On the last Monday of January, 3,000 volunteers fanned out across parks, streets, and subways to collect information on the New York City’s unsheltered homeless population. The results of this annual survey, the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE), were announced by the City’s Department of Homeless Services on Friday, and they sit on a slope that’s familiar to those who have followed trends in homelessness in the city this millennium. The homeless population living in public spaces rose 6% since last year to an estimated 3,357 people, a figure that advocates contend severely understates the true total. But Homeless Services is also quick to point out a different trend, that these numbers still represent a 24% reduction since 2005.
But each figure — one seemingly a bit of progress, the other a step back — belie the complexity of homelessness in New York. While the unsheltered population has dropped in recent years, shelter numbers have dramatically grown. The daily count of sheltered homeless individuals for Monday was 53,513, just under the all-time record of 53,615 set in January and representing a 70+% increase from January 2002. The City has its largest homeless population since the Great Depression. And while the well-reported dearth of affordable housing in the city is a primary cause of this crisis, changes in opportunities for homeless individuals to access permanent housing have left the shelter system overburdened and their residents stagnant. In 2005, the Bloomberg administration turned away from a strategy of providing the homeless with Section 8 rent vouchers and placement in federally funded housing. The shift toward a series of short-term subsidies has led recipients into a cycle of temporary housing punctuated with repeated homelessness. And the City also began to rely more heavily on for-profit emergency shelters as the homeless population ballooned. With this demand came a new supply, as opportunistic landlords emptied Single Room Occupancy residences, a waning form of affordable housing, to convert them into shelters in which a cubicle size room can be rented to the City for upwards of $3,600 a month.
Picture the Homeless is a grassroots organization led by homeless people that organizes around issues of housing, police violence, and such profit-motivated abuse of the shelter system. Marcus Moore, a formerly homeless individual involved in the group’s civil rights and housing campaigns, and Sam Miller, the policy and communications coordinator, intimately understand the web of stigma, housing, and real estate that make confronting homelessness such a multifaceted undertaking. Below, read excerpts from our conversation with Moore and Miller on their ongoing work — including the identification of vacant property for development as affordable housing and the establishment of a community land trust in East Harlem — that demonstrates how housing those New Yorkers currently without homes cannot be divorced from larger questions of civil rights, budgetary priorities, and housing affordability. –J.T.
I’ll never forget: I was in the cafeteria of a shelter for homeless men on Wards Island. I picked up a flyer about a meeting for the civil rights and housing campaigns run by Picture the Homeless (PTH). I said to my buddies, “This is where we’re going next.” It wasn’t a job, so they didn’t want to go. But I went, and I was blown away with the knowledge and the diversity in the room — I was looking at those folks like they had four heads! Lucky for me, they had those campaigns, I was free that week, and I wanted to volunteer. To this day, I just can’t stop.
Picture the Homeless was founded in 1999 by two homeless individuals. They wanted to organize the homeless community around issues of social justice and to challenge misrepresentations of homelessness. We continue to be a grassroots organization led by homeless or formerly homeless individuals, including Marcus. Our bylaws actually mandate that 75% of the Board of Directors must be homeless or formerly homeless, and about 50% of our staff has experienced homelessness. That makes a difference, because there’s a lot of wisdom, strength, and experience that informs our work that comes from dealing with something as horrific as homelessness.
Homelessness takes many different forms. Some homeless individuals are recent immigrants; some work full-time minimum wage jobs, have college educations, or teach in public schools. It can look different in different communities, but fundamental to our mission is that we’re a stage for all homeless and formerly homeless people to work together. We may differ on a lot of things, but homelessness is the issue where our members are all on the same page, and we need to do something about it. We don’t close the door to anyone.
