I’ve long believed in the Jeffersonian principle that “the government closest to the people serves the people best,” but I found myself questioning that maxim when confronted with government inaction in the area in front of my apartment building, in the form of a pile of garbage. I receive regular newsletters from my local council member regarding the Paris Climate Accord, and regarding climate change in general—hardly within the purview of the city council—but here was an environmental issue which needed her immediate attention: litter.
Early this summer, a homeless man began building what became a roughly 15’ x 5’ x 3’ heap of trash on the sidewalk of 76th Street in Manhattan. He’s made similar constructions before. People in the neighborhood know him to be harmless, and he claims to prefer living as he does. He has turned down support from NYC Homeless Services, declined offerings of food, and, allegedly, rejected offerings of money. He collects his belongings from street-corner garbage bins and covers them with a tarp. Drawing on years of street experience, he has become savvy in Upper West Side real estate and understands which parcels of sidewalk he can obstruct and which constitute a no-go zone.
Neighbors and businesses assumed that the city would eventually remove the garbage edifice, again, but we realized that “eventually” was not coming soon enough—and the stench was building. The stink arose not only from the collected trash but also from passersby, who added their own refuse, perhaps thinking that the mound was a designated NYC Sanitation pickup, awaiting collection. The summer sun, beating down on months-old trash, made everything worse.
Finally, 76th Street locals were spurred to action. But in response to numerous calls to the city’s non-emergency 311 hotline, to the local police precinct, and to the council member’s district office, my concerned neighbors were told that the trash was not a city issue, and that any action taken would depend on the discretion of the property resident—in this case, a commercial bank. As it happens, the bank has tried to work with the local precinct to remove the trash pile, but the cops say that their hands are tied, since the man claims the trash as his “property.”
At last, we called the council member’s office. Her staff said that it would contact the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to reach out to the homeless man (again). We reiterated that we were calling not about the man but about his collection of hoarded trash bags on our block, and which gets in the way of children, strollers, seniors, pets, tourists, and residents. We understood that the man had the right to live as he wished, as he had done no harm to himself or others, but that city action was justified when his decisions impinged on the rights of others. After further inquiry, we realized just how onerous the legal process to remove a homeless man’s trash pile can be. Eventually, the trash heap was removed—but the man is currently constructing a new one, just a block away, which will recreate all the same issues and hazards.
I wonder how much of the issue here can be attributed to the political ideology of New York City local government, as represented by my council member. Had the trash pile abutted her district office, the response undoubtedly would have been immediate. Is this a matter of a broken bureaucracy, or a reflection of what my community’s voting majority wants out of its local government—an ideological champion focused on international climate accords at the expense of local litter control? I’m not holding my breath waiting for an answer—though I will hold my nose.