The photo shows a tiny blonde woman sitting on the sidewalk in front of a newsstand, wearing combat boots and striped blue-and-white socks pulled over her ankles. A dog is sleeping beside her, partly obscuring a sign that reads, “Anything helps.”
Normally, petite blondes and slumbering dogs don’t shake people to their very core, but on this Facebook page, the pair portends the breakdown of law and order, maybe even the end of civilization. “I think this war is lost now. Destruction by design,” a member of a Facebook group called Third and 33rd (and Beyond!) commented in response to the photo. “Those who should represent the taxpayers and law abiding have another agenda. That’s obvious. They are actively using the rule of ‘law’ to reduce the power of the police to halt this. This is not incompetence. It’s being engineered. See how fast it’s happened? It will take years now even if a clean up started today.”
Someone else on a different thread captures the true meaning of grave injustice with his complaint, “Just be thankful you don’t live in the Future condo. I pay $20K in property taxes to have disgusting homeless people all over our public courtyard around our kids. And God forbid you personally say or do something then you are labeled a racist or prejudice [sic].”
A few more.
Next to a picture of a man passed out on the sidewalk:
One woman laments:
Some unsolicited political advice for Rev. Al Sharpton:
On another thread:
The group was founded by residents of Murray Hill and Kips Bay, predominantly wealthy neighborhoods on the east side of midtown Manhattan, where buildings have doormen and British-sounding names like the Wilshire, the Sycamore and Windsor Court. On its website the group says its mission is to “improve quality of life and public safety” in the neighborhood; it also runs a closed Facebook group where members post pictures of people they think are homeless. Some are disturbing, showing men who look to be in pretty bad shape, visibly drunk or publicly urinating (though as one member of the group points out, NYC has nothing resembling public toilets, so this practice should not be surprising). Others show seemingly homeless people standing around or sleeping or going through the trash, or just sitting there. “She looked like she was planning on staying at that spot for a long time,” says the woman who posted the pic of the blonde girl.
While some members insist on leaving politics out of it, others use the forum to bludgeon New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is probably the only person in the comment threads less popular than the homeless.
“The problems in Murray Hill/Kips Bay are caused by the abandonment of the mentally ill homeless, and finally the idiot in City Hall realized the evil of his agenda,” says one man. Another says, “Dinkins dayzzz are here again. DUH-blah-zio ruining everything that Giuliani and Bloomberg did. Who elected him???”
In a more recent thread, the same man notes: “If these ‘people’ are aggressive toward me or my wife or my family I will NOT hesitate to knock them out! But then I would be called prejudice or racist. Sad state of affairs under or Pres and Mayor. #TRUMP”
Here is a good place to note who is, and who is not, responsible for the city’s record rates of homelessness. Homeless advocates largely agree that the person most to blame for the city’s high homelessness rate is none other than billionaire businessman and former mayor Michael Bloomberg. In 2012, when the mayor famously said no one was sleeping on the streets, there were more than 3,200 people sleeping on the streets according to city data (probably a huge underestimate because the count takes place during the winter when fewer people are outside).
Between 2002 and 2013 the city saw a 61 percent rise in homelessness, counted as people sleeping in shelters, according to Coalition for the Homeless. The biggest rise was in families with children (up 73 percent), which advocates say occurred in large part because the administration cut homeless families’ priority access to Section 8 vouchers and public housing. The administration started — and then killed — two other temporary rental subsidies, abruptly leaving many poor New Yorkers without rent support. This was at a time of skyrocketing New York rents, a trend that will likely continue.
Meanwhile, a de Blasio administration proposal for a city rental subsidy program calledLINC was delayed, then almost destroyed, by opposition from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Homelessness advocates have called for over 30,000 more supportive housing units — the governor has agreed to 5,000 for the whole state. Although the mayor has been criticized by many homelessness advocates for not doing enough, others point out that his policies are better than those of many previous mayors.
As Joel Berg, executive director of NYC Coalition Against Hunger told DNA Info: “Is the mayor perfect? No, and that’s why I continue to advocate. But he’s the best mayor on this issue in decades.”
But thanks in no small part to the formidable shaming powers of theNew York Post, there seems to be a general impression that de Blasio has conjured armies of homeless people to terrorize the women and children of Manhattan’s tony neighborhoods. This attitude is evident on the Facebook group.
“I just want out of this neighborhood at this point. So sad but I don’t want to be a part of de Blasio’s New York,” a woman in the forum says.
Braving the Mean Streets of de Blasio’s New York
On a sunny afternoon in late summer, I decide to bear witness to the horrors of Bill de Blasio’s New York and head toward 33rd Street on Third Avenue (and Beyond!), mentally girding for assault by aggressive, violent hobos. But as I walk up the street I’m actually surprised by howfew visibly homeless people there are in this part of town, seemingly fewer than in other areas, like Union Square. A shirtless guy around a 20th Street phone booth is asking people for money, but when I say, “Sorry, I don’t have any cash on me right now,” he just asks the next person. I survive the encounter.
