Designer shades, quiet hustle: The entrepreneurs of the New York City homeless shelter

Still image from "Hell Yeah" video. ()
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Let’s face it: There is always something awkward between the urban down-and-out and their liberal, educated sympathizers. It hovers, it looms, but it won’t even whisper its name. If you are a member of the former, all you have to do to bring the monster out of the box is show a member of the latter a certain music video: "Hell Yeah," by Dead Prez. It is, in my opinion, the greatest rap video in the history of the medium. It's also, on the surface, a sharp slap at shallow liberal sympathy.

This video from 2004 is choreographed like a Muppet Show number directed by Spike Jonze (actually by Gil Green), but right from the start, its buoyancy is undercut by “home movie” footage of a white suburban family driving down the wrong block while on vacation. In a reality-TV-nightmare flipside to National Lampoon’s Vacation, they end up getting violently carjacked. Dead Prez members stic.man and M-1 take off in the car with a couple of homies, recording their crime with the freshly stolen family camcorder.

The rest of the video (and song) is a lyrical primer on every hustle, caper and scheme uneducated, underfed, over-stimulated poor folks pull to get by: armed robbery, petty theft, credit fraud, welfare fraud …

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The sing-song choruses go like this:

Chorus #1 Got to get this paaaay-per I'm down for the caper, we steady on the grind It's a daily struuuuggle We all gotta hustle, this is the way we survive [x2]

Chorus #2 If you claimin' gaaaangsta Then bang on the system, and show that you ready to ride Til' we get our freeeedom We got to get over, we steady on the grind [x2]

Too bad for Fox News that Michelle Obama didn't invite Dead Prez to the White House instead of Common, since their work is so much easier to twist out of context—Hell Yeah most of all.

A few years ago, I showed the video to an online friend, an urban professional and self-professed progressive, who responded, “Holy shit! That was like eating a dirt sandwich!” When I protested that the video is actually a masterpiece he should watch again more closely, he said, “I’d rather stick needles in my eyes!”

So there was a disconnect there, but I appreciated his honesty. What the video actually addresses is something that goes unspoken most of the time—the exasperation among non-poor liberals with poor people who don’t appear noble, humble, physically vulnerable or, when they do something wrong, apologetic. It’s hard to know what to do with them. These are the people you don’t even want to think about. They are not interested in getting a job or bettering themselves through education. They just want to get high, stockpile designer threads and gaudy jewelry, party. Fuck a future, fuck the world.

You can appreciate the dilemma it causes for bright young people of privilege devoted to helping the inner-city poor. A teaching assistant is tutoring some underprivileged kids in a Bronx public library when a car blasting "Beamer, Benz or Bentley" at eardrum-shattering levels settles just outside the nearest window. She has to wait 60 excruciating seconds before the stop light changes and sends the hellish music away. While she waits, she peers outside the window to find a carload of young men who look determined to find trouble before the sun goes down. The window pane rattles in rhythm to their idiocy. She grits her teeth, clears her throat. Her face turns a tad red and her eyes mist over just a bit—not from sentimental thoughts but a kind of psychosomatic reaction: bullshit as an eye irritant. But she settles it in her mind before returning to the kids: She’s here to save them from ending up like those assholes outside.

A big-city secret is that those assholes outside often end up where I ended up, in a homeless shelter. It’s a secret because homelessness is the one condition they find shameful. An inner-city hustler’s entire life is devoted to either rising above his station or projecting the illusion of same. So when the drug abuse or prison term or unemployability send him into the street, he needs a hiding place. Homeless shelters are a place for him to hide his shame. What I discovered at various shelters in New York City is that they are also the place where hustling goes into overdrive.

I was standing on the dinner line at a certain shelter when a guy walked by carrying several dozen rosaries in one hand and in the other some kind of saints-and-popes trading cards, or patches. “One dolla, one dolla, one dolla,” he said. “Everything one dolla, one dolla, one dolla.” That’s the going rate for small items . Jumbo candy bars, one dolla. “Tube socks, one dolla, one dolla.” “T-shirts, t-shirts, t-shirts, one dolla.”

Loose cigarettes can fluctuate between 50 cents and a buck, depending on who is more desperate at the moment, the buyer or the seller. As you leave or enter the shelter, you pass a young man chanting, “Loose, loose, loose,” very faintly, without moving his lips much. Discretion is paramount.

Everywhere you go in the system, there's a guy who stops you to say, "You got state ID? If you got it, you can make a quick hundred dollas."

