I have been thinking a lot about our unhoused population lately. Many people look at “homeless” people on the street and then go about their day. I know there is so much as we are dealing with COVID and the daily stresses of life, but so many people are actually one paycheck or one bad illness away from losing it all and finding themselves without a home.
I have heard from friends and colleagues who do not like riding the subways because of the growing unhoused population riding the trains. We must remember that many people who choose to live on the street or ride the subways with their belongings do so because the current shelter system is unsafe for many.
We have heard horror stories about the violence and sexual harassment and assault at homeless shelters. Others have stories of their belongings being stolen or dealing with people in the midst of mental breakdowns. It is imperative we find substantive and longstanding policy solutions to not only our unhoused population but also our shelter system.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams has decided to get “tough on homelessness” and has ordered city employees and NYPD officers to forcibly break up, break down, and remove homeless encampments. He believes they are a blight on the city and must disappear. The problem with this Rudy Giuliani-esque logic is thus—simply throwing someone’s belongings in a dumpster and moving them from their temporary home on the street does not get at the root of the homeless problem in New York City.
What are we doing about affordable housing, safe shelter systems, job placement, mental health services, technical schools that teach a trade or skill, and legal services for those in need? The issue of homelessness did not appear during the Adams administration, but the current mayor must take a holistic approach to solving this growing crisis—and throwing someone’s belongings away and forcing them to interact with an aggressive police force is not a solution. Many individuals whose belongings were trashed did not “go away” as the mayor imagined, many just moved to a similar location, more distressed, and more in need.
It is my hope that Gary P. Jenkins, who was appointed by Mayor Eric Adams as the commissioner of the New York City Department of Social Services, which oversees both the Human Resources Administration and Department of Homeless Services, will use his 30-plus years experience and work with other agencies to help those in need.
Nikita Stewart wrote an amazing book about girl scouts living in NYC’s homeless shelters, “Troop 6000: The Girl Scout Troop that Began in a Shelter and Inspired the World.” I do hope other organizations can find ways to support and uplift people who should have a voice in the city. Homelessness should not be seen as a scarlet letter. We must continue to put pressure on our elected officials to provide the resources for our entire community.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” and the co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC.