BY JOHN MUDD, PRESIDENT, MIDTOWN SOUTH COMMUNITY COUNCIL | There are 62,000 plus homeless people hiding out, tucked away, pushed aside, and sprinkled about our city of New York. At least that’s what’s on record. But if you ask the professionals—the ones on the front lines—they will tell you that the numbers are much higher. Often excluding the people who are doubling-up, couch-surfing, car-sleeping, residing in hospitais, and sleeping on the streets, the numbers are likely nearer to 80,000 people hanging along the fringes of our hard-driving society, which claims to be the financial and forward-thinking epicenter of the world.
Our glory days are here, according to Wall Street. In New York’s bustling Midtown Manhattan, the shiny new skyward reaching buildings are all-affirming.
Labeling the 42nd Street and Times Square transformations—from the historically grungy haven of porn, dope, and prostitution of the 1980s, to the jam-packed Disneyfied commercial bonanza of today—as “progressive” may be debatable, but the financial windfall these locales have garnered is undeniable, by their overwhelming hordes of shoppers, diners, and theater-goers.
If you were new to the city, weaving your way through the underground subway passages on a good day—missing the grunge vs. commercial debate above, loosely fitting into a subway car traveling during off-peak hours, and never experienced such modes of travel—you may very well be impressed with New York City’s subway system. But if you’ve lived in or experienced Germany, Paris, London, or Japan’s systems of travel (or even Chicago, Philadelphia, or Washington’s), you’ll likely raise an eyebrow or two.
In our glam Upper West and Upper East Sides, from Fifth Avenue shops down to Wall Street, there are clear winners in the struggle for supremacy between commercial and residential occupiers within neighborhoods. Leave it to the real estate brokers to contort a neighborhood’s narrative into various sellable stories for profit. They can turn the fringiest areas into the hippest areas to live. Tourists add fanfare. Our homeless brothers and sisters—capitalist society’s collateral damage—add grit.
Meanwhile, the real world’s matter takes shape on a cold, heartless morning, while you’re weaving your way through bustling pedestrian traffic in Midtown to burrow underground to catch a train—that is, if you were to open your eyes and not avoid the “grit.”
In your hurried thoughts-filled head, you may have missed Pops, the elderly gentleman with the dirty gray beard, sitting spread-eagled on the sidewalk against the Chase Bank on the corner of 40th Street. Not far from him is Chris or Troy (depending on who’s asking), a lethargic, youngish, street-worn fellow, in his 20s, who’s been huddling near this same area now for five years.
Aside from these gentlemen, and many others who are languishing among poordom, alcoholism, drug dependency, psychoses, and other health issues, the clearer reveal of systematic rot is delivered upon exiting the subway’s turnstile—a woman with two pawing children by her side, standing stoic but for her polite, pleading eyes. She is frozen, without distraction, in her silent ask to be swiped through the turnstile by a cognizant stranger.
I am glad to be that stranger. And I am more than happy to poke a finger toward the callousness of our system—which turns a blind eye to their patrons’ financial disparities—by granting the woman entry with my (single-user) monthly MetroCard. Take that! No extra charge for me, and freebee for her and her two kids. Transportation should be free!
I used to swipe people in on the sly, before learning it’s not a crime to do so. Now I brazenly swipe, whenever I can. Give me a toll clerk standing guard or an officer stationed near the turnstiles, and I will go out of my way to offer a swipe to a penniless soul! Why must we have this mother of two, begging for someone to swipe her in for a subway ride? Whose callousness and indifference would allow any mother, or person in need, to suffer economic humiliation?
And while we’re at it, why all the homeless? The simplicity of the question is daunting. You certainly won’t find the answer while reaching for those homogenized goals of the decaying middle-class: Get a job, work hard, save money, get married, have kids. The heartlessness of our individualistic society is easily overlooked by our energetic youth as they pursue, with great zest, a cleverly dangled carrot of faux opportunities. You damn well will overlook the answers working on your status, wealth, and power. It has not the luxury or room for sensitivity, or deep diving efforts to sift for solutions.
Homelessness is a subject that could unleash tirades, essays, books, studies, and reports, or spur discussions, from superficially formed notions to intellectual ones rooted in economic politics. Rather than bloviating in a puddle of humility, we could grasp the opportunity to find the pallor in our sublime glory that leaves our fellow man in the dust.
California leads the United States of America in homelessness, with nearly 130,000 people suffering; New York comes in second, with nearly 92,000 suffering.
In the whole United States of America, “About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty. It has the highest youth poverty rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the highest infant mortality rates among comparable OECD States. Its citizens live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies, eradicable tropical diseases are increasingly prevalent, and it has the world’s highest incarceration rate,” noted Philip G. Alston, special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights for United Nations, in a 2018 report on America’s poverty.
One in eight students will suffer homelessness before the 5th grade, notes Metro US, 2019.
