The Homeless: An Invisible Society

The Homeless: An Invisible Society

By: Serinna Bradfield, Corin Greene, Marilyn M, and Deborah Watman

On the corner of 8th avenue and 42nd street, the familiar sound of coins tinkling against a tin can are heard. The white, middle aged smiling man holding this can is named Al. He is homeless and asks all who pass by for help. Al is happy to talk and explain his living situation. He has not had a permanent residence for ten years, but still, “I am not homeless” is what he will tell you. The sleepless streets of New York City are his home, the people who pass by and share those streets are his neighbors. “You are all my community,” he says.

Wearing jeans, a jacket and a baseball cap, Al does not stand out, and if it weren’t for the can, he would not be immediately pegged as a poor homeless guy on the street. He speaks clearly and passionately about the homeless situation in NYC and states how important it is for people to reach out and volunteer. Al has an interesting idea; he says that it is most important that the homeless people volunteer. They should work at the soup kitchens that they benefit from, or advocate on behalf of themselves. Al says how important it is to educate people about the homeless situation, which he does so himself by blogging on his computer.

Now noticeable behind him is a small wagon which contains all his belongings , including the computer. How he purchased it remains unclear. In fact, many parts of Al’s persona are initially perplexing. He talks about how he lived in Chelsea for a couple of months as if he owned this great apartment. In reality, he was living on the streets. He discusses the issue of homelessness and the importance of motivating the unmotivated as if he is a politician or a professor. What becomes clear is that Al does not seem to have an issue with the fact that he lives on the streets. The idea that he has lived there for ten years, without making any effort to work again, though he is probably able, suggests that Al is satisfied with living with no address. He loves the city and takes full advantage of the public space that the sidewalks will provide. Al seems content in this great city, but is the city content with having him there?

The Public Perception of the Homeless Population

Those who are homeless are usually considered the foreign “out of place” people, despite the fact they are regular humans that have merely been targeted as the “other”. Although there are criminals among the homeless, making an ideology of criminalizing the homeless and poor, reinforces stereotypes. People feel that the homeless man on the street may be dangerous and will divert their eyes as they pass by. After hearing about one homeless man who stabbed another man in the face in the Kew Gardens Union Turnpike subway station, the negative stereotypes are perpetuated, and people will believe that all homeless men are the same way.

In Talmadge Wright’s book Out of Place, Captain William Bayer, a former commanding officer of the Central Park precinct said, “The answer is, we have to cut off the head of the enemy and the enemy is the homeless…They are the predators”. In addition, Wright states that the public generally believes that the homeless and the panhandlers, or beggars who approach strangers for money, are the same people. In fact, only a small percentage of the homeless are panhandlers, and vice versa. For many of the homeless, panhandling may be the only way to provide them with needed goods and help them survive. Passive panhandling is allowed in New York City, while aggressive forms of panhandling is illegal.

When thinking of public locations of the homeless, the first places that come to mind are the urban streets and subways. The general public imagines the homeless person to be located in a doorway, an alley, on a street corner, or roaming the streets and the underground subway systems. These are the “visible” homeless, and they make up less than ten percent of the entire homeless population of New York City. The rest of the population – the majority – resides in homeless shelters throughout the city, invisible to the public. More than half of the population cycle in and out of homelessness, and often go back and forth between the homes of family or friends, or between jails and hospitals. The majority of the population remains unseen, while the general public remains unaware.

Managing the Homeless

In 1982, criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling, develop the broken windows theory. Metaphorically speaking, one broken window, meaning one action of disorderly behavior, in an urban environment will invite more dangerous crimes to occur because of a lack of care about urban space. Disorderly behavior includes activities like aggressive panhandling, public urination, and unlicensed peddling. This is a pernicious theory of public space because it says that homeless people are nothing more than “broken windows” that show the decline of a community. Wilson and Kelling argue that “The citizen who fears the…importuning beggar…is giving voice to a bit of folk wisdom that happens to be a correct generalization…”  Although many critics disagree with this theory, it is still being used today to prevent any potential misdemeanors. The New York City Police Department looks out for broken windows and is quick to punish minor quality-of-life offenses like unlicensed street peddling and fare-beating on buses in an attempt to discourage more serious crimes from occurring.