It must get worse closer to 33rd, I think. I reach 28th. No homeless people. 29th, nothing. Where are all the homeless people? What if I can’t find any to interview? Am I going to be that person who writes about homeless people without talking to any, like these New York Times reporters who managed to interview a ton of not-homeless people for their homelessness story and seemingly not one homeless person?
30th, nothing. Aha! They all must be hiding in the public library on 31st. Nope, no one there looks homeless. I finally see a guy who seems a little worse for the wear sitting in a wheelchair by Gristedes supermarket, but he’s neither shooting heroin nor defecating on a child; he appears to be packing up some wraps and spread he just ate.
Finally I hit the epicenter: Third and 33rd. Not a single homeless person in sight.
OK, surely, I can find some homeless men at a homeless men’s shelter. I head to Bellevue Men’s Shelter, the cause of much ire on the Third and 33rd (and Beyond!) group. Bellevue is a foreboding brick building that looks disturbingly like a haunted mental hospital in a horror movie. Dried, brown ivy climbs the walls and the windows are filthy. Men of all ages and races mill around in the courtyard and walk in and out.
I talk to Ali, a 68-year-old vet sitting by a bus stop across the street. Ali says he moved to America from Puerto Rico when he was a kid. He went to Vietnam when he was 21, took five shots to the chest for America, came home to a country that seemed to hate him, and now cannot afford New York rents with the measly amount of cash he gets from the Veteran’s Administration every month, he says. PTSD, depression, anxiety, he’s got them all.
When I uselessly say I’m sorry, he replies, “There’s nothing to be sorry about, it’s just life.”
“It’s an experience that stays with you forever,” he notes of a war he fought in four decades ago.
Ali is on the “veterans” floor at Bellevue. The shelter tends to stick the men from America’s wars on the same floor, he tells me. He ticks off all of the wars represented on the veterans’ floor. “Vietnam, Korea … sure, there’s guys [who fought] in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says, when I ask if there are younger men.
He says the shelter is disgusting. “It’s filthy, dangerous.” The metal detectors keep out guns but not razor blades, he says. He and a friend say that only employees get air conditioners. His friend, a mid-60s-looking man with a heavy accent tells me, “I asked the lady, miss, the room is very, very hot. 100 degrees! Buy me air conditioner. She said, ‘Fuck you.’ He laughs.
Ali admits that he understands why some neighborhood residents have concerns about the homeless; that some of the behavior he sees might be offensive to women and children. But as far as his presence is concerned: “Where else can we go? We have no money to go nowhere,” he says.
David Kennedy, a 33-year-old black man in a loose undershirt, falls on a different place in the tragedy spectrum. He says he’s in possession of a housing voucher and he works at Eately, the upscale Italian eatery frequented by tourists, and probably, residents of Murray Hill.
A series of brutal logistical complications have kept him from finding an apartment, so he’s been in the shelter for about two months, he says. When people see him rounding the corner from the shelter, they just assume bad things about him.
“Not everybody in here has attitudes or is all crazy or all on drugs. There’s a lot of different people here from all kinds of walks of life: jail, strung out on drugs, family kicked them out,” he says. “Or some people just lost their homes, so they end up here.”
“You don’t know what half of these people are about. A lot of the men that’s in here, some of these guys are college grads, they have two, three masters, some of them have doctorates. So, for you to just walk past somebody and never say Hello or Good Morning? You just look down on them? It doesn’t make sense,” he says.
“A lot of the guys are vets,” Kennedy says. “They should be well taken care of, but they’re not. They [should] have more rights than the people walking around here in order to get what they need to get, and they get treated unfairly, you know?”
I pop into a bar a block away from the shelter and ask the bartender, KC Washington, 45, about homelessness in the area. She tells me that sometimes men from the shelter come in and ask for money; sometimes they get mad and sometimes it’s hard to get rid of them, she says. It can be uncomfortable.
But when I ask if it’s a major problem, she emphatically shakes her head and says, “No.”
“It doesn’t drive business away, if that’s what you mean.” Sure, a lot of guys come in; after all, there’s a shelter close by. “In the 10 years I’ve been here, nothing bad’s happened,” she notes.
A few weeks ago, a data engineer named David Fox who recently joined Third and 33rd (and Beyond!) developed an app inspired by the group. Users take pictures of homeless people and mark their locations with dropped pins, like when you ask Google Maps to find you the nearest Starbucks — but for homeless people. I tapped a few of the pins and saw a man looking through a recycling bin, tagged #man #trash #trashdigger. Another shot, taken from so far away on a subway platform you can barely make out the person sitting behind a sign, tagged #begging #citysamess #distance … #in, #man, Off# #police, #the #unkempt. A man shielding his face with his hand from the photographer: #man. The blonde woman makes an appearance on the app, too, this time with a blurry profile shot from afar, hashtagged #encampment, #needsmedicalaid, #woman. It looks like she’s bandaging up her knee so perhaps the photographer was concerned for her well-being, but it’s not clear how she’d receive medical treatment by way of an anonymous app with no current relationship to health providers.