10:09 am Jun. 10, 2011
This weekend I’m going back to the neighborhood I called home in 2008: East New York, Brooklyn. I lived there almost directly under the 3 train, in one of the illegal boarding houses that the city would send any homeless person to who was willing to abide by their rules. (Basically: don’t get drunk or high; apply for welfare to pay the rent or, if you have a job, pay $300 a month to bunk down with several strangers.)
I'll be returning as a volunteer for Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization with the ambitious goal of ending homelessness in New York City. We’re canvassing all of New York’s boroughs to count every vacant building or lot we can find. PTH will pull all of this data into a report meant to influence homeless-policy makers. The idea is simply to clean up all the abandoned spaces that the city has ignored for years and turn them into inexpensive housing.
Picture the Homeless was founded in 1999 by two homeless men who had stayed in Bellevue during the days of Rudolph Giuliani’s homeless crackdown. Its membership is largely composed of homeless people and veterans of the New York City shelter system.
I had never heard of them until two weeks ago, when I stopped in to grab a bite at the Food Change soup kitchen on 116th Street in Harlem. As I left, a middle-aged black man who looked like a jazzman cooling between gigs, called out, “Yo, slim, you got a minute?” I said, “Yeah, what’s up?” He asked if I was homeless and what shelter I stayed in. When I told him, he slid me a survey sheet that asked the same questions. He told me that his organization, Picture the Homeless, was collecting data on the homeless population. “Matterfact, we’re having a housing meeting tonight up in the Bronx. Can you make it?”
He showed me a flier that said the meeting time was 6 p.m., in an hour. But I had only one Metrocard fare left until pay day. He read my mind somehow and pointed out the part of the flier that said, “FREE SNACKS AND METROCARDS.” OK, deal.
“Be sure to tell ‘em Salaam sent you, my brother!” he said as I headed out.
I caught the D train to Fordham Road in the Bronx. A half hour later, I was on a relatively quiet residential street tucked behind Fordham’s crazy commercial bustle. A quarter of the way down the block was a charmingly faded, peeling two-story house with a porch that went from wide to narrow and, on the second floor, a correspondingly wide-and-thin balcony. It could have been a plantation house out of Tobacco Road. The front door was open, as were all doors and windows on both floors. Hot day. I could hear lively conversation and music on the second floor.
I went in to the first floor, where a long conference table and folding chairs occupied what would normally have been the living room. A dry-erase board was set up on an easel. Nobody was downstairs, so I walked through what felt like the kind of house I grew up in, passing a darkened “bedroom” that was now just storage or office space, a cozy-looking bathroom, and arrived at a kitchen with screen door at the back. Loaves of bread and cold-cut packs were on the kitchen counter. I guessed these were the snacks.
When I went back to the front room, a striking African-American woman of about 45 was coming in, loaded down with bags and books. She had on a straw cowboy hat, funky shades, long brownish braids and a Star of David tattoo just below her collarbone.
“You’re here for the meeting?” she said.
I said, “Yeah, Salaam sent me, from down at the soup kitchen.”
She smiled wide. “Ahh, that Salaam. Go on, Salaam, getting the job done out there!”
Her name is Kendall Jackman. She is a housing campaign leader for Picture the Homeless, and she is amazing.
I met a lot of amazing people at the meeting that night, folks with blazing personalities and a strong grasp of the history and scope of the homelessness crisis in New York City, most of them homeless themselves. But something about Kendall’s clarity and determination stood out. She mentioned some other higher-ups in the organization who did press conferences and tended higher-level responsibilities, but from her authoritative dissection of the issues that night, I figured she was running the show.
