The Common Good
March-April 2003

The Shipping News

by Julie Polter | March-April 2003

Where oh where can we put the homeless?

Some New York City officials went to the Bahamas last fall to assess retired cruise ships as possible emergency housing for the homeless. (No, housing-free families would not get airfare to Miami—the ship would be brought to Manhattan and docked there.) Talk about your hand-me-downs. When I first heard this, I mentally cued The Love Boat theme and pictured a chirpy cruise director cajoling tired homeless parents through swing-dance lessons while a disco ball flashed above a festive all-you-can-eat buffet of soup and day-old bread.

But then I read the details: The ship's disco facilities and bars would be removed. (No shaking your groove thing on the city's dime, folks.) It could be worse: Recently a Baptist minister in San Francisco suggested that a mothballed Navy ship could be refurbished to serve as shelter for that city's thousands of homeless people. Anchors aweigh!

New York City's economy nose-dived after 9-11, exacerbating an already serious housing crisis. In December 2002, a record-breaking 38,000 people were sleeping in New York City shelters and emergency housing. Almost 80 percent of those were children and their families. For more than 20 years there has been a legal right to emergency shelter in New York. Last summer to meet this obligation the city placed homeless people in a former jail in the Bronx (until complaints by housing advocates and a court order made them stop). So the city is looking for options, and, as officials point out, most of the quarters on cruise ships were designed for families, though the spaces are not much larger than jail cells.

To be fair, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, even in the midst of severe fiscal crisis, has put forward a plan to build and preserve 65,500 affordable homes in the city over the next five years. This is the sort of long-term solution that advocates for the homeless clamor for.

BUT IN THE meantime, about this ship thing: So it's just an idea, and the city might never pursue it. If it did, what would be the problem? Advocates for the homeless claim that a ship would isolate its residents from neighborhoods, services, jobs, and schools and further stigmatize them for their poverty. But at least one city official looks on the bright side and notes that the cruise-ship shelter would also avoid the problem of citizen complaints that usually arise when a facility for homeless people is moved into a neighborhood. (Not in my drydock!)

Which sort of brings us to the strange crux of the matter—many people in severe poverty would love nothing more than to have a real neighborhood or community that they could call home, while those of us with some means are always looking for ways to get away from it all. If you have lots of cash, a boat means a cruise, a sailboat, maybe even a yacht. If you're cash-poor, a boat is apt to slip other images into the subconscious, of all the seagoing ways of being trapped or exiled: quarantine ships, slave ships, boats full of refugees turned away at the harbor entrance.

With so many cities across the country trying to make homeless people disappear (through vagrancy arrests and tucked-away shelters), and so many wealthy people trying to make themselves disappear behind gated communities and tax shelters, it's no wonder so many people seem not to see the growing income disparity in the country. What disparity? Haven't seen it all week!

In the end, the only thing that's certain is that getting away on a cruise is a whole different vacation package than coming "home" to a ship. At least with the former you get a disco.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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