Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Homeless-Industrial Complex, Part I

written ca. 1999
edited 6/20/2012

I wrote this in the winter of 1999, just after I had started working for the city. It is an account of one of my first times going out with an outreach team.  Parts of it make me cringe a little and I can clearly tell in certain sentences that I am just repeating what someone has told me  Still, it is an historical document of sorts.  I have changed names where I think that is a good idea.

I get off work around five o'clock and leave our building on the west side to walk over towards City Hall to catch the 6 uptown. I have no idea what it would be like after dark to walk down the deserted streets of the South Bronx, but my own neighborhood was similar and, by now, felt very safe to me. I cross under the Bruckner Expressway, foolishly looking the wrong way at one point, and came to the avenue I'm looking for. In any case, the streets are not deserted at all. A lot of people live here.

As I walk down the avenue, on the right is an unending row of steel-shuttered garages - some painted with national colors and some covered with graffiti - and on the left are several streets that open strange vistas as I pass. The first contains a surprising collection of restored houses, bay-windowed and nearly identical, stretching out to the east. The next doesn't seem so well-kept but also seems more familiar or at least more normal. In the distance a McDonalds beckons - an oasis of familiarity in a new landscape. After passing several more dark cross streets I finally arrive at the parking lot of the huge complex that contains the drop-in center. As I walk up the stairs two figures call out "Carl?" It is Rob and Lana, whom I had met before but who generously introduce themselves to me for a second time.

We walk back to the drop-in to wait for Steve, their boss. There is nothing like a drop-in center if you haven't seen one before. There are upwards of fifty homeless folks sitting around, gazing into space, chatting, reading, or just waiting (clearly) for something. The smell, too, is very distinctive - sweat and something else, probably cheap cleaning liquid. Steve comes in, apologizing for being late. He had run to the McDonalds to get a Coke. He is about my age and his voice is hoarse the way a quarterback's is. He is very enthusiastic about outreach and I was warned to dress rough to go out with him. Rob has a nice pair of pants on and is teased about it. The team works from four to midnight, and since I won't be with them the whole time, they want to give me an overview while still reaching the people they want to see. They are one of the better outreach groups and have prepared color maps showing the concentration and types of homeless people in each community district throughout the Bronx. It won't be too cold tonight so my presence won't be disrupting routine too much. When it dips below 32 degrees, the teams are able to call in Emergency Services to scoop up any homeless people who seem at risk.

Our first stop is a known hangout location, and when we get there a fire is burning disconsolately in a can and a dog stirs lazily but watchfully under a car. The block is dark and steel shutters grace most of the doorways, yet Lana pulls up confidently, and apparently randomly, in front of one of the doorways. Rob gets out and knocks on a door "Hey Peanut, you in there? It's Rob, homeless outreach." Someone stirs and soon Peanut emerges. He is gaunt and his face is lined, but he seems to be wearing new glasses. Rob and Lana start to banter with him - "You look good! How have you been? You been working?" Steve doesn't know the clients as well and he asks if Peanut has been to the drop-in, interrupting Rob's attempts to learn some more life history. Steve has a very aggressive approach to outreach and sets quotas for each worker. He will also talk to people long after the rest of us are cold and back in the van.

Slowly, as we talk to Peanut, other people emerge from the shadows, like ghosts in a seldom-visited haunted house. Lana has food she has made - a turkey stew - but she wants to save it for the frailer folks she hopes we will see later. Still, she hands out bowls to everyone. They all know Rob, but they all love Lana. Many, throughout the night, will insist she be present before they accept services, but she is tough and insists that they handle their situations realistically. I often hear her say "You look awful, why don't you come inside?"

One of the things we ask everyone is Where are you staying? and How many people are there? There is no hesitation, they are happy to tell us. Most people don't mind Outreach until it gets too insistent. As we are leaving, a prostitute, obviously high, stops the van and demands condoms. The atmosphere, overall, is definitely collegial - even the most recalcitrant or stoned are very polite. We warn them that the police will be by later and offer a place to stay - many are grateful for the interaction but decline the offer, often saying vaguely "Oh on Tuesday I'll come by."

Rob and Steve want to take me to the weirdest places, so we leave more quickly than normally. On the way we see several more sex workers and offer them condoms and sandwiches. The routine is very specific, we can't engage them in a way that will draw the attention of the police or disrupt business, yet many sex workers are homeless and the four or five I see are all stoned out of their minds. One complains that the condoms the city gives the outreach team to distribute taste awful. Rob laughs and says "Talk to the city, he's sitting in the back!"

Steve is anxious to check out the new sites we have been tipped off to, so we drive down boulevards of shuttered buildings to the end of the line - to Conrail property (we're not really allowed on private property) where Lana navigates the van over the tracks to a collection of huge containers surrounded by trash. No one is there but the tension is palpable. The scene is very much like the back of a trailer park deep in the Catskills. We walk around piles of junk, our flashlights illuminating only the smallest area, not knowing what would show up next. We walk around the dumpsters, feeling like deer hunters in a woods full of riflemen. The containers loom over us. No one is around but Steve keeps walking deeper into the dark. I retreat to the van.

I think one of the thrills about this work is the strange freedom it brings - the freedom to walk into areas I normally wouldn't, couldn't or shouldn't. Seeing the kinds of places normally only visible from the window of a Metro North train is wonderfully satisfying, like being allowed at last into a private garden.