Before I came to PTH, I was doing low-wage worker organizing. I met several members of our group at the New York City Organizing Support Center in 2004. They made it clear how radically different the work can be when shaped by the people who are dealing with a problem, as opposed to a more conventional labor organizing model. And our membership represents a community that is structurally marginalized from progressive and social justice movements. Because people have been trained to see homelessness as a product of individual dysfunction — substance abuse or mental illness — approaching it as a social justice issue is a radical notion. Not long after I met them, I joined as a housing organizer, transitioned to lead organizer after four years, and now I’m the policy and communications coordinator.
We’re based in the Fordham neighborhood of the Bronx. In 2006, we lost our lease in East Harlem and were looking for a new home. We had the money to pay the rent, but as soon as someone would find out the name of our organization, the space would fall through. Katrina Foster, a pastor at Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church, called us right before we were about to start working out of a Burger King with our cellphones and suggested this whole building. We have the Homeless Liberation Reference Library, a kitchen where folks can cook, meeting space — it’s really homey.
As a formerly homeless person, having this space where I can come and just take a shower or a class or have a cup of coffee is very refreshing and rewarding. This is my second home. I can go out there on the porch and clear my thoughts. Nobody is going to bother me if I’m not being social because everyone understands that this is a space where you can come to be safe.
We have a civil rights campaign that centers around educating homeless New Yorkers, as well as formerly homeless and housed New Yorkers, on their rights. The homeless have a lot of negative interactions with the police on the street, because that’s where they live and the police aren’t aware of how they live.
Beat cops are under a huge amount of pressure to get homeless people out of public space by any means necessary. There’s this broken windows idea that the homeless scare people, that they make people think that society is breaking down. And the police are under immense pressure to fill quotas.
So if the police don’t have a real reason to give you a ticket, they will cite you for disorderly conduct. That could mean anything; it could mean whatever the police officer wants to make up that afternoon.
That’s an easy way for a police officer to fill a quota. They’re under no obligation to explain what the person was doing, which also makes it easier to get the citation thrown out in court. We’ve seen people get disorderly conduct tickets for sleeping! You don’t have any conduct when you’re sleeping. So part of the civil rights campaign are trainings — Marcus does a ton — where we talk about how to deal with that: how to record that the ticket is too vague to defend, which helps to eventually get it thrown out.
Ordinary people also need to know their rights, because it isn’t just homeless people whose rights are being violated. So we welcome everybody — if you’re willing to come and learn from homeless and formerly homeless people, we have a seat for you to come and participate.
We spent years working in isolation on reforming homeless policing policy, but beginning in 2012 we partnered with over 60 grassroots organization in New York as part of Communities United for Police Reform to get the Community Safety Act passed. We looked at all the groups negatively impacted by the police to come up with a solution that addresses all situations: youth of color being disproportionately stopped and frisked, Muslims being surveilled by the NYPD, LGBTQ harassment, etc. It is, if not the signature, one of the main organizing victories during the Bloomberg era, which was defined by attempts to pass progressive bills over strenuous objections from the Mayor and the City Council. And our bill is the first in the country that specifically prohibits the police from profiling people based on their perceived homelessness.
And you can see how strong our coalition is. When Police Commissioner Bratton decided that he wanted to sweep the homeless folks off the E train, we came in numbers. You mess with one, you mess with all. And we are practicing a form of community policing, where we are watching the police to hold them accountable. Any time they come through this community, we are going to pull out our cameras — they are not going to be slapping or disrespecting our neighbors, our aunts, our uncles, and our friends anymore. This comes out of our Homeless Organizing Academy, which provides different classes on advocacy and action.
New York City is legally obligated to shelter the homeless, to give people a safe place to get back on their feet. And they should — people need to have shelters. At the same time, the Department of Homeless Services, in a way, is over-funded. Some folks are in the system for many years, and it costs $3,000 a month to keep them there. If we could start using some of that money to build permanent affordable housing, we could fund a lot of projects and still have the shelter as a safety net for when things happen.
The shelter system should be a pathway out of homelessness, not a place where people profit off of homelessness or a place where people languish because all the programs that help people secure housing were cut. But that’s what it is now.
