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I’d found the job on Idealist. “Work to house the homeless,” the description had said. To start I was assigned the a.m. outreach shift. Our itinerary came in the morning via email, a list of known “hot spots” and areas of “community concern.” The sky would be just brightening as we walked to the garage, the shop windows glowy and weird, the sidewalks still smelling of wet trash and bagels. Usually we’d drive north: up through the central channel of the Port Authority, where people curl up behind traffic barriers or in the middle of the covered sidewalk; down the long construction zone of soon-to-be “Hudson Yards,” where they make beds around the bones of those pullulating plate-glass polyhedrons; along the pedestrian plazas of the Garment District, where dozens sleep seated in chairs, intermingled with the sculpture installations that line the walk, to be moved on by BID custodians with hoses before the sun comes up; into the parks and plazas, where they squeeze between “hobo-stoppers” (those little studs of metal on ledges and benches) and try to avoid the sprinklers. Excuse me, sir—sorry to wake you!—we’re from Outreach…

On Wednesday mornings we’d meet an officer from the Times Square Alliance for “joint outreach.” Most often this was Greg, an affable Ukrainian immigrant, ex-Soviet military, who cut an odd figure in the Time Square Alliance’s Mountie-style red jacket and flat-brim hat. Our rendezvous point was the center of the 47th St. plaza, the famous one with the big red steps and huge advertisement screens, which even at six in the morning is lit as bright as a hospital hallway. Often Greg ran late, and we’d stand slowly spinning under the hundred-foot-tall videos of celebrities and headphones and dancing M&M’s. “Look,” my partner Benji would say, “the people are so big.”

Most people at some level feel the city as a kind of delirium: a short stroll leads through a thicket of contradictions. The tall and shiny parts are so tall and shiny, and the poor people are so poor. They sleep in trash bags right on West 57th Street, where the most expensive apartments in the world float full of nothing but metastasizing money. The psychic virtuosity it takes to gloss this dissonance, to feel basically steady, is maybe what lends city-walking its special thrill. But now that dissonance was my day job, and the incoherence was dizzying. At 5:30 each morning we’d resume our minivan dérive, warm and abstracted, weaving around the city like a spirit. Outside, the temperature was dropping. When we saw someone asleep, we’d park, brace ourselves and step into the cold. Back in the van we’d record our notes, in Data Assessment Plan format.

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OT woke unknown white male, approx. 40yoa w/ short salt-and-pepper beard and one shopping bag of belongings, at 6:15 a.m. on the heat grates by Harry Winston Jewelers. Client was not inclined to speak with OT. Client was properly dressed and did not appear to be at immediate risk. OT will continue to engage client as encountered. 

What we call homelessness began to appear in America during its early industrializing period. Its first archetype was the “tramp,” an unmoored white male moving from town to town in search of work, food and lodging. These men soon became defined by their symbiosis with the growing network of freight trains, on which they would ride uninvited chasing seasonal jobs. Their numbers swelled and shrunk apace with the familiar cycles of growth and depression, at times growing large enough to trigger bursts of charitable effort and punitive violence. But as time passed, the “hobo” became an accepted part of the American scene. In the early twentieth century—the heyday of “hobohemia,” as the itinerant lifestyle came to be called—they were actively recruited by the Industrial Workers of the World, who mythologized them as a kind of revolutionary proletarian vanguard, “the leaven of the industrial union movement.” Why don’t you work like other folks do?, someone asks the singer of “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” one of the satirical folk songs recorded in the Wobblies’ Little Red Songbook (“Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent”). How the hell can I work when there’s no work to do?, the Bum responds:

About five months ago, my unemployment ran out.
Now I stay in the shelters and travel about.
When I walk down the street, all the people I see
Look up, down and round, but they won’t look at me.

As Todd DePastino recounts in his excellent Citizen Hobo (2003), these migratory and still mostly white men would eventually come to serve as a reservoir for a wide set of anxieties and romances: the specter of socialism, the danger of non-Anglo immigration, the collapse of the family, the emasculation of the white male, the anomie of industrial society, the freedom of the road. But by the Forties the war effort had mostly absorbed this population, and in the years that followed the GI Bill and other federal programs channeled them into suburban homes and families. Soon the hobo class had faded from public presence, its remnants left hidden in the “skid row” districts of large cities.