“Across the United States, 552,830 people were homeless on a single night in 2018, showing the strong economy has not fully addressed the persistent lack of affordable housing. A striking 17 percent of those homeless Americans, or 91,897 people, were in New York State. What’s more, these heartbreaking figures from the newly released 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress are certainly an undercount: They derive from an annual point-in-time count that is known to miss many people sleeping on the streets,” Jacquelyn Simone, Coalition for the Homeless, noted, in 2018.
The existing state of poverty and homelessness should keep the chants of greatness mute. If your city, state, or country is your pride, or if it doesn’t fit into your political stride, you can lie away those stats.
The Trump administration, according to democracynow.org, “has proposed redefining how the government calculates the poverty line, using a different measure of inflation. Economists warn the switch to the so-called “Chained Consumer Price Index’ would underestimate the impact of inflation on wages, gradually chipping away at benefits like food stamps, Medicaid and healthcare subsidies for millions of Americans.”
While stock values escalates, says Robert Reich, “Most Americans are on a downward escalator. Median wage in the United States, adjusted for inflation, keeps on dropping…. Median wages of production workers, who comprise 80 percent of the workforce, haven’t risen in 30 years, adjusted for inflation.”
The real American hourly wage in the United States is lower today than it was in 1973, according to Richard’s Wolff’s Economic Report, published July 1, 2019.
The contrast between affordable housing and median rental markets does not encourage community development. Worse, is the overwhelming commercialization of Midtown. Commercial developments have access to air rights that housing does not; preferred zoning for financiers and real estate developers assists in decimating communities; hotel developments sprout like weeds in an unkempt garden, choking out humble living spaces. Standing on Eighth Avenue and West 39th Street, there are over 20 hotels within a four- block radius, greedily eating the Midtown Manhattan landscape—and more are underway. The lean toward commercial investments, rather than the development of communities, exacerbates poverty and the housing crisis.
No matter how many buildings with glistening fronts of modernity we shoot skyward, our brilliance is misplaced. You will never build a community with a median rent of $3,400. These exorbitant rates enslave average income earners, forcing them into dorm-like living, and driving them further away from their workplaces, piling on travel time to already long work days. Astronomical rent pricing creates a transient and poorer city. If our policy makers, financiers, developers, and marketers have no qualms about selling the median wage earner down the road, they are certainly balking at the no-to-low-income earner.
“The fact is that our economy today is built for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer.”—Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders
Princeton University Prof. Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Prof. Benjamin I Page, in their Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, noted, “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence,” while Howard Zinn declared the Constitution “illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law—all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity.”
The manufactured middle-class buffer between the 1% and the poor—not a holistic approach—lacked intelligence and foresight. Befuddling is the continual deepening of the wealth divide and commitments to disaster capitalist trends as a means to an end. With the buffer removed, the insecure, frustrated, and angry middle, and working class, could very well end up marching with tiki torches in hand, unifying to question the morality and sustainability of our governance.
An estimated 3,000 people, myself included, seeking “housing rights,” were in Albany on May 14, 2019, to pose those questions to our legislatures. Speaking for the Midtown South Community Council (MSCC) and, I believe for the groups: West Side Neighborhood Alliance (WSNA), Housing Conservation Council (HCC), Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), MET Council, Interfaith Assembly on Homeless and Housing (IFAHH). I can say that we were thrilled to overwhelm them with our estimated 3,000 fearful, housing-insecure constituents from all over New York City and Upstate New York. But more importantly, we were able to impart to them, as passionately as we could, our concern for the uncaring laws that are decimating our communities. Our simple humanitarian ask: Support the nine bills introduced in the State Senate and Assembly to protect rent-stabilization in New York State to break the antiquated, prejudicial, and wealth extracting laws currently on the books; to ease housing insecurities for tenants in New York’s rental market; to prevent homelessness!
The solutions are there, and must be administered through the political fog. Building real affordable and supportive housing is most important for establishing security, eliminating homelessness, and getting back in touch with our humanity. However, it is not the stand-alone solution. We must reconstitute this, and any, structure leaving out the inherent racism and ignorant design, which inhibits real progress and perpetuates suffering.
While some of the legislatures were not committed to any or part of the nine bills, it’s clear we had the majority legislatures who whole heartily supported the bills. The passage of these nine bills made clear who was on the side of the developers in their pursuit of wealth, and who was on the side of the people in their pursuit of communities.
The answer to “Why all the homeless?” is simple: It is the value you place on humanity. It is the price you put on blood and bones vs. wealth and power. Which side you lie on will be your reckoning.
John Mudd is the president and executive director of Midtown South Community Council (midtownsouthcc.org), a nonprofit advocating for a “better Quality of life” for over 20 years. He is also the chair of the Midtown South’s Homeless and Housing Committee. He is a community servant, fitness coach, and writer. See his solo play swimminginmudd.org, coming in April 2020.
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