|WHERE ARE THESE PEOPLE TODAY?|
Before Sandy moved ashore I was wondering about all those folks who live down in the subway tunnels, and on the streets. What would happen to them? After the storm flooded the subway tunnels in New York I looked for some information about those folks. I heard virtually zip concerning them.
Not surprisingly the homeless were not on Mayor Bloomberg's radar screen.
46,631 of them seek refuge every night in the city's often criticized shelter system, and those are the ones that manage to get in. Many more stay out in the streets.
Julia spoke with one homeless man named James as the storm approached. She asked him why he was not seeking shelter.
"I can't go back to the shelter system for another two months," he explains.
"Why?" I ask and point out that the city has just opened 76 emergency shelters around the five boroughs as part of their hurricane preparedness plan.
"Once you've been in the system for 18 months you can't go back there for at least one year," James responds. "Only once you've been out for a year, can you be classified as longterm homeless, and therefore get access to additional assistance."
"But what about the emergency shelters? You cannot go to those either?" I ask again.
"No, they don't want us there. These shelters are for the good folks, the families that get evacuated. There is no room in there for me."
"Have you tried?" I ask, pointing out that there are 73,000 beds available, and last I heard only about 1,000 had been taken.
"I couldn't get help during Irene," James responds. "So, I'm not gonna bother this time. I can't get into the trains and seek shelter there, because the subways are shut down."
"So what are you gonna do?" I ask.
"I don't know," James responds. "I'll have to stay in place here so that the homeless outreach can see me. Once I've been spotted in this place for 10 days in a row, I can get access to some drop-in centers. They're all full, so it's hard to get in, but once an outreach service sees you for an extended period in the same place, there is help to be had."
"But the winds are going to be very dangerous. You need to crawl under somewhere," I insist. James just shrugs his shoulders in response.
I'm wondering where James is today? Another homeless man told Picture the Homeless:
When i finally got to my shelter, I was informed they had already evacuated, and we were all being transfered to other BRC facilities. But they were nice, they assisted me, late as it was, they gave me a van ride to a new shelter in Manhattan, on 25th bw 6th and 7th. The driver got lost - even with the GPS, a 45 minute drive took 90 minutes.
And it was all downhill from there.
This new place, everyone who worked there was really crass. Right off the bat, the worker who signed me in was really disrespectful, so I had to let her know about herself - and that became a dispute, until her supervisor came over and was real nice, and handled it. The facility wasn't as nice as the one i was normally in, and most of these workers were not professional, and had so much attitude whenever you asked them for anything, because from their perspective they got stuck with double work. They were cool with their normal clients, but not with us. Half of those workers were milking the time, they hadnt been home since Sunday and they were taking it out on us. All the guys from my shelter were put in a dorm-style room - talking to them, even guys I hadn't really ever talked to before, we realized we were all going through the same thing, and that as bad as our old shelter had been, obviously other places were so much worse.
The lights went out at 8:45PM. We were assured the facility was safe, there were 2 backup generators. They kept reassuring us - they told us 4 times. But at 8:45 everything went down, elevators, TV, lights, everything. No elevators in an 18 story office building, full of homeless people! People were uptight, scaried, worried, making lots of noise because nobody knew what was happening. We weren't told anything until 12, when they said Con Ed had turned everything off, and the facility's generators weren't working, but we could never get any details. Staff was so rude and crass and unhelpful - they didn't even want us walking out the door. We couldn't even go outside to smoke a cigarette. At first I thought they were concerned about our safety, but the more i looked at it they didnt give a sh*t about us. They just didnt want to lose out on some money.
All kinds of homeless populations were in there - CDC recovery cases, people with mental illnesses.... And no hot water, for all those days. My dorm alone was 30-40 guys, so you multiply that by 18 floors - they were all occupied - and you can imagine what it was like in there. After two days I couldn't take it, I said let me risk this Alaska water and take a shower, because I couldn't handle it anymore. Tensions were high. You tried to play a board game, and that wasn't allowed either. It got to be really bad. Just in the two days I was there, from Monday to Wednesday, there were 4 fights - someone got arrested, someone pulled a scalpel. 3 cop cars, 9 officers, in the lobby. 1:15PM, after lunch.
