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How ‘Quality of Life’ turned Homeless New Yorkers into Criminals


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A Third Avenue building in New York City at twilight. Credit: Marina Ortiz via picturethehomeless on flickr

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, nearly 37,000 homeless people sleep in New York City shelters each night. Their research concludes that the primary cause of homelessness, particularly among families, is lack of affordable housing. Rents have always been high in New York; but since 1994, so called ‘Quality of Life’ policing, and business friendly development strategies have delivered a one-two punch that means poor New Yorkers have even fewer options for housing, and often find themselves specifically targeted by the law.

Journalist Sam Lewis volunteered with the homeless led group ‘Picture the Homeless’ over the past two years, recording the voices of New Yorkers without a place to live.  Lewis produced this story for Making Contact about how those without homes are criminalized, and how they’re organizing to change the city’s ways.

LEWIS: It’s around 11:15pm when New York City Police Officers begin to tape off certain areas of Pennsylvania Station. Since the fall of 2009, throughout the night, yellow caution tape remains draped along the edges of the station’s cavernous waiting areas. Amidst the steady flow of commuters and tourists are homeless people, who for decades have used the station’s waiting areas as a warm place to rest during the winter months.

(sounds of Penn Station protest) “Homelessness is not a crime, let us rest and we’ll be fine… Homelessness is not a crime let us rest and we’ll be fine…”

LEWIS: Homeless people and their advocates claim that the taped-off lobbies are just the latest in a series of strategies designed to make homeless people disappear from where they are normally seen. But as a consequence, Quality of Life, or Zero Tolerance Policies – first established in the early 90’s – created a class of individuals largely excluded from the city’s public spaces.

“They don’t even notice that the homeless is out here, it’s getting worse now, and it’s getting worse every year.”

“But this is a mechanism to keep the homeless away, out of site, out of mind, and make New York the Mecca of the world for tourists.”

LEWIS:  The New York State Penal code classifies a series of non-violent public behaviors, like loitering, panhandling, public drunkenness and graffiti writing as “disorderly conduct”, a violation punishable by law. Even though the “disorderly conduct” statute is not specifically designed to criminalize people without shelter or housing, norms about appropriate public behaviors have created a class of crimes most likely to be committed by homeless people.  Once a person is arrested, even if it’s for a violation, his/her name will not clear on a criminal background check: a standard practice for potential employers and private landlords. Federal law also gives housing authorities the power to deny access to people based on criminal activity.

(sounds of protesters) “Hey hey, ho ho, disorderly conduct’s got to go. Hey hey, ho ho, disorderly conduct’s got to go…”

LEWIS: In 2010, Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization founded and led by homeless people based in New York City, launched a campaign calling on state attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, to address the NYPD’s use of the Disorderly Conduct statute. But the pattern of law enforcement predates Cuomo, who has now been elected Governor of New York state by more than a decade.

Smith: “There is a kind of history and geography to the relationship between gentrification, homelessness and policing on the streets.

LEWIS: Neil Smith is a professor of Geography and Urbanism at the Center for Graduate Studies at the City University of New York.

Smith: “You have to go back to the 1990’s when Giuliani, under his Police Strategy Number Five, which drew on the Broken Windows Theory.  It was very much about clearing homeless people off the streets and it was very much about how the city looked. So in a sense there was a post modernity to it, so that it was the symptoms, it was the aesthetics of the street that were important.  But that began a very brutal crackdown against homeless people in New York.

LEWIS: After being elected in 1994, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani drew on the ‘Broken Windows Theory’ to support his new strategy for Quality of Life policing.  The ‘Broken Windows’ phrasing comes from a 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly.  The idea is that broken windows and other signs of neighborhood neglect were considered to be visual cues to potential criminals that the community tolerated illicit behavior. Giuliani updated the concept.

“Crime is not a force of nature,” he wrote, in a 1997 USA Today editorial, which then continued: “Graffiti, blaring car radios, street prostitution, drag racing and drunk driving, low level drug dealing, public drinking and urination, squeegee window cleaners, and other aggressive beggars are, in effect, society’s broken windows. They create an atmosphere conducive to more serious crime.”

Giuliani is often credited as the Mayor who “cleaned up New York City.” But…

(city/ street sounds in the background)

Carlton: Giuliani was the worst mayor as far as police because he gave police really full reign…”

LEWIS: Carlton Berkeley, a former detective with the NYPD, just published a book, What to Do When Stopped by the Police.

Berkeley: “…He took over from Dinkins. Dinkins tried to bring back community policing. Giuliani came in and he said that’s bullshit. I want real cops, we’re going to go out here and fight real crime and we’re going to be aggressive, no matter what the circumstances is.”

LEWIS: Giuliani’s notoriety for restoring order to New York landed him multi-million dollar consulting gigs in Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro. And Quality of Life policing tactics, promoted by Giuliani, have spread throughout the country. A 2006 study published by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor in US cities has been rising since 2006. Neil Smith says the Broken Windows Theory, and law enforcement strategies that followed it, overlook decades of public policies that failed to address a trend of increasing homelessness.