At Picture the Homeless meetings, members plan for practical objectives but devote just as much time to discussing the big picture. The “questions of the week” for the meeting I attended was “What are the factors that contribute to homelessness?” and “Why is housing important?” Each of the roughly 30 people who were present had to answer the question before we moved on to the nuts and bolts of the vacant property count. We were as much a cross-section of New York City as the occupants of any random subway car: There were middle-aged residents of single men’s shelters, a few elderly black women, a bearded, professorial white man who said he was a member of Reverend Billy’s choir, scrappy Street News editor John Levi "Indio" Washington Jr., Obama-cleancut young housing organizer Adrian Paling and one pretty French girl.
In all my travels through the city’s homeless wilderness, I had never come across such a concentration of talent and insight. In the shelters there are always one or two people who seem to understand the grand scheme of things, but the majority of residents are simply too shell-shocked to focus on anything much grander than their own immediate survival.
Two weeks later, I was at a training session for the vacant property count at Union Theological Seminary, a serene, monastic campus a world apart from the Bronx, a neighbor to similarly regal Columbia University. The volunteers at this gathering mostly looked like fresh-faced Columbia students. But the procedure was the same: philosophy, then marching orders. Kendall and Adrian described the components Bloomberg administration's housing policy that cried out for countervailing action. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development committed itself to providing affordable housing, yes, but, as the literature spelled it out, the plan favors “people making 80% of Area Median Income —nearly $76,000 a year!” What it amounts to is that for the city residents in most dire need of cheap housing, the new units might as well be on Mars.
The property count is part of an effort to persuade community-board members and other policy-shapers that true affordable housing is possible if the city would simply take stock of the buildings and lots that it tends to ignore unless a commercial developer has plans for it. These could be renovated or developed into dwellings for the people for whom this administration's affordable housing is an unimaginable reach.
After the meeting, I sat and spoke with Kendall for a few minutes. She’d been with Picture the Homeless for only a year, but I was sure she was no new jack to activism. What’s was her story?
“My grandfather was a Garveyite,” she said. “I grew up in a house hearing about Garvey and the Black Star Line and all that. My grandfather ran a small business in Bedford-Stuyvesant. My dad was a security guard when they were making $112 a week with no paid sick days or paid holidays and he had to work two eight-hour tours to make $224 a week, so when he ran for his union, I helped with that. My mother worked at Hunter College DC 37, so I worked with them for a while. I’m a union baby, a Garveyite baby. It’s in my blood, so I do it. I wanted to go to law school, didn’t happen yet, so right now I’m doing this.”
Though “this” seemed to be her true calling, I could have imagined her as a classic lawyer-advocate for the poor.
“Homeless people are in your line of vision every day,” she said. “You just don’t know it. Home health aides working every day and living in shelters, security guards living in shelters, the young lady in retail who sold you your t-shirt, working everyday and living in the shelter… And the person on the street is on the street everyday. You don’t know who’s homeless because we don’t wear a sign on our back that says ‘I’m homeless. So homeless people are in your face everyday. What’s not in your face to the extent that it should be is how much vacant property is here.
"You may notice some vacant property in your neighborhood or when you visit your friend’s house but you don’t understand the extent of the vacant property in the five boroughs. That’s what we’re trying to make evident, working with our rent-control friends and our public-housing friends. We’re trying to turn housing back to what is was 40 years ago, 50 years ago, where people in the city could live. There’s enough housing that everybody can have a place to live, landlords can make a decent profit without gouging people, and we can move forward from there.”
I was charged up about being able to participate in such a positive, tangible effort, for once, but also a little sad. If we were being honest, wasn't our effort for nothing if the mayor's spirit simply wasn’t willing?
“The spirit isn’t willing, but he doesn’t count,” Kendall said. “We have allies in the rent-control community, in the public-housing community, in the city government … We’re going to put the data together and we’re going to make sure everybody gets it, including the community boards we’re counting. So he’s going to have to deal with the city. He may not be willing, but once the data is collected and all the people who are involved have it—and that’s all our allies—he’s going to have a hard way to go to try and make the press and the people of the city think that there’s no problem and nothing can be done. He doesn’t have to be willing. We are.”