The Common Good
December 2012

Homeless, Not Helpless

by Robert Hirschfield | December 2012

In New York City, an activist group of homeless and formerly homeless people challenges the powers that be.

THE RED, RUN-DOWN, two-story frame house on Morris Avenue in the West Bronx that houses the Picture the Homeless offices looks much like those around it, except for the organization’s blue banner that hangs from the porch. The youths (there are older members too) who log in to their homeless blogs and look for jobs on the computers upstairs, surrounded by images of Zapata and the Selma freedom marchers, are mainly black and Latino, and they could be almost any of the young people you see on the street. Picture the Homeless is seamlessly embedded in this New York City neighborhood, where the new poor from Africa and South Asia join the long-established poor from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Picture the Homeless (PTH) combines social action, advocacy, outreach, and community and is run almost exclusively by homeless and formerly homeless New Yorkers. The organization’s name references the importance of challenging widespread stereotypes about people who are homeless. “Don’t talk about us; talk with us” is a PTH slogan, and it claims as a founding principle that “in order to end homelessness, people who are homeless must become an organized, effective voice for systemic change.”

Kendall Jackman, in her 50s, one of PTH’s housing organizers, lives in a women’s shelter not far from Morris Avenue. The former postal worker from Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood—“No matter where I live, I will always be a Bed-Stuy girl,” she said—lost her housing two years ago when the building she was living in was foreclosed on.

“Of the 72 women in my shelter, 69 of us either work or go to school,” Jackman said. “With no low-income housing available, shelters are now the homes of the working poor.”

Jackman is one of 10,000 single adults living in the New York City shelter system (more than 7,500 are men; almost 2,600 are women). Family shelters house a little more than 10,600 families. The NYC Department of Homeless Services puts the number of unsheltered homeless at 3,200, a figure disputed by Giselle Routhier, a policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, who claims it “does not account for people sleeping in non-public or invisible areas.”

PTH owes its birth to the authorities’ reaction to a gruesome act of violence in November 1999. A young woman named Nicole Barrett had her head bashed in with a six-pound brick by a panhandler in Manhattan. Her injuries required two brain operations. Mayor Rudy Giuliani ordered the police to raid homeless shelters in search of felons. There were many beatings and arrests. One night, at the Bellevue Shelter, where Anthony Williams and Lewis Haggins were residents, Haggins witnessed the beating of a defenseless resident by the police.

The violence transformed Williams and Haggins from homeless shelter residents into homeless revolutionaries. The two men (Haggins has since died, and Williams is now married and living in Lancaster, Pa.) began trying to get homeless people organized to defend their civil rights. Williams was ordered out of the Bellevue Shelter, and Haggins went with him. Picture the Homeless was born.

“Charas gave them space to hold meetings,” said Lynn Lewis, PTH’s director, referring to the late, legendary community center on the Lower East Side, “because homeless men at Bellevue would be labeled trouble-makers if they spoke out. I was at the first meeting. Lewis and Anthony set up around 40 chairs, but only a couple of people showed up. One of them was this guy who was either high or agitated, and he kept complaining about case workers. Lewis told him, ‘We are not here to talk about individual problems. We are here to change the system.’”

Williams and Haggins, she said, lived on the streets, riding the subways at night, or sometimes staying with anyone who would put them up. From this itinerant start a formal organization developed that maintains a commitment to keep the decision-making power with folks who are homeless or formerly homeless.

PTH SOMETIMES organizes public marches against police use of stop-and-frisk tactics and the “warehousing” of vacant buildings and lots by the city and by private developers. But it also makes it its business to establish a presence in places such as POTS (Part of the Solution), the West Bronx soup kitchen founded by the recently deceased Jesuit priest Father Ned Murphy. (If cuts in food stamps are our future, the Bronx, with its abundance of soup kitchens, is the face of that future.)

“You will always find homeless people at soup kitchens,” said Andres Perez, a 47-year-old single father who lived for two years at the University Shelter with his son, also Andres, now 12, who has physical and learning disabilities. Perez was lucky enough to obtain a Section 8 voucher while at University Shelter, enabling him and his son to move into a one-room apartment in the Bronx. “I am confident talking to [people who are homeless], because almost all of us at PTH have been through what they have been through.”

Jean Rice, his wiry 73-year-old co-worker and a fixture at PTH, puts it more forcefully: “We are not a bunch of textbook theorists.”

PTH has around 1,500 homeless (or homeless when they joined) members. A $5 donation makes you a member for life. Rice is no ordinary member. A kind of radical sage whose activism goes back decades, he initiated, along with Lynn Lewis, the Wards Island outreach.