Homeless people are viewed with an even closer eye and get arrested for doing basic human tasks in public. For example, they are arrested for sleeping on park benches when the parks are closed to the public. Additionally, it is illegal to sleep in or near subways and to wash car windows on the city streets in New York. According to Don Mitchell’s book The Right to the City, by doing private actions in public space, homeless people threaten not just the space itself but also the values upon which the public has constructed its concepts of citizenship. People feel unsafe and threatened when a homeless person sleeps on the subway with his or her luggage; they usually move away from the person. Thus, the public does not consider the  homeless as legitimate citizens with sovereignty over their actions. Anti-homeless legislation institutionalized this perception. Mitchell states that homeless people cannot perform private tasks in any other place other than public space (and private property only with the permission of its owner), but they are being punished for doing so. Thus, for the most part, they cannot survive without breaking laws.

Anti-homeless laws reduce the right to the city that all people should theoretically have to a right that some have to be free from the homeless in the public spaces they partake in. In The Right to The City,according to law scholar Steven Paisner, “the most serious of the attendant problems of homelessness is its devastating image on a city’s image”; supporters of “punitive measures” against the homeless believe that the appearances of public space is much more important than the needs of homeless. Mitchell states that because they are denied sovereignty at the expense of others, the status of homeless people is lowered to that of children, being “at the mercy of others”. By restricting the homeless’ freedom to use public space, the public space is not really “public”; no public space can ever be entirely public because some group will not be able to use it freely. For example, the private security forces of the Business Improvement Districts, or important public- private partnerships, enforce rules against sleeping on benches or at tables in the small squares in Manhattan. Therefore, according to Mitchell, the strict regulation set in many public spaces controlled by these institutions basically destroys the use of space by law, which causes the destruction of the homeless.

In other American cities, sitting on sidewalks, sleeping in parks, loitering on benches, and urinating are being outlawed. For some of the homeless, these laws totally prohibit their sleeping and other human necessities because the general public’s rights of relaxation, recreation, shopping, and other activities matter much more than the homeless’ rights. Mitchell states that in Washington, DC, a begging ordinance passed in 1993 prohibited “approaching, speaking to or following…in a way that would cause an ordinary person to fear bodily harm”; this law makes making someone feel uncomfortable a crime.

    Mitchell hints that public spaces should not be “closed-minded”, or designed for a single function because they would not be public, as the public should use it in any way they deem fine. However, public spaces need to be regulated for security purposes and in order to thrive. Thus, it seems that there is a fine line between ensuring safety in public spaces and protecting people’s rights.

The Current Situation

According to the Coalition for the Homeless website, there was a seventy-three percent increase in the number of homeless people staying in homeless shelters in New York City since January 2002. A census chart created by the New York City Department of Homeless Services shows that January 2014 marks the year of the largest population to stay in New York City shelters: 53,615 homeless people. The overcrowding problem is even worse now than it has been in the past. It has gotten to the point where people are being turned away from homeless shelters, because they either have a little income or the opportunity to stay with a family member. A person must prove that they are homeless before they are allowed stay at a homeless shelter. This is the city’s way of controlling the overcrowding situation at hand, but where do all of the people who get turned away and do not actually have a place to go end up? That’s when you find the homeless on the streets or in other public spaces.

According to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), New York had the largest increase in the homeless population in the United States from 2012 to 2013 – 7,864 more people. With a total of 77,430 homeless people in New York State, more than two thirds  (64,000) are found in New York City alone. The drastic changes in these statistics over one year caused for an increased number of people staying in shelters and visiting soup kitchens and pantries in New York City.  However, these places can only hold a certain number of people before they start to run out of space to house everyone comfortably.