This “postwar settlement,” though, was in many ways limited to members of white nuclear families, and so the same forces that absorbed the old homeless population began to generate a new one. The FHA’s infamous mortgage policies, which encouraged the white middle class to buy homes in the suburbs, also effectively trapped many poor black and Latino populations in the inner city. It was these populations who were hit hardest by the “urban crisis” of the late Sixties. White flight was capital flight, and many neighborhoods were siphoned of their resources and simply left to decay—if they weren’t demolished to build commuter highways. In the Seventies, as backlash against the victories of the various civil rights movements gained strength, lawmakers from both parties began slicing holes in the New Deal welfare state. Federal benefits had always been discriminatory and punitive, but they did provide many families a bulwark against total destitution; no longer, and total destitution grew increasingly common.

Across the same period, real estate was becoming an important vehicle for financial speculation. Developers began to reclaim the center city, which had now been sufficiently devalued, and in the process finally demolished or upcycled the “welfare hotels” and other cheap rooms that still housed the least lucky. In New York in 1960, there were approximately one hundred twenty-nine thousand single-room occupancy (SRO) units; in 1978, there were twenty-five thousand. At the same time the federal government essentially gave up on the idea of public housing—during the 1980s, HUD’s budget was cut by nearly 80 percent. So for many of those born into what sociologist Craig Willse calls, in his recent monograph The Value of Homelessness, a “concentration of vulnerabilities”—often from the inner city, almost always very poor, frequently women, and disproportionately black, Latino, or Native American—the options were prison, the shelter or the street.  It’s the casualties of this history—“surplus life,” as Willse puts it, “those who slip through the nets of incarceration”—who now some days wake to the murmured inquiries of outreach teams.

Writer met with client at 11:00 a.m. in the office in order to conduct psychosocial interview. Client grew emotional during the interview but was willing to respond to all of writer’s inquiries. Writer gleaned sufficient content to complete the document, and has updated client’s profile based on the information obtained. Writer will meet client at her street location next Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. in order to escort her to the SSI office.

In addition to my outreach role I was employed as a caseworker, tasked with supporting a roster of twenty or so clients who, having been designated “chronically homeless” by the long outreach process, were now eligible to apply for supportive housing. Steps included gathering proper identification (birth certificate, government photo ID, Social Security card, plus green card or proof of citizenship if applicable); gaining some sort of income, typically welfare or SSI; recording the client’s personal history; and having them undergo psychiatric evaluation. The completed dossier could then be filed with the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS), which would process it and send it onward though a network of third-party contractors. Depending on various metrics and categorizations—clients were assigned, for example, a numerical score intended to represent their vulnerability, i.e. likelihood of imminent death—these providers would reach out and offer to interview the client, or not. In the interim—indefinitely long—we would try to find them a bed in one of the few city “safe havens,” a kind of more exclusive shelter.

That was my anchor: human obligations, sometimes friendships, though always compromised and complicated and imbalanced. But if to my clients I was the more-or-less cheerful face of a humiliating system, meek ambassador of its tangled demands and forms and waiting rooms and moralisms, to the system itself I was simply one of many feeders. My mission was to gather and process the data on which this implacable queen was nourished. For hours every afternoon we recorded (in three different databases, each linked to a different funding source) what we’d seen and done—first meetings, long trips to welfare, visits to the hospital, funny conversations, pointed complaints—refining stories and traumas and needs into neat forms and notes to send through the tubes. It was all extremely urgent—for the sake of our clients!—though it was hard not to notice that the only party really flourishing was the queen herself. But perhaps this was right and good: for only a full-grown queen, we’d heard, could parse the great mystery of homelessness. One day she would; our part was to keep the faith, and keep the food coming.

Writer searched for client this morning in order to remind him that he would lose his safe haven bed if he did not return to it that evening. Writer did not encounter client in any of his usual locations. Writer will continue to search for client, and seek to find him a new bed if he does lose his current one.

To me, homelessness did not seem like such a mystery—there just wasn’t any cheap housing. In the last few decades, as the city has remade its image in glass and steel, the unhoused population has skyrocketed in tandem with the cost of rent. Over the course of Bloomberg’s apparently benevolent pluto-technocracy, the number of people staying in shelters grew by 69 percent, as the mayor simultaneously encouraged luxury development and destroyed a long-standing housing program. The people I worked with had mostly given up on the city’s shelter system—for good reason, since shelter conditions are generally terrible—and were sleeping on the street. But the vast majority of NYC’s homeless population, approximately sixty-one thousand people, stay in the shelters, and most of that population is made up of families, including some twenty-three thousand children.