“We go to 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, where buses take newly released prisoners from upstate prisons to the Wards Island Shelter. The men are sent back to New York City with a $20 bill, and wind up on Wards Island, embittered, with no community to speak of. They are the most alienated of all the homeless people we encounter.”

It is hard, Rice said, cutting through the apathy of homeless people who accept powerlessness as part of being homeless. (Although in the 1980s, single mothers in welfare hotels such as the Brooklyn Arms and The Martinique organized against abuses by shelter personnel, and for affordable housing. Men in a Manhattan shelter did likewise.)

Sam Miller, a policymaker for PTH, sees the situation more positively. “Many of our members are from the shelters,” Miller said. “They are frustrated about conditions there, and they push back. They try to organize. Some get kicked out. They come to us. Picture the Homeless members were hugely involved in the Occupy movement at Zuccotti Park. Some, who had been squatting, left their squats and went down there and stayed to the end. They attended all the General Assembly meetings. Homelessness became one of the angles the media jumped on to attack Occupy Wall Street. They said, ‘It’s overrun with homeless people.’”

PTH also has a civil rights component. It has banded together with Communities United for Police Reform to oppose the stop-and-frisk practices of the New York police. Since many of the homeless people in New York are African American or Latino, PTH’s community suffers disproportionate profiling.

“People who live in the streets and sleep on subways are getting arrested all the time,” said Ryan Gibbs, 42, who himself was on the streets for four years and now works on the group’s civil rights steering committee. “The police say stop-and-frisk is to get guns off the street, but all they do is make the lives of homeless people unbearable.”

PTH has also waded into the rough chambers of the New York City Council, over which Big Real Estate holds sway. Miller estimates the city pays approximately $1,500 to $2,000 a month to keep homeless singles in shelters, and up to $3,500 a month to shelter homeless families.

“That’s more than what would be spent on rent, and that’s what we emphasize. All the money that’s spent on shelters should be going to rehabilitate housing and create affordable housing. To create real housing for 41,000 people will mean getting landlords and real estate brokers involved, and that won’t be easy.”

One councilperson PTH has been able to influence is Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat from Spanish Harlem. Viverito introduced in the council PTH’s homeless-authored Intro 48, a bill that would oblige the city to conduct an annual count of vacant buildings and lots. The bill, which has 29 co-sponsors, has been languishing in committee more than two years. Its passage, PTH hopes, would result in long-vacated properties, public and private, being turned into low-income housing.

The group supports setting up community land trusts that would transfer city properties—and perhaps, at some point, privately owned vacant properties—to not-for-profits to be administered as affordable and sustainable low-income housing units.

“These land trusts,” said Lynn Lewis, “would serve to de-commodify housing, a necessary step toward solving the homeless problem.”

She looks to the Cooper Square Community Land Trust on the Lower East Side as a model. After years of fighting to keep the city from selling their buildings to developers (the buildings were city-owned), the predominantly poor tenants, led by the Cooper Square Committee, forced the municipality to let them establish a land trust, aimed at ensuring that all necessary maintenance bills were paid and that the 21 buildings would function, unimpeded, as a low-income housing site.

From its earliest days as a movement, PTH has enjoyed close ties with Judson Memorial Church, the peace church in Greenwich Village. Back in 2000, Judson’s senior minister, Peter Laarman, gave PTH a home there and allowed the steps of its church to be used by Haggins and Williams to protest the transferring of troublesome shelter residents to Camp LaGuardia upstate. In recent years, Judson has hosted PTH’s Longest Night vigil on the winter solstice, memorializing the homeless who have died in the streets the past year.

Michael Ellick, assistant minister at Judson and a founder of Occupy Faith, said of the vigil, “There is a space created for people to share their stories and lift them up in prayer, and for those who don’t believe, to acknowledge in their own way what they lost. We try to do what Occupy did, which is to go beyond simply working on political issues, and give dignity and context and community to the homeless.”

When Adrian Antonio Paling, PTH’s veteran housing organizer, walks up and down the long, disheartened lunch lines outside POTS on Webster Avenue, he is often asked: “Does Picture the Homeless have apartments?”

It doesn’t, he says, but it does have housing meetings every Thursday evening, when people get together and talk about fighting for housing for the poor. Many in the line agree to come. It is clear they don’t expect miracles. But Paling shows up every week. He is young and Latino, like many of them, and he cares. Inside the door he opens, they see the warm light of support, the flicker of possibility.

Robert Hirschfield is a New York City-based freelance writer.

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