't care about the humane case, they should care that the streets are noticably more likely to be covered in urine, for instance. After all, we aren't talking about the 46% of Americans who don't pay federal income tax - we're talking about an incredibly small, hapless portion of the population...

Unfortunately I've got no overarching solution this week, but I will end with a question that has challenged me a great deal in the last few months: what is the best way to help people help themselves?


  1. great post. talk to you tomorrow.

  2. The technological impediments to sound clean robust quarters for the homeless are negligible and easily overcome
    whether the location is Haiti or downtown Manhattan.

    The psychological impediments can be formidable--from the example of Cabrini-Green


    to the darker, more feral example of vagrancy laws


    or even the sad demise of the Fort Fisher Hermit.

    Libertarian Economists would argue the barnacle encrusted drag produced by oppressive Leviathan government is a
    root cause through all societies and ages.

    Best, TJK

  3. I can see your where you conclusions come from from some valid points. Very thought provoking post.