Racism, Fear, And Elitism Shut Down My Neighborhood's Homeless Shelter
Yesterday was a crummy day. It’s been only a few weeks since my New York City neighborhood, the Upper West Side, began hosting three temporary hotel shelters for the un-homed. The move was made to protect the residents, and the population at large, from the spread of COVID-19, because hotels, with their individual rooms, make social distancing possible. Then, on Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the mayor has capitulated to the demands of a few deep-pocketed locals who hired a high-priced lawyer–Randy Mastro, who formerly served as Rudy Giuliani’s Chief of Staff, and then his Deputy Mayor–to sue the city if the homeless shelters were not evacuated.
Anyone who’s lived here long enough was hardly shocked to discover that our mayor has no moral compass. But it hurt. A lot of fine people have worked hard to ensure the emotional and physical safety of this most vulnerable population–a population coping with complex trauma–only to have their clients re-wounded by the hostility and contempt of the entitled rich nearby. It’s stomach-turning. A Giuliani crony and a cowardly mayor served the desires of a cruel, vapid, and altogether foolish group of well-heeled bigots.
I went to the press conference at the Lucerne this morning, with my daughter, and listened to our city councilwoman and our public advocate, along with others, including David Giffen of the Coalition for the Homeless, denounce the mayor’s late-night deal and insist that it did not speak for the majority of the Upper West Side. My daughter and I spoke with two shelter residents. One asked my child if she was excited to start school. When he left, he told us to have a “blessed day.” The other stroked our puppy, Albert, and told us about working at his cousin’s dog grooming business.
Later, I had a run-in with a large white man who was standing on the corner of 79th Street shouting his disbelief that anyone should be “on the side of the homeless.”
“Do you have kids?” he asked me.
“New York is for everyone,” I responded wearily.
“Oh no, it isn’t!” he screamed. “We are gonna take our city back!”
No one, I wanted to say, has taken it away from you.
In the last few weeks, some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met have come together to offer emotional support to the residents of the shelters, as well as donations of food, toiletries, clothing, and art supplies. Many West Siders have waved signs of welcome, of inclusion and compassion. Many have attended events at the steps of the shelters, drawing messages of kinship on the sidewalk below. I’ve chatted with a lot of the shelter residents, and the staff, and the security guards in that time, and I’ve been greeted by each one of them with warmth and cordiality and good wishes. I’ve continued to walk all over the West Side with my daughter and our dog–all day and well into the evening hours–and seen nothing threatening or lewd or objectionable at all.
It is hard, in the face of so much goodness, to fathom the depth of cruelty and indifference with which a certain percentage of Upper West Side residents responded to the proximity of those who are visibly different from them. Most of the shelter residents are Black or brown, all of them are poor. For many years now, although it has not been historically so, the Upper West Side has been largely white and middle class or affluent. And there it is. Racism, elitism, exclusion. Fear of poverty. Fear of people who are culturally different from you. Fear of people getting over the castle gates.
The objectors say it isn’t so. They say it isn’t about those things. No–it is about security! Someone snapped a photo of two clearly not affluent people having sex on the sidewalk! Someone videotaped a man masturbating near the Museum of Natural History! Someone took a photo of someone urinating in the street! What about the children? Do you have a child? What about your child? This is the chorus of the worried, the fearful, the mostly white and thoroughly sheltered population of hysterics who fueled this war on the far less fortunate.
Yes, I say, over and over. Yes, I have a child. And I have taught my child that it is monstrous to record someone else’s most private moment and use it as a defense for evicting an entire population of human beings from a shelter. That it is monstrous to secretly record someone else’s behavior — full stop. Yes, I have a child, and if our neighborhood had been overtaken by an invasion of chronic street urinators and masturbators I would no doubt ask the city to find a place for these people to have sex and to urinate–wait a minute, that’s where we came in. But there isn’t an epic wave of street sex and urination. It’s all a lie. And the worst part is, they know it. Deep down, they know it. They just want the poor, the un-homed, the Black and brown, with their aura of poor-people problems, out.
