2016: The Year in Struggle

Homeless people won some incredible victories in 2016. By coming together and fighting collectively, the members of Picture the Homeless are turning the tide of apathy and hostility, and building a movement to transform our city.

When you’re homeless, every year is tough. And homelessness rises no matter who’s in power. But with a new federal administration coming in, who rose to power on a vicious campaign of racism and misogyny and xenophobia, we know that times will get even tougher. “New York City is already a police state for poor people,” said PTH member Jose Rodriguez, when the election results came in. “And it’s about to get a whole lot worse.”

Which is why we’re taking this moment to reflect on what we’re proudest of, from a long hard year of struggle. To remind ourselves, and you, that when we fight, we win.

One person at a time, we are shattering the myth that homeless people are “service resistant,” and exposing the many ways that homeless services are actually people-resistant. By treating people with respect and dignity, and patiently helping them navigate complex and unsympathetic bureaucracies, we’ve connected dozens of street homeless people with transitional or permanent housing, treatment, and other services. Many of these are Harlem residents who for years have been written off as “unreachable” and “past help” by social workers and police officers and community stakeholders.

After ten years fighting for legislation that would empower the city to count vacant property throughout the five boroughs, we finally got a City Council hearing for our Housing Not Warehousing Act. When government agency heads maintained that the legislation wasn’t necessary, homeless people and community organizers exposed the City’s embarrassing failure to adequately quantify vacant property, underscoring to elected officials the urgent need for passage of these bills.

In the first major legal action brought against the NYPD under the Community Safety Act, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint on behalf of Picture the Homeless, urging the New York City Commission on Human Rights to investigate the NYPD’s practice of forcing homeless people in Harlem to “move along” when they have not violated any laws but are simply present on streets, sidewalks and in other public spaces. “The police take advantage of our powerlessness as homeless people,” said Chyna Burke, a member of Picture the Homeless. “Cops move us from spot to spot every thirty or forty-five minutes. I’m not doing anything illegal. That’s why I’m fighting back as part of this legal action.”

We built solidarity between incarcerated and homeless New Yorkers by working with Sing Sing prisoners who donated hundreds of hoodies to us after hooded sweatshirts were banned in all state prisons. Because we want to break the cycle of criminalization, racism, prison, shelters and displacement, we organized “Hoodstock” at 125th Street & Park Avenue to distribute the hoodies to homeless people in Harlem who had been displaced by skyrocketing rents and have since been the victims of constant police abuse and harassment.

We briefed the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, educating him on the NYPD’s explicit policy of denying homeless people the right to assemble. “Homeless New Yorkers are constantly told to “move on” from public spaces like street corners and park benches, even when they’re not breaking any laws,” said our civil rights organizer Nikita Price. The special rapporteur was startled to learn that such a fundamental right is under attack in the developed world, and has included our demands in his official report on the USA, to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2017.

We unveiled the Gaining Ground Pilot Program, developed by homeless people and nonprofit housing developers, to move the city away from its reliance on expensive shelter models that do nothing to stabilize families or communities, or to stem the tide of skyrocketing rents and mass displacement that drive the homeless crisis. “We acquire and develop property for neighborhood housing,” said Ken Wray, executive director of CATCH Neighborhood Housing. “We know what works, and Gaining Ground will work. Shelter costs more than housing. A tiny portion of the DHS budget can fund a pilot program to create real housing. This isn’t a model – we’ve proven that this works. Even if you don’t care about homeless people at all, think of it this way. By diverting shelter money, Gaining Ground can save millions of dollars a year.”

When HRA Commissioner Steve Banks conducted the first major review and overhaul of the New York City shelter system, he met with members of Picture the Homeless who are living in shelters, as well as folks on the streets who refuse to go into shelter. In April, Mayor de Blasio unveiled the results of the review, and the proposed changes – which include demands that PTH members have been fighting for since 2002.

The East Harlem/El Barrio Community Land Trust has moved forward and is developing a plan to create a mutual housing association with at-risk city-owned buildings in East Harlem that have shown interest in joining the CLT.  We are refining our plan to make the CLT a successful model to preserve permanently affordable housing for extremely low to low income individuals in East Harlem that can then also be replicated throughout New York City.  We have gained support from Community Board 11, the Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer and the Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has committed to this project as a viable tool in the creation of truly affordable housing.

For the first time, the journalists covering homelessness at every major New York City newspaper routinely include the voices of actual homeless people – not just ivory-tower experts and professional advocates – in their coverage of these issues.

We started our newest Participatory Action Research project, putting a magnifying glass up to the city’s skyrocketing shelter budget, and identifying innovative ways to shift funding away from shelters and into permanently and deeply affordable housing.