by William S. Burnett
Member, Board of Directors
Picture the Homeless
One assignment I had for a course in rhetoric in college was to take an inane idea and make it sound reasonable and challenging to argue against. I went after Holy Communion. My argument was simple. The species of Holy Communion are bread and wine. That Christ chose those species to represent his body and blood was rooted in historical sociological factors. Taking those factors and updating them to contemporary sociological factors would properly compel us to reduce those two species to beer.
I argued the following facts: a) bread and wine were staples of the poor and Christ chose to identify through those species as being among the poor; while today beer would replace bread and wine as being the staple of the poor. b) Bread and wine were then the staples of common social gatherings; while today beer (and bratwurst) would serve that role for common folk; and c) Bread was what “earth has given and human hands have made.” Wine was “fruit of the vine and work of human hands.” Replace “vine” with “shaft” – and don’t we all get a lot of that, these days! – you’ve got the best of both species, bread and wine, rolled up into one, beer. And in either case, Jesus ends up with a fairly high BAC.
The argument was inane, of course; but that was the point: take an absurd assertion and make a convincing case for it. It was really an exercise in creative writing; or, in its vocal form, public debate or a day before the Supreme Court.
The effective part about rhetorical argumentation like this in the real world, especially in cases where the inane argument is more subtly inane, is that, if you argue the case enough times, it could be assumed to be true however inane it is.
That assignment came immediately to mind when I read the piece published April 1 by the New York Post; written as if it were a work of investigative journalism that seemingly reinforces Michael Bloomberg’s previously-asserted position that poor people who avail themselves of shelter in New York are taking advantage of the court-ordered shelter system; mainly that they tend to be out-of-towners who may or may not need support mooching off local resources. I’m not sure the statistics will bear that latter assertion out, at least in its exaggerated iteration.
That article envisioned homeless people side-by-side with billionaires enjoying luxury accommodations, as if the two groups – affluent and poor – had more in common than the cost of their respective accommodations. I find it amusing that, to make their case, they had to quote some guy all the way from Poland who came to New York City to enjoy our homeless shelter system as if it consisted of four-star hostels, only to return to Poland then come back to once again enjoy a stay in one of our luxury hostels. To be fair, they also found a guy from Los Angeles, and another from Florida, though I think you need a passport to go there too. In feigning a case, this piece does a grave disservice to the truth, libeling the thousands of homeless people who struggle to survive in the shelter system. It also works to create just one more wedge among members of diverse economic groups in the local community, implying that a shiftless class of poor unnecessarily drains resources paid for by the more responsible, but struggling middle class.
Moreover, it divides people who were born and raised in New York City from those among lower income levels who were not, playing into Michael Bloomberg’s elitist notions about who has a right to reside in the city; that New York will not absorb the presence of newer lower-income folks whose net contributions to the local economy are lower than the net contributions of higher-income folks. We’ll disregard the irony that Michael Bloomberg and the New York Post both also have elitist notions about who among the locally born-and-raised have a right to continue living in the neighborhoods they, themselves, grew up in.
While the article rightly points out that the cost, today, of sheltering a homeless person in what has become a cottage industry of homeless service providers and the cost of rent for luxury housing are comparable, I know very few homeless people who would not prefer stable, traditional housing in lieu of shelter; and most homeless people would be satisfied with much less than luxury housing accommodations. That the State and City of New York continue to spend $3,000-per-month to shelter a homeless person, rather than support more cost-effective and dignified housing options says less about the person in shelter and more about the cottage industry of service providers who seek to sustain indefinite financing of their programs and the politicians who enable them.
We at Picture the Homeless, by virtue of who we are, speak more directly the mind of homeless New Yorkers. Unlike the crack reporters at the New York Post, we don’t have to do “investigative journalism” to know what homeless people think. In that light, because we know homeless people really want housed, not sheltered, we have worked to identify the prevalence of warehoused housing units – first in Manhattan, then city-wide – that could be used to house homeless and low-income New Yorkers. And we have sought legislation that that would require the city to conduct an annual, transparent inventory of vacant housing units in the city; legislation held up in committee, despite having majority support in city council.
Members of Picture the Homeless are also exploring viable, sustainable community-based affordable housing options that involve and reinforce already existing neighborhood communities. In the process, we are engaging on-going town-hall style meetings at the neighborhood level so that people already housed in communities that could provide more affordable/low-income housing have an opportunity to contribute to our explorations. If the reporters at the New York Post are serious about the impact on the local budget of paying around $3,000 per-person-per-month sheltering the homeless, I would invite them to employ their crack journalism skills in investigating some of these housing model alternatives instead of wasting their time libeling homeless people.