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In New York City, Homeless is Where the Heart is

Every day, Manhattan denizens stoically navigate 80,000 vagrants at the epicenter of economic inequality.

Unidentified homeless people sleeping at the subway station in New York City, NY By shu2260/Shutterstock

New York is America’s richest city and is Ground Zero in how economic inequality is reshaping every day of our lives. 

NYC is home to 70 billionaires, more than any other American city. Living among those billionaires (NYC is also home to nearly one million millionaires, more than any other city in the world) the city also has the highest homeless population of any American metropolis, close to 80,000 and growing. The number of homeless single adults today is 142 percent higher than it was ten years ago, and currently at the highest level since the Great Depression.

Some 3,000 human beings make their full-time home in the subway system. Their belongings crowd out morning commuters. In the winter many never emerge above ground. A visitor from outer space would be forgiven for thinking they weren’t even human, recognizable as just a head emerging from a urine-soaked bundle of clothing, not living really, just waiting. The ones who ride the trains hours a day are like one-celled amoebas that react to light by moving out of the way, in the specific case of a transit employee whose inquiry causes some physical shift but no sign of sentient action.

Don’t be shocked—we here aren’t anymore —what did you think runaway economic inequality was gonna end up doing to us? But for most New Yorkers the issue isn’t confronting the reality of inequality, it is navigating the society it has created.

Navigating income inequality is not a problem for the rich. Public transportation, once the great melting pot, is less so as Uber plays a bigger role. The new super apartments, with their city-required handful of “affordable” units, have separate entrances based on wealth. NYC’s newest mega-development, Hudson Yards, has been dubbed the Forbidden City, a snub as it is literally walled off from the garbage around it (there are “service” entrances for workers, and the stores have their primary doors opening into the gated courtyard, not on to Tenth Avenue.) Elsewhere private restaurants, private clubs, members only-everythings, and VIP sections with security at public events keep the homeless beyond arm’s reach.

For the rest, stuck between middle class and the abyss, navigating economic inequality is more of a contact sport.

Public libraries are one of the facilities shared with the over 64,000 homeless who sleep at night in the gulag archipelago of NYC’s vast shelter system. Most of the shelters are only open after dark, leaving residents to find somewhere to physically occupy between 7am and 11pm. Since there is no daytime plan, in bad weather they take over the libraries. Regular patrons are on their own if the staff don’t manage it well; the signature main library has guards to send the homeless across the street to a branch, where the homeless are more or less curated like the oversize books on to one particular floor. On 96th street the library serves no other purpose than homeless daycare, except for a brief period after school when bodies are shuffled around for an hour or two to accommodate story time.

People refer to Starbucks as a public toilet which also happens to sell coffee because, following charges of discrimination, the chain now claims its facilities are open to all. In some marginal parts of town those toilets are forever closed to all “under repair,” but in most places the homeless and customers navigate around one another. Being seen as being nice is important to Starbucks’ customers as they mentally navigate their own place being able to afford expensive coffee alongside those who have less.

As a woke company catering to customers who want nice things without guilt, Starbucks has a whole corporate page up about how kind they are to the homeless. Something similar at the new food court at Essex Market (called the “anti-Hudson Yards”), which has full-time staff assigned to monitor the public toilets, nudging the homeless between the boundaries the Market deems acceptable. Essex Market, like Starbucks, seems to see lite-humanitarian gestures as part of its marketing plan.

Economic inequality is also life for slightly better-off New Yorkers. Not homeless but damn poor, 400,000 reside in taxpayer-paid permanent (permanent as in multi-generational, grandmas passing squatter’s rights to grandkids) public housing. Conditions are literally toxic in these “projects,” as well as crime-ridden and just plain Third World crumbling. There are probably fewer no-go zones in the city than in the dark times of the 1970s, but maybe more “why would you want to go there anyway” places. And yes, New York’s public housing authority is the world’s largest. Housing prices for those who do pay their own way drive 40 percent of adult renters to live with a roommate. The city has a program to help elderly renters share their homes and make a few bucks.

These urban stories are only about a part of the homeless population. The others are bent beyond existing systems, so severely mentally ill they are driven out of the coffee shops and shelters. They’re inevitable in a society without healthcare constantly adding to a homeless population smoothing over the bumps of the street with alcohol and opioids. I was behind a wacked up homeless guy at the liquor store paying with sock full of coins. He was 67 cents short for no-name gin. Why do you think they stock that kind of booze? What’s the right thing to do? I probably drink as much as he does but it’s OK because I work for my money instead of begging? I was in a hurry and paid for him.

But in most cases navigating these people requires something more than a benign balancing of company profits and makeshift charity. At the Fulton Center subway station, problems with the mentally ill homeless reached a point where wire rope was installed to eliminate places to sit. A team of rent-a-cops make the homeless stand, wandering through the space waking up those who tumble. The sole working men’s room remains a kind of demilitarized zone, and it is not uncommon to see one man washing his clothes in the sink while another talks to himself as a third vocally struggles with his defecation. Most of the city’s such privately owned public spaces employ guards not against crime per se, but to enforce rules such as how much baggage the homeless can bring in.

There are more aggressive measures. NYC stores invest in barbed grates the homeless can’t lay on comfortably (the hostile architecture of protrusions and spikes that make it impossible to sleep on a park bench or wall are pretty much sculpted into the architecture of the city, markers of the struggle for public space. The idea even has its own Instagram account.) A security firm offers tips: restrict access to sidewalk overhangs protected from inclement weather, remove handles from water spigots, and keep trash dumpsters locked. If things get too bad, the company, for a price, will deploy “remote cameras with military-grade algorithms capable of detecting people in areas they shouldn’t be in.”

There are also other ways to make money off the homeless. Many of the shelters in NYC are contracted through private companies (fraud criss-crosses the system), which charge the city about $80 per adult per night for an SRO room without its own indoor plumbing. Food stamps are distributed via Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT.) JPMorgan Chase holds most of the contracts to administer that, worth more than $112 million in New York alone. And Amazon now accepts EBT online in New York and you don’t even need Prime!

The whole story of economic inequality and this city is told in canning, the micro-economy of returning aluminum cans for the five cents deposit. What was started in 1982 in hope the deposit would encourage consumer recycling alongside kids picking up cans to supplement their allowances has become a way to make a sort of living for an estimated 8,000 human beings. As the value of a nickel to many faded over the years, the need for a few bucks among the homeless population grew. They started picking up cans to recycle which wealthier people had left out as trash. The recycling centers set up in most food stores did not want the homeless inside. Most set $12 daily redemption limits, often broken up in per can lots that forced the homeless to return two or three times. Street-side drop off points devolved into social centers for the homeless, including the infamous Pathway site at 125th Street renown as a drug market until it was closed down.

Unable to redeem their cans, the homeless moved on, replaced by highly exploitative canning crews which buy cans in bulk from elderly pickers (many are retired or on disability) for about a $30 nightly haul per person, and who then deal directly with the bulk metal recyclers uptown. A five cent can might be worth only three cents on the street to the picker. Competition among the people living off garbage is sharp, where on a late night dog walk just before the bulk trucks arrive, can crews run by Chinese organized crime (rumor is those who can’t work off human smuggling fees otherwise work the can routes) tussle with individuals for turf. The cops are uninterested and some local doormen try and intervene but often tire of the guff. It’s not a proud thing to witness people living off my garbage.

Oh well. We’re a society built around economic inequality. We’ll all just have to learn to navigate our way through.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. 

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