Remarking on the rise in homelessness on the streets of New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio sounded uncharacteristic of a progressive fighter for the poor and disenfranchised. He condemned people sitting outside begging for money, “who are bluntly just panhandlers, who are not even homeless,” but scrounge for handouts “because somehow they think it’s fun.” He contrasted these pleasure-seekers with “families who the only problem they have is an economic one . . . the cost of living in New York City, they could not keep up,” and also with people who panhandle because “they are in need,” and who often suffer from “substance abuse or mental health problems.”
Advocates for the homeless and the poor, not to mention many homeless people themselves, failed to appreciate the subtlety of the mayor’s distinction between what were called, in less sensitive times, the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. “De Blasio is a rich white man. He has never been in my situation, so he don’t know,” a panhandler named Donna Gay told the New York Post. “I ran away from a group home at the age of 14. I’ve been doing this way too long not having fun.”
De Blasio seems angriest at what are commonly called “crusty punks”— lavishly tattooed men and women in their twenties, often with dogs in tow, who populate the corners and parks of lower Manhattan, panhandling during the day and sleeping rough at night. The mayor, asked specifically about the “crusties,” explained that he is “very upset at the notion of anyone who in effect gives the impression they are homeless to make money.”
The subject arose because of news that the city’s street-homeless population has soared by 39 percent since 2016, according to the annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) count. The HOPE tally is based on a one-night canvas of the city by thousands of volunteers and provides a snapshot of homelessness, rather than a rigorous calculation. As such, the mayor has played down the unfavorable HOPE result, suggesting that the unseasonable warmth of the February night on which it was conducted left more people outdoors than usual.
The source of de Blasio’s frustration with those supposedly begging because they “think it’s fun or they think it’s a way to make easy money,” but who in fact “have a place to sleep” is that they make him look bad. His spokesperson clarified the issue, explaining that panhandlers “can skew the perception of the homelessness issue on the streets.” While there is certainly a phenomenon of people whose “hustle” is to plead for money out of cunning and cupidity, there is no evidence to suggest that a majority of the people begging on New York City streets go home at night to comfortable beds, or are just doing it for kicks as opposed to “dire economic need.” The mayor is asking us to reject the evidence of our eyes: that the streets are flooded with homeless derelicts. We’re simply victims of a “skewed perception” wrought by imposters and grifters. Mayor de Blasio thus sounds very much like the stereotypical heartless conservative, prattling about welfare queens or panhandlers with fabulous retirement accounts.
New York City maintains a program to deal with the curious problem of people who come here from out of town and wind up with nowhere to live. Project Reconnect, according to Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for the Department of Homeless Services, “is a cost-effective way to help homeless households get back on their feet closer to their support networks”: a one-way ticket home. About 5 percent of the people in city shelters have previous addresses outside of New York City; Project Reconnect sends these homeless individuals and families back to their place of origin. It handles only domestic relocations: about 20 percent of its recipients are destined for Florida, and another 10 to 15 percent go home to Puerto Rico. Georgia and North Carolina are the next most common destinations. The city did not offer any information about international relocation of homeless immigrants, of whom it must be assumed that at least some exist.
As a “sanctuary city,” New York, according to Mayor de Blasio and the rest of the city’s leadership, welcomes immigrants from around the world who have come here to “pursue their dreams” of a “better life” for themselves and their families. Following the November election of Donald Trump, de Blasio gave a major speech at Cooper Union, telling these newcomers, “This is your home”—whether they were here legally or not. Illegal immigrants from Central America or China are offered sanctuary in Bill de Blasio’s New York; twentysomething crusty transients from Middle America, or just native New Yorkers down on their luck, are sneered at and given the bum’s rush.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images