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The Homelessness Marathon

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homelessness and poverty

The 22nd Homelessness Marathon aired on Wednesday, December 9, 2020.
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by Nobody

When I was a boy, I saw ads referring to products developed at "The Betty Crocker Institute." I imagined an ivy-covered campus around which professors strolled while discussing the finer points of cakeology. It took a while before I caught on that this "Institute" had all the substance of a mail-order PhD, but even so, I think it has more credibility than the "Manhattan Institute." At least what Betty Crocker put out you could swallow.

New York City activist, Robert Lederman, is fond of pointing out that the Manhattan Institute, credited with being the inspiration for such giants of western thought as Rudy Guiliani and President BeelzeBush, was founded by former CIA director William Casey and funded by fortunes accumulated through friendly trading with Nazi Germany. As the spawning ground for resuscitated theories of eugenics and that pernicious piece of racist claptrap, "The Bell Curve," The Manhattan Institute, Lederman warns, represents nothing more nor less than fascism come to America. Still, I don't think I fully grasped what he was saying till I got my hands on a copy of "The Burden of Bad Ideas," a collection of essays by Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald.

In one chapter, MacDonald propounds the thesis that homelessness is caused by the refusal of homeless people to accept housing. "Clearly," she writes, "most vagrants prefer the streets to the responsibilities of housed existence." She is quick to point out, though, that that's not actually what keeps people on the streets. People live on the streets because "advocates need them to be there," ostensibly because without them, there'd be nothing to complain about.

And how do these evil homeless advocates keep homeless people on the streets? Why, of course, by seeing to it that homeless folks are just treated too darn well. "The charity our society showers upon people living on the street," MacDonald complains, "makes possible [their] hardy resistance to seeking help." MacDonald is so brazen that she repeatedly accuses Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, of lying, for saying outrageous things like homeless people "have no place left to go."

Without left-wing meddling, MacDonald assures us, the whole problem of homelessness could be solved. How? Homeless people would be "removed" to what she calls "safer abodes."

Of course, this thesis is beyond absurd. We'll probably get into a numbers game when the new census figures come out, but however many homeless people there may be on any given night, everyone agrees that this static count represent three or four times as many people cycling in and out of housing. So if we have a homeless population of, say, 750,000, we must have had two to three million people who have had episodes of homelessness during the year. In other words, a million or two million people find their way OUT of homelessness every year, so how could anyone possibly conclude that homeless people don't want homes?

The answer is simple. MacDonald looked at practically no evidence and misrepresented the little bit that she found.

MacDonald's sweeping conclusions are based entirely on work largely funded, at first, by the Times Square BID (Business Improvement District) which developed an interest in homelessness because getting homeless people out of the area was better for business. The BID didn't just use the stick, but offered a carrot, in the form of outreach workers associated with Project Renewal, an organization with various services to offer, including use of a Respite Center and assistance in obtaining subsidized housing.

According to MacDonald, the BID's report on this project, "To Reach The Homeless," proves "beyond a shadow of a doubt that the homeless are not on the street because they can't find housing." This is because "over the year, the outreach workers had made 1511 'contacts' with 206 individuals... [and] only 37 of the contacted individuals agreed even to visit the BID's respite center, while a mere 15 condescended to stay overnight. The homeless, it appeared, did not really want housing, housing, housing."

According to MacDonald, "the payoff was meager: some two hundred long-term homeless, according to program estimates, remained on the streets around Times Square... One year and $700,000 later, only two people had accepted housing."

The actual report which MacDonald cites, however, tells a different story. Yes, there were 1511 contacts, but Project Renewal had actually asked the state Office of Mental Health to free them from having to define their work on the basis of "contacts," which might mean as little as "a brief 'How're ya doin'?' on the street." When the Republican Pataki administration came in, the report notes, hope of coming up with more realistic evaluative standards "no longer flew."

"To Reach the Homeless" listed only sixty-five individuals who were even seen three or more times. So the 37 who visited the Respite Center represented more than half of this group -- not nearly so hopeless a statistic as MacDonald makes out. It's true that the BID's report says that only two individuals were housed in the first year, but the same report also contains an addendum which states that, in the next two months, four more people were placed, which tended to confirm the idea that the effect of outreach efforts was "cumulative." Indeed, a follow-up report issued later notes that after that first year when only two people were housed, twelve more homeless people were housed after just eight months.

And as for those two hundred long-term homeless left on the streets, the report notes that there weren't two hundred long-term homeless in the Times Square area to begin with. "While [outreach workers] had seen about 200 homeless individuals 'passing through' the Times Square area, they found only about a dozen individuals who could conceivably be described as the 'hard-core' and permanent..." The report adds that when "workers were sent out in the early morning, rather than late morning hours, they uncovered as many as 12 additional homeless people."