Bootleggers push the latest releases on DVD, “two for five, five for ten, all the latest, clear copies, clear copies, clear copies. I got that Madea, I got that Fast Five, cartoons, pornos, clear copies, clear copies…” If you want a phone or a laptop, name your price. Somebody in the building has one that means less to him right now than having some cash in hand. Just ask around.

I was headed to the bathroom to shave my head one morning, and a guy came up alongside me: “Hey, fam, those your clippers?”

“Yeah.”

“You wanna make some money? I know a whole lineup of brothers need their hair cut in here. You can cut hair?”

“Only my own.”

“Well, I can cut good. Let’s get this money. Your clippers, my skills, we split it fifty-fifty.”

“Okay, cool. Just knock on my door later. 40A.”

At another shelter, I settled into my room and attempted to piggyback a local wi-fi signal. Nothing doing. I went out to the hallway and picked up a frail green signal bar from the offices on the floor below. Not enough. My new next-door neighbor came out of his room and saw me engrossed in the 21st-century version of beachcombing. “Hey, no luck with a signal?” he said. “You wanna do some business?”

His smart phone, it turns out, is also a wireless hotspot. For five dollars, he gives me the password. Whenever he’s home, I’m in business. And since shelters have strict curfews, I’m guaranteed internet from 10 p.m. til 6 a.m., at least.

“I know y’all think I’m a little grimy for doing it,” a tall dead ringer for the comedian Sinbad once said to us in the cafeteria at yet another men’s shelter uptown. “But, damn, man, I gotta eat.”

He had confessed to loading up on business suits at charities that donate clothes for job interviews, then selling them. Nobody chastised him for it, but his conscience had him jawing. The same shelter is where I almost went into business loading up people’s iPods with free music. But I never asked for money. My roommate said he had a host of clients he’d bring to me, but I didn’t stay long enough to let him prove it.

I’m not used to living like this, is the common refrain. I had cars, fly clothes, always stayed with a fresh haircut. I got to get back to that, got to get on my grind, stack this money, until I’m back to the lifestyle I’m used to.

You’ve never seen so many designer shades as you do in a New York City homeless shelter.

The idea of a shelter is, you save money until you have enough to move into a room, at least; an apartment at best. For the unskilled, uneducated and folks with a felony record, savings can be slim. A minimum-wage or near-minimum-wage job doesn’t pay market rent anywhere in this city.

With that understanding, a program called Work Advantage was instituted by the city in 2007. Its intention was to help the homeless population transition into stable apartments. Caseworkers at shelters were securing Work Advantage vouchers for their clients. With the voucher, a tenant paid only 30 percent of their rent, if they earned a certain amount of income—for the first year. This way, even after having saved while in the shelter, a person could continue to work and save outside the shelter while pursuing training or college courses that would lead to higher earning potential.

The program is said to have failed. According to many housing caseworkers I’ve spoken to, a great number of clients would use the voucher to get a nice apartment and then relax. No looking for work or training. If drugs was the problem, the apartment became a crack house. If depression was the problem, studios became crypts. So, with city and state administrators looking everywhere for budget items to slice, the writing was on the wall. The program, now called simply Advantage, was terminated on March 14, though some are fighting to have it reinstated.

This is the kind of failure that makes the people who are doing their best to help us grit their teeth and turn red in the face. If only we’d proven ourselves more worthy of government largesse …

With working stiffs and urban professionals feeling the pressure of a post-2008, warp-speed global economy on their backs daily, who could blame them for viewing the bums as a colossal albatross? Why, oh, why won’t we just do right? No one wants to say it out loud, but might this chronic ability to mess up a good thing possibly be … genetic? How else can you account for people who have been given so many wonderful opportunities to join the mainstream of society but choose to wallow in the gutter?

The "Hell Yeah" video ends with a police raid. Cops storm the apartment where Dead Prez and their homies stash their ill-gotten goods. It’s a chaotic, violent scene to match the one that started the video. Suddenly, a flash, and stic.man of Dead Prez wakes up shouting English-subtitled Swahili on a beautiful, sunny beach. He is dressed fancifully, like some kind of comic book African prince. Century unknown. A beautiful woman laying beside him sweetly asks, “What’s wrong with my husband?”

He looks shaken as he answers, “I was having a very bad dream. We were in another country, in a foreign land, and we had nothing."

His eyes widen, reliving it. “I mean nothing.”
Steven Boone is a film critic who has been writing for Capital about his experiences with homelessness.

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