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.
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.