The report concludes, "If the success of the [outreach effort] could be measured by comparing the number of resident homeless in the Times Square area before the project went into operation in the late summer of 1995 and a year afterward, the experiment would qualify as a resounding success... according to those dealing with the problem, the number's are way, way down." So far down, in fact, that the BID won't attribute the change to Project Renewal's efforts but assumes it was caused by "the general development and clean-up of the area." Whatever the cause, MacDonald's description of the homeless situation in Times Square after the intervention is directly opposite from the one in the very report she cites for evidence. What kind of journalism is that?

Though MacDonald tars all homeless people with the outreach program's "failure," Project Renewal's actual success is all the more remarkable because they were working with what they defined as "service resistant," "tough" cases. True, "To Reach The Homeless" does give brief vignettes of homeless people running or hiding to avoid the outreach workers but, reading between the lines, one might get an idea of why.

First of all, the BID's interest is in business not humanity, and while it does offer the carrot, it also employs the stick. "To Reach The Homeless" gives a lot of credit for the reduced number of homeless people in Times Square to the fact that "The combined forces of the NYPD and the BID security people have fairly blanketed the area with officers on patrol, not rousting the homeless, but not exactly appearing to extend a welcome hand either." As someone who's talked with numerous homeless people in New York City, I don't believe there was ever a "not rousting" policy, but in any case, the BID is seen as a police power. Could that be a reason why some homeless people avoid outreach workers associated with the BID?

One might think that the BID's security officers and Project Renewal's outreach workers have entirely different priorities, but that's not necessarily the case. Though MacDonald cannonizes the outreach workers as "gentle, well-meaning professionals" who "try ever so delicately to persuade the homeless to visit the BID's renovated 'respite center,'" in "To Reach The Homeless" one of these gentle souls sees some homeless people in a parking garage and laments the fact that the landlord "can't keep a security guard there all the time. That would help us a great deal if they could. As long as these guys have a place to stay warm, they're not going to come into the Respite Center."

Leaving aside the obvious point that homeless people are less likely to trust "gentle" service providers who wish more force could be used to coerce them, what, in the end, does the Respite Center have to offer? According to MacDonald, it's a place where homeless people "could get overnight shelter, showers, healthy meals, clothing and medical attention -- with no strings attached," but that's not actually the way it's described in "To Reach The Homeless," MacDonald's sole source for her account.

Let's take the little matter of a shower. If someone offered you a "no strings attached" shower, what do you think that would that mean? If someone offered that to me, I'd assume it meant they'd lead me to a shower, point at it, and let me enjoy myself. No such luck with Project Renewal.

When homeless people seek to take a shower at the Respite Center, the first thing that happens is that they're separated from all their earthly belongings. Roseann Viglione, the project's director, explains that this requires "a lot of negotiation." Then the homeless person's clothes are taken away too -- for cleaning -- which might make them feel like virtual prisoners, since they can't go out naked. Oh, and of course, the homeless clients are also watched in the shower or, as Roseann ever so euphemistically puts it, they're "managed in the shower by a case aide." This is because "sometimes they come in drunk and we don't want them falling," but one might suspect it's to protect Project Renewal from liability. The homeless clients, after all, have been taking their chances under dangerous conditions for a long time.

The fun doesn't stop there. No, homeless showerees also have to apply Lindane anti-lice medication, something they balk at. "It's not that it stings, they just don't want to do it," says the ever-so-sensitive Roseann. I guess this is more proof that homeless people don't know what's good for them, but I used Lindane long ago, and I seem to remember it stinging. I imagine it would sting a lot more if one had an open sore or cut as a homeless person might. But this barely scratches the surface of what's wrong with Lindane.

First marketed more than fifty years ago (and therefore never given a pre-market investigation by the FDA), Lindane, once sold under the brand name "Kwell," is the last persistent organochlorine pesticide sold for direct use on human beings. It is a known carcinogen and neurotoxin that, among other things, can cause seizures and even death (for more information check out www.lindane.org).

The FDA first issued an alert to Lindane's potential dangers in 1975, more than 25 years ago. By 1989, the Armed Forces Pest Management Board had dropped Lindane from its formulary. It has been banned completely in 18 countries and a total ban in the state of California takes effect in 2002. In April of 1996, even our weak-kneed FDA advised that Lindane should be considered a treatment of last resort. This was just six months after Project Renewal's Times Square outreach program became fully operational and within the period covered by "To Reach the Homeless."

In the process of writing this column, I called Project Renewal and found that, at least up until my call, they were still using Lindane on new clients or clients they hadn't seen in a while. And they were using it as a matter of course, without even bothering to check first if the homeless person they were giving it to was actually infested with lice.