Smith: “What we saw in the 1980’s was the real signs of the failures ultimately of liberal urban policy as it had been since the 1930’s, if you want to go back that far, but really in the post-second world war period.  It was failing because of course people couldn’t afford housing, people were being thrown out of jobs – what does liberal housing policy do when so many people are unemployed and don’t have a home?”

Ghengis: “And that’s what I see, and now it’s become an epidemic. And they are not just people who are drunks, who have just given up.  These are people who have been displaced, put out of their homes for one reason or another.”

LEWIS: Genghis Kallid Muhammad is a member of Picture the Homeless.

Lewis: “There was no such thing as you seeing homeless people in Penn Station, or Grand Central or Port Authority or any of these places. That never existed in my growing up in New York and it’s not just a thing in the state of the New York or the city of New York, but it’s across the whole country.

(classical music and station sounds in the background)

LEWIS: By the 1980’s, Homeless encampments, graffiti-sprawled subway cars, vacant buildings and prostitution became a normal part of the urban landscape.

Smith: “And what that then meant locally was that while there was in the beginning, in the 1980’s, a lot of support, a lot of liberal support for homeless people, that support very much fell away and there was a new kind of revanchism – a real revenge against homeless people that kicked in.”

LEWIS: Again, Neil Smith:

(classical music continues in the background)

Smith: And it wasn’t so much a revenge from the right wing – it was a revenge from liberals in fact. And it was very much about making people feel secure.  The real insecurity was coming from the extraordinary rise in the cost of housing, people were feeling insecure about housing. People were feeling insecure about jobs – when it hit the middle class, when it was structural unemployment that was happening in the 80’s and into the 90’s, people were feeling insecure. What various political administrations, locally, nationally and even globally, were able to do was to transplant that insecurity from very real daily issues of housing and jobs, access to medical care, child care. They were able to transplant that, to displace it, onto issues of migration, class issues around working class demands for fair wages and ultimately, of course, onto homeless people.”

Rice: “I have witnessed the impacts of the so- called Quality of Life offenses being put into play by the previous Mayor, Giuliani.”

LEWIS: Gene Rice, a leader of Picture the Homeless’ Disorderly Conduct Campaign, lived on the streets for nearly a decade, collecting cans to make a living.

ACT: “And at the same time that homelessness has reached record proportions in our city, thereupon, it follows that homeless people are forced into a constant interaction with the NYPD  who’s job is to police the streets of New York to make it safe for our citizens.”

LEWIS: Private property owners and business elites supported Quality of life policing because it removed homeless people from major commercial centers, public parks and transportation hubs.

ACT: (11:00) “You know, I didn’t know what disorderly conduct was about and I got arrested a couple of months ago.”

LEWIS: Elise Lowe is also a member of Picture the Homeless.

Lowe: And the cops stopped me because I had picked up a bottle to put it in the garbage, they said it was consumption of alcohol and they arrested me.  I spent a night in jail – that was my first time ever being locked up. ”

LEWIS: Since disorderly conduct is a violation and not a crime, the potential sentence maxes out at fifteen days in jail. But if an individual does not show up to their court date, neglects to pay the fine or can’t perform community service, an outstanding warrant is issued for their arrest.

(street sounds and people’s voices in background)

ACT: (6:40) “I’ve been taken off the train, just because I had a package, a bag, next to me when the train wasn’t even crowded, saying that you’re taken up more than one space and its maybe 2 o’clock in the morning….”

LEWIS: Barbara Daugherty has been homeless for over two years.

Daugherty: I’m not laying down, I’m sitting up, you know, but if you’re not like me – homeless having a bag – they don’t bother you.  A few times I was taken in because they said, oh you have a warrant.  No, I don’t have no warrant. I know I don’t have no warrant, a warrant for what? They take me in, and I wind up having to go through the system and see the judge and I’d be released and there was no real warrant. But they put you through that because they want the quota.

LEWIS: The criminalization of homelessness was also aided by a trend of privatizing public space.  Strapped for cash during the fiscal crisis of the late 1970’s, the New York City government handed over the management of several parks and opens spaces to corporate and private sponsors.  Organizations like the Central Park Conservancy, Bryant Park Alliance, and the 42nd Street Partnership have helped to fill the gap in the Park’s Department operating budget.  Urban spaces that are created for “public use” are now developed with commercial enterprises that generate revenue to be used for maintenance.  But as a result, law enforcement agents patrolling those spaces have a different agenda.

Melvin: “So a guy that’s coming in-  a regular guy that’s coming in with briefcase or his computer, you know what I’m saying, those are two different bags, but you’re not going  to say that to him.

LEWIS: Melvin Williams volunteers with the Coalition for the Homeless; throughout the 90’s he was homeless himself and was harassed in many of the parks and public spaces that were managed by the public-private partnerships.

