New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced on Wednesday that the city will partner with the Roman Catholic Church to provide 150 beds for the city’s homeless this winter. Pope Francis arrived yesterday for his first ever visit to New York City, a whirl wind trip of two days that will see him address the United Nations and greet over 80,000 people in Central Park and visit Harlem. In anticipation of his visit, the NYPD has rousted the homeless camp on 125th Street of the residents who have made it their home for the past many months. This encampment has grown with the burgeoning homeless population on the city’s streets, and was recently the site of the rape of a young homeless woman who was sleeping there.
As a long time resident of Manhattan, I remember the days when the homeless were commonplace on the streets. I started working in Manhattan when Ed Koch was the mayor, so I have lived through the administrations of five mayors. Under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the city underwent a massive paradigm shift as he turned the NYPD into a world class crime fighting force. Developers and multinational corporations came in en masse and began the transformation of the city’s neighborhoods that has brought it to the first class metropolis that it is today. Times Square and 42nd Street were once a fearsome area, filled with dollar peep shows, hookers, pimps, junkies, transients, and other predators of the unsuspecting and vulnerable. It was dark and it smelled bad. No one really went there unless it was to cop some drugs, a quick sex encounter or a glimpse of a stripper through a peep hole. For better or for worse, the Disneyfication of the Fortydeuce has flushed most of that away. And the explosion of multi million dollar co ops and condos and inflated real estate prices has driven away the middle class and the working folks to outer boroughs and even out of state.
It is easy to lay the blame for all the homeless people that are back on the streets in force at Mayor De Blasio’s doorstep, but that seems a lazy gambit, and something better left to statisticians, researchers and so called experts. I just can’t help noticing how many homeless people there are all over Manhattan, in groups and sitting solitary on sidewalks with their brief stories written on pieces of cardboard. There seems to be a bizarre disconnect between the shiny new skyline and the hopelessness so apparent at street level. I came across a homeless woman in my neighborhood and started talking to her. Two hours later I had a deeper understanding of some of the forces that drive people to live on the streets of this dynamic city of ours and what their life is like once they make that choice. Following is Lizz King’s story in her own words.
“I began an intimate relationship with trash as a young child. Digging through dumpsters and finding rotary phones, televisions, stationary and clothes Kindergarten year with my father – I picked up the habit from him. Habit like and addiction, but also like those monochromatic uniforms Catholic nuns wear. A trash addiction to find a use for shreds discarded. Now that I am ‘homeless’, I feel like a living, breathing shred discarded. My threads come from the trash, my food and my bedding. American born. Now look at me, Mr. Trump.”
“Our current American cultural paradigm focuses on novelty and perceived value, relative to what is deemed a useful object or person. What is of true value – timeless and infinite in scope – is more often discarded while that which is illusory, fleeting, and myopic is hoarded, prized and stolen. My existence is, at the moment of this pen to paper, sustained begging for spare change across from the store front of an Armani Exchange in Soho. My vagrancy is reflected back to me by the storefront windows on the corner of Prince and Broadway in one of the most extravagant commercial districts on Earth. At the outset of my eviction and vagrant season, I approached it in fear and wonder.”
“As the summer becomes Indian Summer and the sun wanes in its position, I now see how this lifestyle can invade the psyche. New York City has the best trash in America. On our quest to survive and re-home, I’ve found the Caddy of baby strollers and converted it into a bipedal rickshaw home. I found a wicker hamper which stores our tarp, laundry soap, bleach, and raincoats for my dogs, JZ and Roberta. I found a Fleshlight pillow in Hell’s Kitchen that serves as my tuccus cushion. My vulnerable butt is sure happy.”
“Human beings are vulnerable creatures on Earth. Unable to defend ourselves, we fleshy beasts are introduced to this world on the verge of death on all fronts and at all times. I see little difference between the frightened and defenseless infant and the terrified and tortured adult. As an adult homeless female I am confronted daily with my vulnerability, even in the ‘greatest’ city on Earth, where everyone seems to have access to water, wifi, food, electricity, bathrooms, and shelter from a summer storm. I do have ample access to angry strangers and their relentless tirades against me and my condition, comments like “why don’t you go home to your family?”, “why don’t you check into a shelter?”, “get your lazy a** off my sidewalk!”
“The last comment was from a union film studio worker near the Chelsea piers at noon on a 90 degree day. My dogs were in danger from the heat, so I found what I thought was a quiet street with a long well shaded awning spanning the length of the block. It was a nice surprise to feel air conditioning leaking out from the crack at the bottom of an unmarked door. Roberta, the youngest dog, lay completely prostrate along the strip of chilled air. We were comfortable and safe there until the door suddenly opened and the girls barked at the surprised men inside. With a word from me, the dogs were silent and began wagging their tails. Told we needed to pack up and move on, I asked if we could stay several meters down. Absolutely not, no room at the inn for three homeless girls. The gloves came off my tongue when he called me lazy, and I unleashed a tangle of accusations and curses.”
“Me, lazy? take your union job and shove it up your a** – I know what you really do for a living. In actuality you work about two of the eight hours you get paid $65 an hour for, with benefits. You sit around on ‘your’ lazy a** for most of the day drinking light beer while actors forage through organic kale and quinoa at the kraft food services table.”
“I’m treated a lot of different ways by as many diverse New Yorkers, travelers, vagrants and tourists as you can think of. The actor Ray Liotta slipped me a nice donation to our survival and escape from New York. His candor and concern was the best gift, however. That and his absolutely beautiful and hypnotizing azure eyes. I was unabashedly excited to meet Mr. Liotta and literally yelled out ‘Holy S**t’ in his face when he was reaching out a helping hand.”
“The street booksellers are all exceedingly kind and willing to connect – great conversation and no judgment at all. My favorite is Wolfgang, the German-born bike riding sweetheart who sets up shop near the AMC on Broadway on the Upper West Side. The people at Collide, an outreach veterinary clinic for homeless people with dogs on the Lower East Side, were extraordinarily kind and helpful. There my girls got their current 3 year rabies shots, NYC dog licenses, harness collars and leashes, dog food and baby wipes for us all. I am a childless Gen X girl, but I roll deep with my dumpster stroller, diaper bag and wet naps. Mother of the year.”
“As much as it is indeed wretched to be homeless with two dogs in New York City during the hottest summer on record, I still have hope – and pride in our health and survival. I’m proud of my tan, my biceps, and my girls – whose love and devotion have never faltered. This town has tested us. I love her I hate her. New York City can be as cold as a witch’s tit in a brass bra.”