Our housing campaign focuses on the creation of permanent affordable housing. One aspect of that campaign is to draw attention to vacant properties as opportunities to develop that housing. We proposed a bill, Intro 48, that would have empowered the City to conduct an annual survey of vacant property and to catalogue who owns them and how long they have been vacant. We had 26 councilmembers sign on, but the bill was never passed; then-Council Speaker Christine Quinn told us that it would cost too much money. So in 2011 we rolled up our sleeves and hit the pavement with some of our allies from Hunter College and help from then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to count vacant buildings in neighborhoods across the city on our own. Go look through the data that we recorded; it’s just unbelievable. No one is really taking heat about these stored-up vacancies that could be permanent housing. Meanwhile, we are packing folks into the shelter system with taxpayer money.
It’s been an unexpectedly tough fight. On the surface, counting buildings doesn’t seem like the most radical proposal. But vacancy now looks very different than it did in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when a massive amount of land was abandoned and the City acquired all these vacant buildings or slum buildings. City government became the biggest landlord in the city, and there was a lot of motion from homesteaders who wanted to move in and fix these buildings up. That’s not the case anymore. Now the vast majority of vacant buildings are privately owned and registered to limited liability companies (LLCs) that obscure who the owner really is. We know big banks own a lot of them, and they are used as speculative investments: the buildings are kept empty until neighborhoods gentrify and they can be flipped into something much more expensive. This is especially a problem with rent-controlled buildings. We estimate that there are about 14,000 rent-stabilized units in the vacant properties that we counted. I think landlords are really nervous to have a light shined on them because the figures are staggering. We’re excited that Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan does include a census of vacant properties, but of course the devil will be in the details.
We also do “sleep outs” in front of some vacant buildings to bring the issue of warehoused and decaying vacant buildings to the attention of different councilmembers, especially when they have refused to meet with us to discuss it.
This kind of action evolves pretty logically from who our members are. Sleeping out is a reality for tons of homeless individuals. But doing it together is different: it’s considered a valid protest tactic and it’s a way for allies and people who have never slept on the street themselves to see what it looks and feels like. It’s a good way to dramatize the reality of it.
We are also working on a pilot project for a community land trust based in East Harlem. We have deep roots there — as I mentioned, our office used to be in the neighborhood, and before we did the larger vacancy count we did a local one that showed that it has one of the highest densities of vacant property among those we surveyed. It also sends more families into the shelter system than any other Manhattan neighborhood. We have a deep partnership with Councilwoman (and now Speaker) Melissa Mark-Viverito and a good relationship with Community Board 11 as well.
Community land trusts came up as a possible tool to prevent affordable housing loss in the neighborhood from a couple of angles: the New Economy Project was working with Columbia University on a graduate planning studio that considered the trusts as an option to address the foreclosure epidemic, and Community Board 11 was working with the Regional Plan Association on a study that suggested the trusts as a tool to stem broader affordable housing loss. All of these people were talking about them, so we wanted to figure out how to implement one, and the New York City Community Land Initiative was born. We recently hired someone specifically to organize tenants and residents of slum buildings and other types of threatened housing to educate residents on community land trusts and figure out how their buildings can be a part of one.
We’ve seen some early things out of the new mayoral administration that make us very nervous — like the appointment of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who has a really bad track record around homelessness — and other things to be excited about — like the census of vacant properties and a pilot program to funnel shelter money into affordable housing development. We’re not a community that any politician feels obligated to appeal to, so we’re going to have to put a lot of pressure on the administration and work collaboratively and supportively when we can, and confrontationally when we have to.
I would like to sit down and have a meeting with the mayor. The people who are affected by homelessness know the system best, and the administration can learn from us. And we have to be confident. We’re this David and Goliath — we’re constantly battling this giant, this elephant, because so many folks are not aware of what we’re doing to create a better world. But if we don’t do it, who else will? As members of Picture the Homeless, it’s our responsibility.
All images courtesy of Picture the Homeless.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.