The city’s current mayor, Bill de Blasio, has paid lip service to the idea that homelessness and the affordability crunch are related phenomena, but his efforts at developing cheap housing have only seemed to exacerbate the problem. In the 2015 August cover story for the New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg lucidly lays out the barriers to sane development policy; chief among them is the fact that the real estate lobby is the single largest donor in state politics. Probably not coincidentally, the administration’s current housing plan relies on private developers, who receive immense tax breaks for making minimal concessions toward affordability. Since the new developments are targeted at poor neighborhoods, and most of their technically affordable units are often well out of the price range of those neighborhoods’ residents, the projects end up serving as gateways for gentrification rather than viable solutions to the housing shortage.

In physical terms, there is space for everyone, even excluding those empty super-luxury lofts. In a 2012 survey of abandoned buildings, which landlords often leave vacant as they wait for property values to rise, the grassroots group Picture the Homeless—an organization founded by and made up of people who have been or are currently without homes—counted over two hundred thousand units. As José Rodriguez, a member of PTH, was recently quoted saying, “Bill de Blasio can’t keep letting the real estate lobby set his agenda. He needs to create real housing for the poorest New Yorkers, not bogus so-called affordable housing that doesn’t benefit the people who need it.”

Writer spoke with client this morning at 5:50 a.m. Client reports having been street homeless for the last three years, since being released from prison in the winter of 2013. Writer has confirmed in CARES that client has not spent significant time in shelters. Writer believes client to be eligible, and will bring him a verification letter tomorrow. Client says that someone at the Duane Reade he frequents might be able to fill it out for him. As client has now been sighted on the street five times, writer will submit client for caseload upon receipt of this letter. Client was adequately dressed for the weather and was not assessed to be at risk.

The city’s official database bore the ominous name CARES. No one ever told me what the acronym stood for. But if the bodies and minds of our clients decayed on the street while we typed and clicked, at least in that great virtual block of public housing, I consoled myself, their “data doubles” will lounge in ease forever. But then my client’s earthly fates too were bound to those doubles—the data determined how they would be scored and labeled, which determined how likely they were to get housing. We could only hope—or pretend—that they had suffered in the officially recognized ways. Frostbite was worth big points; cancer gave none, nor did Hepatitis C, which today is more deadly than HIV. Without a psychiatric diagnosis of some “severe and persistent mental illness,” the case was more or less hopeless. And there were narrative necessities too—the template for the personal-history document, basically a checklist of pathologies, required that we include some story of personal redemption. How has client demonstrated a willingness to turn his or her life around?

The system had its own account of homelessness, and it had nothing to do with average rent or median income. It had to do with desert, defined by the various overlapping and contradictory criteria left encrusted over decades of half-implemented reforms and realignments. And since our clients’ only hope was to be recognized by this system, we had to adopt its terms. Our efforts confirmed its specious logics, and the grant money kept trickling in, and the city announced new initiatives aimed at more accurate counting, and only very occasionally would someone move into an apartment.

In my more paranoid moods, which increased in frequency as time went on, it seemed I was a small particle in a mystifying fog of discipline and make-work, one arranged precisely to obscure the fact that rich people were going to keep taking all the places to live.

In fact, this is not far from Willse’s characterization of the situation. As he sees it, the role of the homeless service organizations is not to house the homeless, but to manage them, like the Park Service manages raccoons. This function, he writes, has become “an industry itself, a part of the knowledge and service economies.” As the federal government began to retreat from the direct provision of social service in the 1970s, the nonprofit sector quickly expanded into the space it left. Willse describes the process as a kind of structural adjustment at home: while the state no longer runs services directly, it still sets the vision through grants and regulations. A growing body of criticism argues that this “nonprofit industrial complex” (a tag coined by INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming and Trans People of Color Against Violence, who in 2007 put out the influential book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded) which rose to fill these templates has overgrown much of the space of real politics, squeezing out grassroots and community organizations or strangling them in reams of red tape. The NPIC, write Willse and Soniya Munshi in the introduction to the volume, “undermines grassroots people-powered movements by absorbing their work; marshaling funds, resources, and bases; prioritizing legal and reformist strategies; and promoting social-service provision over social change.” If you want to try to do something, the critique goes, it often seems possible only through organizations like the one I worked for, apolitical NGOs whose shapes and priorities and structures of belief are already determined by a whole conflicting meshwork of government and corporate-funder imperatives. “Where are the mass movements of today within this country?” asks Adjoa Florência Jones de Almeida in one of the volume’s essays. “The short answer: They got funded.”