At least, if they're willing to put up with everything, the Respite Center does provide homeless people with a rare (on the streets) sensual delight -- doesn't it?" Well, sort of, but according to Roseann, "sometimes when they're in the shower they kind of get into being into the shower, and they're in there for a long time, 20 minutes, half an hour. And we have to say, 'Hey, you coming out?'"

So let's recap. In order to take a shower, homeless people have to hand over to outreach workers allied with their police harassers all of their earthly possessions, everything they depend on to survive including even their clothes. Then they're watched in the shower, forced to cover themselves with goo that might harm them, and told to get out when they start to enjoy themselves. Roseann says that for the outreach workers this process is "very draining," but for homeless people, MacDonald calls it a shower "with no strings attached."

MacDonald might have made better use of her time if, instead of focusing on the brief vignettes of homeless people who refused Project Renewal's services, she had concentrated on the much lengthier description of one of the program's successes.

Donald is a 62-year-old alcoholic who is receiving disability for "painful circulation problems in his left leg" with a "contributing diagnosis of alcohol abuse." After five-years on the streets, he is on the verge of securing subsidized housing. Audrey, an RN, reports that he is "cooperative on all levels since the day he came in, a sweetheart of a client" who's even "medication compliant," taking the anti-depressant pills they give him. Still there are problems, like how to "beef up his Social Security check of $399 a month."

This is a little detail MacDonald altogether ignores. Our government gives a disabled man only $399 a month on which to live. Could that have anything to do with why he couldn't find affordable housing in New York City?

Who knows, perhaps Donald wouldn't be having problems with his leg either, if we had national health care, but "Donald had tried several times, somewhat unsuccessfully, to get attention from city hospitals." Finally, doctors did operate, "bypassing a vein in Donald's leg so the blood would circulate," but a blockage in his foot was left untreated.

"By early May," the BID reports, "things were looking good indeed," but then "it happened." What happened was that Donald got a letter from Social Security asking him to come in for a "redetermination" of his benefits. "We kept telling him, 'Don't worry about this, it's nothing... They'll see,'" recalls Roseann, but Donald freaked out anyway. Maybe he knew that, contrary to Roseann's reassurances, thousands of people with legitimate disabilities are kicked off their benefits every year and have to fight for months to get them restored.

In any case, Donald went back to drinking and, according to Roseann, started "getting obstreperous, saying he had a disability, he should get the money anyway..." After six weeks of this, his foot got worse and, what with the resulting infection, his leg had to be amputated above the knee. "In the back of his mind," Roseann speculates, "he was going to show them a disability." Though, of course, it was still "not enough for [SSI] that his doctor told them his leg had been amputated." Donald had to go and show them the stump.

At least, in the end, Donald did get a subsidized apartment. But if this is what homeless people have to go through to get one, then the fact that Project Renewal has succeeded at all must be a testament to how badly homeless people want to get off the streets.

Heather MacDonald is a "journalist" spectacularly devoid of integrity who doesn't even get her facts right in the simplest ways. But it doesn't really matter to her well being. Though she derides homeless people as, essentially, a bunch of losers defined by their deficiencies, her own astonishing deficiency of honor and ability will cost her nothing. She's surely paid more at the Manhattan Institute than any three or four homeless activists put together. And certainly many times more than Project Renewal's non-professional staff, themselves "alumni of substance abuse programs run by Project Renewal," who found the inspirational pot of gold at the end of the rainbow -- pay of "$6 to $7 an hour" in America's most expensive city.

And MacDonald's various deficiencies also won't keep her from being socially accepted. On the dust jacket, George Will calls her work "indispensable." John Leo of U.S. News & World Report describes her as "a brilliant journalist of the first rank." And David Brooks, famous for his hatchet job on Anita Hill, declares, "If there were any justice in the world, MacDonald would be knee-deep in Pullitzer Prizes and National Magazine Awards for her pioneering work." This is, of course, a slightly different sense of "justice" than the one possessed by those who say the national wealth should be shared more equally, but never mind. This is how it's going to be. Homeless people are on the street because we're too good to them, and don't bother us with the truth.

What has all this got to do with fascism? Well, fascism isn't just one thing. It's not just nationalism, or xenophobia or militarism or a corporate economic system, or bunches of bonkers psychobabble like "triumph of the will." There's something else in the mix, a kind of sneering quality that to me is exemplified by a picture I saw at Yad Vashem, Israel's main holocaust museum. In the picture, a group of young Nazi soldiers is haughtily laughing as one of their number snips the beard off an orthodox Jewish man held helplessly as their captive.

Who was that man to them? He was no real person, just a flesh and blood backdrop for their cruel fantasies. And who, we might ask, are homeless people to Heather MacDonald?