(voices in background)

Williams:  With places like Sony.  You know that big corporate place? Ooh well, they couldn’t tell you that you couldn’t stay in there, but they would say, oh you have a time limit or you’ve been here too long.  And I would say well, what about that man? He was in here when I got here and you’re putting me out and he’s still there.”

(sounds from an active public space (union square during rush hour) i.e. people talking/laughing, street musicians, skateboarding etc…)

ACT (9:14) “And Sony was allowed to build a building that was a certain amount, it was a certain height, with tax incentives.  So as a part of that deal you’re supposed to create so much public space.”

LEWIS: Rob Robinson, formally homeless himself, is now an organizer for the Campaign to Restore National Housing Rights.  He says that when a private organization manages a public space they can impose their own rules and regulations.

Robinson: “When Sony wants to have a party in that space, all of a sudden they’re forcing homeless people out because the cameras might come in and they don’t want the cameras to see homeless people sleeping in there.”

LEWIS: Another example is Manhattan’s Bryant Park.  In 1988, the Bryant Park Corporation, a not-for-profit private management company, directed by neighboring property owners, took ownership and closed the park down. After a 4-year renovation, the park reopened, with a budget six times larger than under prior city management.

Schuylen: “Bryant Park was the last place on Earth you ever wanted to be near.  It was derelict, it was this abandoned corner.”

LEWIS: Mark Schuylen, a former urban planner specializing in the management of public/private partnerships, says the costly transformation made the park a much better place, for tourists and business owners.

Schuylen: “Now instead of drug dealers, we have ice skaters, now instead of people who are prostituting themselves, we have fashion shows, now instead of people who are hanging out and homeless, we now have people eating ice cream cones and reading novels.”

LEWIS: But Bryant Park’s conversion to an attractive public space didn’t include plans or resources for those who were swept away or incarcerated.  Former NYPD Detective, Carlton Berkeley, says that Quality of Life policing strategies are part of a much broader agenda to increase property values.

Berkely: “When they gentrify an area the poor people have to go.  Initially, they’re not leaving, so how do you get them to leave? You use the police and start harassing them.”

LEWIS: Berkeley says pressure on police officers to make arrests and issue summonses to fill quota demands has increased under the Bloomberg Administration.  According to WABC-TV, out of almost 400 thousand people charged with misdemeanor infractions, like disorderly conduct and loitering that went to court in 2008, just over half were dismissed outright. Again, Neil Smith:

Smith: And Bloomberg has in many ways benefited from the violence that Giuliani explicitly perpetrated. The attacks on homeless people in the 1990’s became integrated into a much larger, much more scuttleist attempt at securitizing the city.”

LEWIS: Berkeley recalls a recent conflict between residents and the police.

ACT: (21:22) “We grew up blocks away from Marcus Garvey Park, they put up a million dollar condominium.  As soon as the people moved in there (sounds of him beating on the table imitating the drums) and this was a tradition, every Saturday for fifty years, you had the drummers beating their drums in the park. We could sleep to it! Cause we knew the beat.  Now, since these people came one of them called the police department and what they said was, I  pay 1.5 million dollars to live here, not to hear black people beating bongos, making noise from 9 o’clock to 7 o’clock in the evening. And what the police did, is they take that one phone call and the police come out and they act on it.  So now I’m going to give you a summons for being disorderly.

Smith: “That was geared to the gentrification of the city, but it wasn’t as hard wired under Giuliani as it is under Bloomberg. So what Bloomberg has done is a very explicit pro- business gentrification policy.  Leading that has been the re-zoning of, I think now the numbers are up over a hundred neighborhoods in the City. The whole point was to lubricate the reinsertion of those places into a highly profitable real estate market, that’s what the re-zoning has been about. In that process, the result has been to keep rents artificially high, push rents higher and drag the bottom of the market up, therefore making it more and more difficult for people at the bottom end of the market to get housing  – increases in homelessness, hence the 120,000 figure.

LEWIS: 120 thousand.  That’s the number of men, women, and children who slept in the New York City municipal shelter system in 2009.  It’s an all-time record, and under Mayor Bloomberg’s watch, which began in 2002, this count has increased by 45 percent. Now families comprise nearly 80 percent of the shelter population.

ACT: (Officer Berkeley, 22:09) “Bloomberg, what does Bloomberg want? He wants to bring more and more rich people to New York, and he says it, cause they got to pay more taxes and this and that! But we’re saying when you bring all those rich people here, into our neighborhoods, where do we go? And you know what? He doesn’t have an answer for that.”

LEWIS: “It’s not a homeless crisis, it’s a housing crisis” – is the campaign being waged by Picture the Homeless.  The idea is that a lack of affordable housing produces homelessness, and criminalization fails to address this root cause.

Muhammad: “You’re made to be ashamed of homelessness, something that is beyond your control. The blame is put on the people who find themselves in the dilemma of homelessness.  They are made to be the guilty party and this is wrong and it must be stopped now and attention must be brought to the whole city, state, country and the world!”

LEWIS: For Making Contact, I’m Sam Lewis, in New York City.

Author: Radio Project

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