Problems do arise when so many of the homeless flock to New York City soup kitchens and food pantries. A situation like this occurred when the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) cuts occurred in November 2013. According to the Food Bank for New York City, there was more than a 25 percent increase in the number of visitors to almost half of the food banks in New York City. Emergency food providers, about 48 percent of them, ran out of food and required meals that they were supposed to serve, with 26 percent having to turn people away because they could not feed those coming in. Around 23 percent of soup kitchens and pantries had to resort to serving fewer meals than they normally would.

    When overcrowding and food shortages occur, it only makes matters worse for the homeless. Since living conditions in the shelters can become so uncomfortable, some of the homeless turn to the streets as their home. However, living on the streets means dealing with harsh cold winters and extremely hot summers. It means worrying about personal safety, whether or they will be attacked or harassed. This is when and why the large unhoused population on the streets turn to food pantries and soup kitchens for a place of refuge. This cycle is always occurring, but different programs have been created to try and help the situation.

Mobile Soup Kitchen: Problem or Solution?

           The disadvantages of stationary soup kitchens are numerous. In addition to the issues of overcrowding and long lines, there is the problem of inaccessibility. Although soup kitchens such as St. John’s Bread and Life and Holy Apostles serve thousands of meals a day, their reach can only go so far. The majority of people who utilize their services are from the neighborhoods in which the soup kitchens are located. There are very few of those in need who are willing and able to travel beyond their own local neighborhoods in order to obtain services for food and nutrition assistance. If they can’t get to the soup kitchen, they can’t receive assistance.

In response to the issues faced by typical, stationary soup kitchens – overcrowding, difficulties in accessibility, etc., the Bread and Life Soup Kitchen created the first mobile soup kitchen (MSK). This MSK would solve the problem of inaccessibility – if the person in need can’t come to the soup kitchen, the soup kitchen will come to them. The MSK makes its rounds through some of the more destitute areas of New York City, including Jackson Heights, East New York, Coney Island, and Williamsburg. In addition to serving over 300 meals a day, the MSK has an office space within it in order to provide services such as tax filing and voter registration. The staff also provides counseling on housing, health and public assistance.

Adapted from an RV, the mobile soup kitchen initially faced interior spatial issues. The staff and volunteers were in a cramped space, and although they worked hard to serve the crowd, the process was far from efficient. Delays in serving times led to fights in the line outside and unhappy volunteers. These issues make the MSK more of a problem than a solution. The long lines are not just an issue for those waiting on them; others see the lines and fights as a nuisance. Having big, unruly crowds in the middle of a public space is a problem for the other members of the community.

In order to address the interior spatial issues, TYTHEdesign (a design firm) was brought in to redesign the MSK. They observed the methods of operation and tested various prototypes in order to create a multifunctional space that would benefit both the users and the staff. The MSK’s interior was redesigned with storage spaces for cutting boards and serving trays, and the tables folded into the walls for safety when the RV travels from community to community.

The new design of the MSK drastically improved the situation for both guests and volunteers. More efficient serving at the window means less time spent waiting on line for food, which is especially important during the winter and on rainy days. This also decreases the tension between those on line, making them less likely to fight and more likely to utilize the other services offered by the MSK. Thanks to the positive feedback from the first MSK, a second project (dubbed the “Hunger Hunter”)  was in the works in early 2013.

Midnight Runs: Are We Hiding the Homeless?

In addition to the creation of mobile soup kitchens to address the spatial issues of homelessness, there are midnight runs. A midnight run involves groups of volunteers who travel the streets of New York City at night, delivering various necessities to those on the streets. This concept was created by a few members of a church who also volunteered at a soup kitchen in Dobbs Ferry in 1984 to address the most basic needs of homelessness. After hearing the story of one homeless woman who drew a connection between the homeless who ate in a church basement and would spend the rest of their lives sleeping on the city streets, these few church members began the program. They worked closely with this woman and others in the homeless population to distribute food, supplies, and clothing to those living on the streets. By 1989, the Midnight Run had become a non-profit organization.

