The Story Behind the Story
December 30, 2015
Every week, the news media reports on issues relevant to the work we support. But often, these accounts tell only a small part of a more complicated and nuanced story. In our new series, we ask our grantees to fill in the blanks. Discover the events leading up to the story and how the issue fits into the bigger picture. Find out what’s next for the people involved and their partners who are behind the scenes.
Today’s “Story Behind the Story” was sent to us by Sam Miller, communications director of Picture the Homeless. They are a member-led group that works to advocate for homeless New Yorkers.
Here’s their story:
As the New York Times reported on December 17th, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently unveiled a “new” plan for dealing with homelessness. His Home-Stat program centers on “an expanded group of outreach workers” to gather data; in addition, “a police unit focused on the homeless population will also grow.”
People who are currently experiencing homelessness had a lot to say about that.
“More case workers, more cops – that does nothing for me,” said Jesus Morales, a member of Picture the Homeless, who has lived on the street for over 15 years. “This new program is just more of the same. Meanwhile the cops are treating homeless people like dirt, every day. That’s the problem the mayor needs to fix. Just hours before this big announcement, I got woken up by a cop, kicking me. Didn’t offer me help, didn’t offer me anything. Kicked me, hard, and told me to go. This happens every day. To all of us. To me and my brothers”
Announcing the program, Mayor de Blasio said “We’ll have the most up-to-date and specific information on the street homeless population we have ever had. And we’ll perform rigorous analysis of that data to determine what people need.”
But lack of data isn’t the problem. And you don’t need to spend money on more cops and more case workers to determine what people need. People need housing. If people have additional problems, like substance abuse or mental illness issues, then they might also need supportive services, but the bottom line is: housing. All the case workers in the world can’t get people into homes that don’t exist.
We were glad to see the NYT article take the Mayor to task for his administration’s dishonest language, framing groups of street homeless people as “encampments” even though these folks are not building structures or otherwise “encamping” – they’re simply occupying public space, as is their constitutional right. The article points out how the Mayor’s “boasting that the police had cleared 30 homeless encampments” was “a moment that appeared to have been meant as an applause line,” but instead it “brought forth an uncertain, tepid response from the crowd.”
“This new program won’t help anyone,” said Floyd Parks, a member of Picture the Homeless who currently lives on the street. “They already know these things – they have this data. HOME-STAT is nothing but politics. The Mayor and the police commissioner are trying to show people they’re doing something, to get the public off their back, but there’s nothing to it… except more surveillance and more police targeting homeless African-Americans and Hispanics. Commissioner Bratton talks about using this information to help “service-resistant” people, but the services that are out there are not worth going to. I spent six months in a shelter. ‘Quality of life’ doesn’t exist in the shelter system. It’s dog eat dog in there. I even got a “LINC” housing voucher, and spent months trying to use it. I had three interviews for apartment, and was turned down for every one because I was homeless. That’s illegal, but it happened. In the end, the voucher expired. So, if HOME-STAT is about spending more money on getting more data on us, to help connect us to the same old services, that’s a waste of time. We need housing. It’s really simple. They’ve studied us, looked down on us, treated us like animals, arrested us, warehoused us in shelters… Now they need to listen to us. We need housing.”
Shelters cost more than housing. Arresting people costs more than housing them – the total cost to taxpayers on one unnecessary arrest is $1,700 – meaning it’s cheaper to pay someone’s rent for a month than to arrest them and put them through the system.
There are more effective strategies. Homeless people have a better plan. We collaborated with nonprofit housing developers to create the Gaining Ground Pilot Project, which uses the community land trust model to save taxpayers money at the same time as it develops housing, incubates small businesses, creates jobs, and slows down displacement from gentrification. The Gaining Ground Pilot Project will utilize various city resources, including city tax levy funds and DHS funding, to develop and preserve permanently affordable and high-quality housing for individuals and families who are currently homeless or at-risk of homelessness. In so doing, the Project will build a replicable model through which the city could effectively create and preserve thousands of units of housing by re-investing shelter resources on a wider scale, ensuring affordability to residents of extremely low income, who currently make up over ⅕ of the population of the city, and nearly the entire population of the DHS shelter system.
These are the solutions the mayor should be investing in. We’re currently in negotiations with two different deputy mayors’ offices to help bridge the vast bureaucratic gulf between homelessness and housing, but City Hall won’t budge until we build broad support for these crazy, commonsense ideas among the general public – people like the folks who read this New York Times article.
The simple solutions identified by homeless people put us up against the real estate industry’s desire to continue profiting from displacement due to skyrocketing rents – and few forces are more powerful than that. To that end, our members and organizers have a lot of work ahead of them. We’ve been racking up endorsers for Gaining Ground (check out this ever-expanding list!). We’ve been doing constant outreach to bring other homeless people living in the shelters and on the street into the fight. We’ve been planning a powerful series of direct actions.
2016 is going to be a busy year for us.
Learn more about Picture the Homeless at picturethehomeless.org.