The next location is an empty field near the Bronx River. There is one guy there, but he won't leave unless Lana goes with him. We walk to the bridge and up to the huge hollow under the roadway - we can see where the fence has been cut and the fires lit. Flashing our lights under the bridge we can see an empty space - a bare dirt floor with a large cement block in the center like an altar. We can see the burn marks on the walls from many fires. Fire is a huge problem, as in the Arctic. When people die in cold weather, it is often from falling into their fires. Many of the fenced in yards seem to have guard dogs patrolling - dogs are one of the biggest problems the outreach teams face. There are also dirt paths down to the river (as there are to any river) but this is for many a river without banks. Only the people who live here in the field or under the bridge would use them. For the rest of us the river is just a temporary dropping out of the ground from beneath the expressway.

Next we pull in behind a post office. Cars are parked helter skelter in a dirt driveway that slopes down to a drainage ditch. A very fluffy pussycat pokes around expectantly as Rob leads me through a small, unusable lot to a collection of garbage that eventually becomes a door. I can't help thinking of Mr. Badger's door in the Great Wildwood. Rob knocks politely but no one is home. Eventually we notice that the door is placed in such a way that no one could have propped it so from the inside, and we move on. The cat trots around and beside us affectionately. Steve and Lana have found a gentleman encamped on the cement porch of a building and while he is telling them his story we walk over to his stuff. It is very neat - a bed with many blankets, a collection of useless but tidy junk, and rows of cans and bottles all arranged for recycling. One of the blankets stirs and Rob calls a name but a dog's nose pokes out instead. Knowing that that the dogs are often very territorial Rob backs away quietly, but the dog seems friendly so I talk to it as Rob leads me back to the van. The gentleman's story is far from over but he is clearly not going anywhere, so we walk over to a nearly hidden shanty which is barricaded behind a chain link fence. Rob knocks and eventually rouses someone - a male voice politely declines the offer. Rob says many people will come in only if they must. We pile back in the van a drive away.

The next spot is the wildest. We stop the van right in the middle of an expressway off-ramp and Rob leads us out over the concrete barrier and under the road, all the while cars are screaming by the van. We creep over the barrier and under the ramp and Rob calls out his greeting. A very small man answers. He has an immaculate space under the ramp, a couple of boards and mattresses propped up into a shack. He declines assistance. Most of these people have a regularly ordered existence, perhaps more ordered than my own, which allows them to avoid the police and remain fairly independent. As we are speaking his neighbor arrives. Rob leads me over more barriers and suddenly we're in another world. The train tracks and the seemingly abandoned buildings form a backdrop for this life which is invisible from the expressway. Rob bangs his head crawling over the cement supports. I feel like I am seeing the backside of an enormous stage set. The cramped scenery of the roads gives way to a vista of tracks, fences and grubby buildings that stretches out surprisingly far. Beyond that, what looks like fields, and beyond them the skyscrapers of New York City. I wonder how much of this empty space is hidden around the city. The people who see it are probably working or surviving - for them, I imagine, it holds none of the majesty I see: the faded glory of a shabby Samarkand, with the turrets of Manhattan glinting in the sun, as far removed in time as they are in space.

The next stop is another underpass. A place designed to allow people to cross the Bruckner safely on foot, only the walkway is littered with at least a ton of garbage. Again we stop in the middle of the road, and as we do we can see someone lighting up a crack pipe. The stench of the garbage is nearly drowned out by the smell of piss and the whizzing of the passing cars doesn't cover the sound of rats rustling in the mess. Steve is fascinated by the rats and points them out and, I think, imagines them everywhere. They are not even particularly big when we do see them. A tall guy steps out from the little nest and chats tiredly with Rob and Lana. I guess that he is not pleased to be wasting his high on a bunch of social workers, but he remains cordial. There are two women with him, one is quite high and comes wandering over to us. The other is only twenty and since the general feeling is that catching the street homeless young is the only way to really help them, the team tries to coax her back to the drop-in. She is technically too young ("The teenage vibes disturb the atmosphere" is how they put it), but since Steve is the boss he can bend the rules for one night. It doesn't work in any case. More importantly, the walkway has become a sore point in the community and the team warns them that since a Community Board meeting has been scheduled on the issue they had better move. It seems strange that the place was allowed to become such a mess, since the police and sanitation workers have recently cleaned up a neighboring underpass. Even though the homeless problem is now the concern of the police, I don't think they enjoy having to deal with it. Homeless people are rarely around when everyone else is so they're hard to police. The cannier ones make their homes far from the prying eyes of the general public.

Finally, an empty lot. I've lost all sense of where we are except that we're still in the South Bronx. The lot really does seem empty and our flashlights only pick up the remnants of a well-scavenged yard. We can tell, I am told, that the lot has just recently been bulldozed because there is very little vegetation growing on the dirt. At the back is another of the surprisingly well-hidden shanties. At our greeting a small, lively Hispanic man emerges. He seems quite young and coherent. A good number of people work but have no place to stay. He is one. Rob asks about the owner of a nearby shanty that I can just barely make out in the darkness, and he leads us volubly over to it. It's not the Hector Rob was looking for but another one - our friend mentions that Hector has just gotten out of jail and then shuts up quickly and motions us not to mention that. Hector 2 says he is just staying with Hector 1 for the night before he moves on, and whether this is true or not, he doesn't want any help.

We go back to the drop-in so Steve can drive me home, but things get complicated: someone has put his fist through the wall of the smoking room, and no one is talking. Anger tends to erupt like this in these environments. In addition the showers, which have just been fixed, are a mess. Apparently it was a shoddy piece of work and they are no better for it. Eventually it is decided that people can still smoke in the room, and Steve has discovered that one of the clients knows all there is to know about building showers, so he says the guy can work on them. The policy is not to have clients working on things but the guy is so knowledgeable and the showers are such a mess that it just fits.

It turns out my apartment is only ten minutes away.

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