Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Homeless-Industrial Complex, Part II

This is one of my favorite jackets. It's just a fleece, it crackles with static electricity when I take it off, it's hard to keep clean and fluffy, and it says Parliament of Canada / Parliament du Canada on it. I got it in 2001 when I was working in homeless services. I also have a black winter jacket with a broken zipper that says “DHS Night Patrol” in shiny black letters across the back, but it isn't very useful because of the broken zipper. I do get a lot of comment about the “DHS Night Patrol” bit though – no one has ever heard of the Department of Homeless Services so they always think it is from Homeland Security.

I was hired by the City in April of 1999 and it was another 4 months before I could actually report. I used to call my future boss's secretary almost every day asking "Can I start yet?" When I became a manager I "hired" many people this way, only to see them turn elsewhere after a couple months of waiting.

When I finally arrived at my new workplace at 60 Hudson Street in the Western Union building (see wikipedia for interesting facts about this building), I was shoe-horned into a windowless room - a large, temporary cubicle with composite walls that did not reach the ceiling. Two other people worked with me, older women who had been with the city for a long time. Our unit was relatively new so although they had to teach me a lot, there were still some things they didn't know either. I had been hired out of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs along with 5 or 6 others. I'm not sure if we were supposed to be the vanguard of a new kind of Staff Analyst (our Civil Service title) or we were just available during the very small window in which our agency was allowed to hire. I don't suppose I'll ever know, even though I ended up staying the longest out of my little cohort.

Our floor was not necessarily pleasant. It hadn't been renovated (or cleaned!) in a long time and was grungy. Cockroaches skittered over the walls and luckily the smelly bathrooms were another floor away. The staff acted like it felt neglected as well. One day I walked into the bathroom and heard snoring coming out of one of the stalls. Only half of the agency was here - mostly the part that actually dealt with homeless people - the other half was over near City Hall, which meant that messengers and staff were constantly hurrying (or meandering) back and forth. Eventually the whole lot of us was moved into new quarters on Beaver Street, right near the Stock Exchange. The year before I resigned, I had to go back to this building a lot to meet with folks from the Dept. of Corrections. Looking back, this building bookended my career and it seems right that I resigned then.

One of my jobs with DHS was to help prepare an annual conference for people doing street outreach in NYC. We would bring in speakers from places where they were doing new or interesting things, or trying different models, and have them discuss their ideas. It was an enormous hassle to organize, especially when everything had to go through the NYC bureaucracy - several years I had to put large hotel bills on my credit card and hope to be reimbursed in a timely fashion (I wasn't.) One time, though, I got the city to pay for some Dutch folks to stay in the Chelsea Hotel and that was worth it!

Although it wasn't a lot of fun for me, I always hoped it was interesting for everyone else. In theory, it gave people a chance to see their work valued, and it made the people doing the real work on the streets the most important people in the agnecy, even if only for one day (it turned out that working with actual homeless people was a good way to get marginalized within the agency, but that's another story!)

In 2001 our Commissioner left. Most of my colleagues loved him and there was apprehension about who the replacement would be. The Interim Commissioner was not well-liked, much-liked, or even liked, but he wanted to leave a mark so there was a lot of pressure on us to have a properly impressive conference that year and make him look good. Luckily we had reached out to some Canadians in homeless services. At that time the Ministry of Labour was in charge of homeless services and the Minister herself decided to attend the conference and give an address.

For once we did not have to worry about accommodations as the Labour Ministry was obviously going to foot the bill for whatever was necessary. That probably added a month to my life!

It was a large group, and we enjoyed taking them around the city. The Minister herself was a woman named Bradshaw who looked like a jolly version of Madame DeFarge. I was, as I was every year during the conference, a nervous wreck - worrying about the itinerary, making sure all the programs they visited were ready and presentable, setting up the hall and a homeless artists exhibit, finding a caterer who employed formerly homeless people, getting all the requisitions in and bills paid. I think they had a good time - they said so anyway.

One evening, the Interim Commissioner decided that there should be a dinner at his favorite restaurant in the Village. It was a very awkward affair, I don't think the Canadians liked the guy either. For me, it was like being at the court of a tyrant and I tried to stay unnoticed. I ate what my betters ate and drank less than they drank.

Of course something else had happened in 2001, in New York City, a month or so earlier, and after the dinner the Minister expressed a desire to see the remains of the towers. Since she was an important visitor it was quickly arranged.

We had some city vans and drivers and a police escort. It was raining and late at night by the time we got there, and any residual effects from the wine at dinner quickly wore off. We were driven around to the west side of the hole and escorted onto the viewing platform that had been set up for families of the people who died there.

The viewing platform was a crude wooden affair, hastily assembled from unpainted and untreated lumber and, in my memory, not big enough for more than 15 people. The families had written and carved farewells into the wood and once we noticed those, no one looked at the ruins anymore.

It was very quiet driving back. It was not until six months later that my own emotions finally overwhelmed me, and that night I went home on the subway not much more thoughtful than usual - mostly worried about office politics and my job.

A week later my boss and I got a package from Canada that contained two fleece jackets and a lovely note from the Minister's Secretary thanking us for our hospitality. The customs form declared the jackets had a value greater than what was allowed, but for some reason it meant a lot to me that I keep that jacket. So I told my boss that because the valuation was in Canadian dollars it should be ok. Since I feel foolish flashing the badge I used to carry, it is one of the few mementos of that time that I see every day.

And that is the story of my favorite jacket.

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