We take Albert for walks in the evening, and sometimes we end up in Theodore Roosevelt Park, which is bordered by one of the most expensive streets in the city–81st Street. I met a woman on 81st Street the other day who was sitting on the bench near the bus stop, trying to scrounge two dollars and fifty cents for an egg sandwich and a coffee. She was a resident of an East Side shelter, she said, and had come west because she hadn’t seen the park in 30 years. She was hungry. She petted Albert and told me about her dog, Neena, who had died of breast cancer. Opposite her loomed those decadent apartments, mostly empty all summer, because the rich have fled to the Hamptons and other resort-style places.
The old buildings on 81st–filled with multimillion dollar renovated apartments and condominiums–are particularly majestic as they light up against the darkening sky. It’s quite a backdrop as we stand in the grass and watch our dog play with other dogs. Last night, I saw an acquaintance of mine there–a mother of a ten-year-old who attends a fancy school just opposite the Lucerne hotel. It’s a Jewish school, and seeing her made me think of the rabbi who had spoken that day at the press conference of compassion and shared humanity.
My acquaintance began discussing her relief that the shelters were being evacuated. I asked her, not really ready for yet another fight over this, why she was so relieved. She worried about her kids, she said. Her own daughter had seen someone defecating on the street, someone she had assumed to be a resident of the shelter. Her daughter had also briefly witnessed the sexual interlude that had been immortalized in a cell phone photo. I think my acquaintance thought she’d hit a home run, that surely, even the most “bleeding heart” liberal would be abashed in the face of her revelations.
It was at this moment that I realized something. Yes, this is about racism and the fear of suffering and the desire to put a wall between you and the downtrodden because magical thinking tells you this will keep you forever on the lucky side of things. Yes, it is about people who have simply never lived in working class or poor neighborhoods and don’t know what real life looks like, what working class clothing looks like, and due to ignorance and bias, confuse it with criminality.
But it is also about something else: prudishness. It is about fear of the human body. It is about fear of vulnerability, and bodily function, and our mutual dependence on each other to survive, and the parts of ourselves that we’d like to keep hidden or feel ashamed of or scared of. I asked the mother if she truly believed some great harm had been done to her child by the sight of someone having an unfortunate and vulnerable moment in public because they lacked a place to be private or the mental health to go to such a place. She did not say “yes.” Instead, she said, “they were clearly very drunk or high.”
“Like all the frat boys in the bars on Amsterdam Avenue on Saturday nights?” I asked her. Like all the stoned white boys I see all over Central Park, and have for years, but increasingly in this anxious time? It must be nice to be able to afford CBD oil to drop on one’s tongue, to be able to purchase it at the local smoothie shop, or to get a prescription for Xanax at your FaceTime psychiatric appointment, but some people have to smoke a joint to relieve their tension. People of all colors and backgrounds. It’s just the white kids often get it delivered to their townhouses.
Prudishness. Fear of the body. What if your daughter saw that? And what if she did? I am not so bankrupt of intellect and compassion, of humor and wisdom that I would not know how to counsel my child through such a sighting. People are human. We have needs. We need to go to the bathroom. If we are mentally ill, we might not realize where we are, or we might not feel the normal need for privacy. We need help with an illness like that. But we are all people, and we all must face these bodily things that happen to us: urination, defecation, sex, hunger, pain, grief, longing, joy.
I tell my daughter not to be afraid of her humanity or someone else’s. I tell her to be grateful that she has more support and good health than many, and that she must do what she can to express that gratitude. Demand that the city do more to help those who most need it, to restore affordable housing with co-located services for the traumatized and hurting. But whatever she does, she must not look away because the sight of someone else’s humanity scares her. If you cannot reckon with your own humanity, marvel at what you share with others, it will be you who is impoverished for all your days.
Do you have a child? Yes, I have a child, and I can think of no fate more terrible for her than to be raised in a neighborhood where people turn their eyes away from hardship. Yes, I worry about my child. I worry about her character and her ability to empathize and her ability to feel life fully.
At the press conference today, my daughter whispered in my ear. “Mommy,” she said, “this is making me sad and angry.”
“Good,” I whispered back. “That means you have a heart.”
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