Today at 11:00 a.m. writer and client traveled to LIC Job Center in order to apply for welfare and acquire emergency food stamps. Client and writer met with HRA agent Walpole at 2:20 p.m. and completed the application. Client was referred to WeCare for physical evaluation, and assigned two BEV appointments at the Brooklyn center on Monday and Thursday of next week, for which he will need a copy of his birth certificate and SS card. Client was awarded approx. $200 in emergency food stamps. Client expressed frustration to writer about the number of assigned appointments, but agreed to contact family and see if a copy of his BC could be mailed to the office before Thursday. Writer will meet client at his street location on Monday in order to escort him to the first BEV appointment.

I was not alone in my growing cynicism, but most of my coworkers managed to keep their anger directed outwards. Since our own worst practices were enveloped within and shaped by the city’s larger and even worse practices, we could easily imagine ourselves as the good guys, the allies, battling through the bad machinery on behalf of those we served. The working stance was to regard our challenges as facts of nature, and attack them as such: not products of human thinking and decisions, but geological features, like a cliff-face or a stretch of bad rapids.

Each month I would meet with my supervisor for a case conference. Sarah to me seemed supernatural: someone who, over years working in the service world, had managed to retain her passion and personal force, who with her clients could be receptive and encouraging and human, but who was absolutely mechanical and efficient when it came to navigating the system. It was as if she had managed to split herself in two; she was a cyborg, a conduit, a medium. The tragedy was that, since she had been promoted to a supervisory role, much of her time was now spent drafting meaningless reports.

John was first on our list. His psychiatric evaluation had been inconclusive. Because he was regularly smoking K2, the doctor couldn’t say for certain that the auditory hallucinations he had been experiencing were “self-generated.” That meant that John’s application would be stamped as Category E, for drug users without psych diagnoses, and people in Category E almost never got housing. If John could get into a detox program and stop smoking for a while, then he could get re-evaluated; and if he still reported hallucinations, he would have a good chance of getting into Category A, the category for the officially mentally ill. But John refused to detox without securing housing first. Life on the street was miserable now, he said, but he couldn’t even imagine how miserable it would be without the drugs.

“Shit,” said Sarah. “We need him to go. Otherwise he’s going to be waiting forever. He should totally get Cat A, right?”

“Totally.”

“Keep trying to convince him, I guess. He might come around when it starts to gets colder. How’s Skinny?”

“Stewing in the safe haven. Says it reminds him of the boarding schools, and jail. He was so angry with me the last time I saw him.”

“Oy. Have you talked to Amy? Still no interviews coming up?”

“Nothing’s come up for him since they changed the priority formula. You know how ‘years homeless’ is no longer a factor? That was his—”

“Yeah. Shit. Okay. He’s been outside for thirty years.”

“More or less.”

“We need to get him something.”

“I’m very worried.”

“How about Henderson?”

“I just called Bellevue. They discharged him at 6 a.m. this morning.”

“Thought they might hold him this time. Okay, did you talk to his social worker there?”

“I left a message.”

OT engaged client on 57th St. and 6th Avenue at 1:00 p.m., in response to a 311 call. Client explained that he had an apartment in the Bronx, but that he came to the city to panhandle most afternoons. Writer gave client a Street Sheet for information about local resources. Client was not assessed to be at risk.

In the summer, one of my clients made the cover of the Post. Paola was a Puerto Rican woman in her late fifties, small and wiry and wrinkled. She had been homeless in Manhattan for the better part of two decades, and for much of that time had moved up and down Midtown’s far west edge, an area long neglected but recently subject to a huge wave of development. I had been visiting her out there for most of the year. Even during the worst snow storms she stayed outside, and managed to feed the stray cats she cared for. Paola made money recycling cans and bottles, and had attracted the Post’s attention because of the size of her operation: she kept a collection of shopping carts, sometimes numbering in the twenties, which she would chain together and pull in a long train up and down 10th and 11th Avenues. At night, she would arrange the carts into a kind of fort, and rig it with booby-traps to snare potential invaders. Paola believed that she was being followed by mysterious and ill-intentioned men. This was why, she explained, she would never accept any sort of housing: trapped indoors, she would be too easy a target.

When the Post cover appeared, the reaction from City Hall was swift: they wanted her gone. A plan was drawn up. The city often orders “clean-ups” of homeless New Yorkers, which means sending a squad of sanitation workers and police officers to throw out their exposed belongings. In the past, they had targeted Paola only rarely, as she was fairly established in her neighborhood, on good terms with the local officers, and far from too much foot traffic. But the new idea was to conduct this operation every week: until Paola either gave up and accepted shelter, which would never happen, or became so enraged that a psychiatric “9.58” order could be justified, allowing the city to forcibly hospitalize her.