Besides distributing basic necessities to the homeless, the Midnight Run also offers the companionship of its volunteers. Part of its mission is to break through the prejudices and stigma associated with homelessness, and to provide an important social connection and human bond for those living on the streets. The organization has a policy that prevents cameras, and recording devices from being utilized on their expeditions, and has a no-publicity rule. Their reasoning: “The interests of people on the street are not served by revealing to a broad audience either their identities or where they lay their heads at night”. While this is a good policy to have in the interest of privacy, it does not allow for the larger public to see the homeless as they truly are. It keeps them out of sight, and again adds to the common idea of homelessness in shelters rather than on the city streets. It may be helpful for the general public to understand the true locations of the majority of homelessness, instead of keeping them hidden.


When the homeless are kicked off the streets, they find their way to other places for shelter. Some of these places include hospitals, a place that is not normally thought of as a place of shelter, but a place of healing. In reality, it serves as both.

With a first step into the emergency room, signs in all different languages hang from the tiled ceiling informing patients to register at the front desk. Many hold crying babies in their arms and others support their family members by the arm or wheel them through the front door. After registering, signing consent forms and receiving the name tagged bracelet, they enter the crowded waiting room to be triaged by one of two nurses.

Considering the amount of people pushed in this small waiting room, it is surprisingly quiet. Waiting time ranges from a couple of minutes to two hours, and all the while patients complain and push to be seen.

They are happy when they are finally given a bed and wheeled into the emergency room, beckoned in by the unfailing fluorescent lights and continuous beeping sounds that ring through the halls. The emergency room in New York Hospital Queens is U shaped. There is a trauma room at the start, where ambulances drop off patients and those in critical care are rushed to be seen first, and x-ray rooms in between the halls. Lining the halls are curtain partitioned slots with beds and IV machines, portable nurse monitors and a larger nurses’ station.

The space is almost always overcrowded. While nurses complain that they are “up to their eyeballs” and short-staffed, hospital workers continue to skillfully wheel more patients in, often leaving a patient at the foot of someone else’s bed with no other place to go. Exhausted nurses notice new patients and sigh; “just leave them over there” is what they will say.

Standing there the day after one of 2014’s many snow storms and icy aftermath, resulting in falls and broken bones, and colds and contagious flus, there was simply no room for the patients to lie around comfortably waiting for the doctors to make their rounds. As many patients as possible were laying in beds in the emergency room and more anxious rooms were waiting in the waiting area as still more people came through the doors, piling up in increments consistent with city bus arrivals.

These people come into the hospital upset and in pain. They may not have proper health care or good insurance, but they know that they can find fairly immediate help in the city hospital. They experience a couple of hours in one of the most public spaces in the city, one that does not deny access but whose entrance is dependent on their ailment. They are glad to have this space, this reassurance  that there are doctors  in the building who will provide their services, and that it is a safe space with a roof over their heads.

An outsider may take the seen at first sight to be an overcrowded urban area, but at second glance he will realize that this is a place of healing. Patients are cramped and uncomfortable but they  leave with medicine in their bloodstream, a splintered finger or at best- with a swaddled newborn baby. They leave with a recommendation to see a specializing doctor or are transferred to another floor for more care, but in all areas they will relieve immediately and necessary health care.

For people with unstable homes, the hospital may become a familiar place. Many homeless people will experience health issues, and often end up in the hospital for some time. There they may be able to take a sort of respite from a nomadic lifestyle. They will receive three hot cooked meals a day, and while most complain about the food, others eat it hungrily. They are not happy to be sick, but they are glad to be in a safe space filled with professionals who care and know how to help. It is likely that the patients will not stay in the hospital for too long, but the perpetual cycle of untreated bad health care, will bring them back a little while later.

What People Can Do to Help

    After reading an article about homelessness or walking past a homeless man with a sign, people generally feel helpless. They don’t know how to help the homeless to get their lives back and “beat homelessness”, after hearing rumors that some of the homeless use their panhandling money to buy questionable things like drugs. One way people can help the homeless is donating to the Coalition for the Homeless, which is the nation’s oldest direct service organization. Additionally, people can always volunteer at soup kitchens where help is always needed and appreciated. Finally, one simple but underrated way of helping them is to respect them as fellow human beings, as some have degrading assumptions about them.

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