Tuesday night stuff was getting rough. Folks hadn't been able to get their medication, they were acting up, some of them had serious issues, people were accusing each other of stealing - they were fighting over a pillow! and it turned out to be one of the workers who took it.
By the time we were allowed to go back to our old shelter, it took me about 3 hours to get there... and most of that was spent waiting for the bus.
My opinion is, the city's response sucked. Some areas got a better response, the same thing as always. It boils down to the politics - rich vs poor.
But what about all those people who live underground?
Way back in 1993, journalist Jennifer Toth released a landmark work on these people who live in the tunnels beneath Manhattan. She puts the number of folks down there at that time at 5,000. No one really knows how many live there now.
Again, I'm left wondering what happened to all these people?
Maybe someday we will know.
The following is from We Are Respectable Negroes.
During Katrina for example, the American people saw how the intersections of wealth, income, and racial inequality left whole communities destroyed, abandoned, and people unable to escape the wrath of mother nature because they did not have the resources necessary to buy a car in order to evacuate. Hurricane Katrina, was also an object lesson in how the State decides who was valuable, and which people were expendable.
Super Storm Sandy has revealed how New York is also a city of great divides in wealth and income. She is a multicultural mega city; New York is also a city where the very rich and the very poor exist in an exploitative relationship with one another.
The working class and poor, living on less than a living wage, make the lives of the rich and upper class comfortable and possible. As detailedhere, the rich were able to take Super Storm Sandy in relative stride, riding it out in nice hotels, having an adventure of it all, and complaining about a lack of cell phone service and power.
By comparison, their maids, nannies, drives, assistants, and those many unnamed others who work in the service sector had to go to work during this time of peril for fear of losing their jobs, sleeping in cars or in shelters because they could not afford a hotel, or continuing to take care of the spoiled children of the rich while the care givers themselves were unable to offer comfort to their own kids.
It is estimated that there are tens of thousands, if not more, homeless people in New York City. They are families, children, men, women, the elderly, and the working poor. They are largely invisible not because we cannot see them. Rather, one of the survival skills that a person learns in order to successfully live in any city is to ignore the obvious, the pain, and the hurt of others. City life is an existence of social atomization. In order to function, most folks learn to look away both as a practical skill for maintaining sanity, and to avoid the frightening reality that many Americans are a paycheck away from being homeless themselves.
There are other homeless folks who are almost quite literally invisible. They are the "Mole People" who live in the subways of New York. It is estimated that there are thousands of people who live in this subterranean world, where they have established cities that live off of the electricity, scavenge the excess of a city that is decadent in its wastefulness, raise children and tend to pets, live and love, and make a civilization where they are the mayors, citizens, doctors, and police.
These human beings, us, and yes we are them, are not monsters or"CHUDS." In order for the collective consciousness of New York to maintain a veneer of normality, the Mole People are transformed into the stuff of legend and urban mythology. Nevertheless, they are real
What happened to them during Super Storm Sandy? Are there thousands of dead people who are now washed away by the greatest disaster in the history of New York City's mass transit system? Is this "human management problem" now solved by an intervention from nature? Are the biopolitics of the State in a time of economic crisis so cruel and calculating? What of their family members, friends, and loved ones? Will they ever have any closure?
For those of you in the New York area, please share any information you may have on what has happened to the Mole People in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy. If there are any freelance writers or others who want to share their insight or stories about the people who live in the subway system of New York, by all means do email it to me. I will post it on We Are Respectable Negroes. This is a story that demands and deserves more attention.
A human tragedy is no less horrible or wrong because the people involved are poor. Sadly, Americans have internalized this narrative, conservatives especially, because it turns poverty into a moral claim, where those less advantaged are made responsible for the failures of an economic system predicated on surplus labor, i.e. unemployment, in order to transfer wealth and resources to the rich. The poor are thus "bad people" who deserve their fate; the rich and the middle classes are virtuous and good as proven by their economic resources. For the most twisted of Americans, those possessed by a certain type of religious mind, money is taken as a sign of divine blessings.
This is backwards logic. But, It is no less compelling for those who have drunk in the myth of meritocracy, the logic of neo liberalism, and the chimera that is the "American Dream."