The scene recurred as follows. Handfuls of police, from various precincts and divisions, would gather by Paola’s location and mill about for a while, shaking hands and chatting and jotting down inscrutable notes. Eventually Sanitation would arrive, in their green safari jumpsuits, after which would follow more shaking of hands and note-jotting. Because of Paola’s high profile, other city functionaries sometimes showed up too—often someone from DHS, in an obligatory ill-fitting agency polo, and maybe a representative from the mayor’s office, usually wearing a suit. An outreach team (to which I was sometimes assigned) would also park nearby, to offer Paola “support.” All forces thus assembled, the small army would turn its attention to the task at hand: one or two sanitation workers would throw Paola’s things into a garbage truck while everyone else watched and chatted. She would often, though not always, become upset and enraged, walking up and down the block while screaming curses in English and Spanish. (Once a police officer issued her a ticket for “obstructing traffic,” and she ripped it in half with her teeth.) Finally, Paola would leave the scene, dragging a small laundry cart with her most essential belongings. Within a few days she would rebuild—but each time her collection was smaller, and her aspect grew increasingly harried and diminished. Outreach teams were sent to track her location: in order to make sure she was okay, to screen her for suicidal ideation, which would be grounds for the 9.58, and to let the police know where she would be in the morning.

Finally, after weeks of these repeated “clean-ups”—for a time there was a lull, and then a new Post cover appeared—the 9.58 order was issued when Paola supposedly struck an outreach car with her hand. She was hospitalized and ordered by a judge to receive antipsychotic injections. During her hospital stay, the city fast-tracked her through the housing process, skipping most of the usually necessary documentation. While she continued to explain that she would not feel safe indoors, Paola was made to understand that accepting the apartment was the only way she would be able to leave the hospital. Soon enough she had signed a lease and been given keys to a small SRO in an old building in Midtown, not too far from her usual stomping grounds. The process took a tenth of the time it usually would, and Paola was housed in a coveted spot. (There is very little supportive housing in Manhattan, and many placements are deep in the Bronx.) After discharge from the hospital, she was no longer forced to take medication, and was assigned a full team of aid workers to help her adjust. I helped her move in, and was surprised to find that the cardboard box I carried to her room held three young pigeons. When I visited a few days later she seemed basically happy. Last I heard, she was spending at least half her evenings indoors.

Sickened by the way things had gone, by my own complicity and my vindictive hope that Paola leave her new housing, I quit the job shortly after her move. Life got easier, though my guilt continued to run its feeble laps. Had I left because I had conviction, or because I was tired and soft? Were my half-formed politics just a cover for a more basic fecklessness? I seemed to myself just a tangle of resentment, pacing around my shared flat in the center of Crown Heights, the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where many of my former clients grew up but could never afford to live now. I lay on the couch and looked at books. I microwaved taquitos filled with miserable meat processed by miserable workers, I took walks in my sweatshop sneakers, I texted far-flung friends on my sweatshop phone. I confessed my bad faith in good faith, and then in bad faith. I took more walks.

But eventually I got tired of vibing on my own disaffection, and I tried to quit that too. Maybe I’d lost my dream of on-the-job redemption; but people were going to lose their homes, and they weren’t going quietly. Across the city, community and tenant organizations are pushing for alternative, actually inclusive housing models. A few blocks from my own room, a battle is being waged over the city’s proposed sale of the Bedford-Union Armory to for-profit private developers, an ostensibly public-interest project which, out of 386 units, would include eighteen apartments affordable to local residents. De Blasio supports the plan, but neighborhood resistance has been fierce.

Recently, a coalition of local groups has demanded that the site be developed as a Community Land Trust (CLT), the model long advocated by Picture the Homeless. Under a CLT, community members would form an organization to take ownership of the land, allowing neighborhood residents to set and maintain their own criteria for affordability indefinitely and keep the property safe from speculation. Though the demand is ambitious, successful examples do exist, and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development recently announced that it was awarding some $1.65 million to four different CLT projects across the city. The money isn’t much, and my own presence, at rallies and board meetings, remains fraught and furtive. But the investment—of both cash and idealism—seems to me hopeful. Maybe someday, here in the richest city in the richest country in the world, the idea that no person should have to live without stable and dignified housing will not be taken as a fantasy.

Image credits: Euan, LeoLondon (CC BY / Flickr)

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