From time to time, New York City’s reactionary elements decide to villainize the homeless by casting them as menaces to the quality of life of decent folks. Our parks—our precious public parks—are full of homeless people, you see. Well? Good.
New York City has always been full of homeless people. In the Giuliani era, squeegee men were transformed into an excuse to incarcerate vast swaths of the city’s lower class population. Today, with the squeegee threat tamed, it’s plain old citizens too poor to afford NYC’s sky-high rent prices who are the enemy. “Homeless Invade NYC Parks” trumpets the New York Post, the closest thing to a house organ of the New York City angry fascist class. The story is based on impressions, not statistics. A student is afraid of the dirty vagrants; a mother fears the unclean men will snatch her child; “A parks worker called the urban oasis ‘scary,’ saying it’s riddled with bums who have drug problems.” The point, thoroughly unsupported though it is, is clear: dirty and dangerous homeless people are taking over our public spaces, and we must deal with the problem forcefully, or else you could be touched by a dirty homeless man one day.
If the tabloid had gone to the trouble of putting some statistics in the story, it only would have supported its case. New York City has almost 59,000 homeless people, according to the latest count, a level unseen since the Depression era. There are more homeless people in the parks. There are also more homeless people in the streets, in the libraries, on the subways, in the shelters, and everywhere else. There are more homeless people, period. Why might that be, in our outrageously expensive city that is steadily being transformed into a playground for the rich? “Research shows that the primary cause of homelessness, particularly among families, is lack of affordable housing.”
So our city is full of homeless people. And these homeless people—predictably, if you think about it—are all over our public parks. There are two possible responses to this situation. The wrong response is to harass the homeless people, arrest the homeless people, use the police to hassle and intimidate the homeless people until they leave the parks. This will result in a city that has just as many homeless people as it does now, but a homeless population that is less visible. This will serve to tranquilize the public about the state of our city’s homeless problem, while in fact costing us much in money (for incarceration) and, more importantly, human suffering.
The better response: welcome the homeless into our city’s park. Let our city’s parks fill up with the abundant homeless people we have here. Do not allow the homeless to languish in far-flung parks with poor upkeep and facilities—let our city’s most destitute erect encampments along every leafy lane in Central Park. Let the millionaires of the Upper East Side and Upper West Side gaze down from their park-facing palaces upon a tableau of ratty tents housing families too poor to afford the most basic studio apartment in the far reaches of the Bronx. Let the tourists wander quizzically past grown men forced to wash themselves in public water fountains. Let the joggers dodge people passed out on the trails. Let the dog walkers suffer the cries of people disturbed from slumber by a drooling mutt. Let the children tug their parents’ sleeves as they are hustled past and ask, “Why are these people here?”
Let everyone see all of the homeless people. Let everyone trying to enjoy themselves see all of the homeless people every day. If it spoils enough pleasant days for enough pleasant people, perhaps we will do something about it.