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You Are Only Homeless if You Want a Home: Of New York’s 60,000 Homeless, Some Prefer the Streets

By George Capsis

On June 5th, the Swiss voted down a proposal to give everybody $2,555 a month as basic income—a law espoused and pushed by the “leftist” factions in one of the most politically conservative countries in the world.

The reasoning was and is that, in this small very rich economy, there ought to be a guaranteed minimum for everybody. Sure you can still go out and earn as much as you want but everybody gets enough to live on—a guaranteed economic cushion.

The Swiss vote against it was stronger than expected—76.9% (with only 23.1 % for it). The conservatives argued that the lazy would stop working and that it would attract a flood of poor immigrants.

There is one huge advantage to giving everybody a wad of cash each month to do with it what they want: You cut out the tens of thousands of useless jobs for government workers and contracted social agencies to dole out the money via dozens of programs evolved over decades.

Sure if everybody gets cash we have solved the problem for most people but, no question, we will always have people who will never be able to take care of themselves and I’m thinking of the agonized creature that lives in a black bag on the steps of the Charles Street Synagogue.

ARE THE INSANE PERMANENTLY HOMELESS?: A transgender, mentally ill person has lived in a black felt bag tied to the door knob of the Charles Street Synagogue for more than a year, and a service contracted by the city to invite and remove them to a shelter claims they can only do so if they agree voluntarily or they are a threat to themselves or others. Photo by Maggie Berkvist.
ARE THE INSANE PERMANENTLY HOMELESS?: A transgender, mentally ill person has lived in a black felt bag tied to the door knob of the Charles Street Synagogue for more than a year, and a service contracted by the city to invite and remove them to a shelter claims they can only do so if they agree voluntarily or they are a threat to themselves or others. Photo by Maggie Berkvist.

This tortured soul, by displaying him/herself, demands the passerby witness their agony curled, as it is, in a black womb of inexplicable all consuming guilt—He or she is transgender.

Each time I walk past I give a quick look—“The black bag is there again” and has been for a year or more—right through the winter and now into the summer heat (the bag is giving off a human smell).

“Wait a second George, you have a newspaper and you are the Charles Street Block Association Vice President so if anybody should do something about this it should be you!”

So I walked over to the 6th Precinct and saw Public Affairs Officer Jimmy Alberici and asked how do you help this guy and he said, “Herman doesn’t want to do anything about it” referring to Herman Lowenhar, the Synagogue President. The organization you need to contact is Breaking Ground; they have a contract with the city to get these people into a shelter.”

I called Breaking Ground and asked for the Press Office and, miracle, I get a guy who lives in the West Village and knows the paper. He is however cautious. After all, he is talking to the press; let us call him “Charlie.” He confesses that he does fundraising and that I need to talk to the field social workers. The PR gal sets up a conference call with two of them and coyly offers to monitor the call “just to help out.”

So the press gal (very young I suspect but then everybody is the age of my granddaughter) sets up a conference call with two employees who although they don’t say so have, I believe, contacted my black bag creature when I called on a below-freezing night to get him into a shelter—he never went to a shelter that night or any night.

And then I heard the dictum repeated over and over again in our twenty-minute interview—they could not remove a person from the street unless he is a danger to himself or others.

But a person who is mentally ill is listening to inner voices demanding he or she exhibit unspeakable guilt while plunged in the perpetual suffocating darkness of what appears to be a custom-designed black felt bag looped over the entry knob of the Synagogue. (Herman explained that he or she said they were Jewish.)

In the year or so that this individual has lived in the black bag, I have only seen him/her emerge just once. In the bag stood a short pallid figure that looked at me with seeming pleasure at the ingenuity of its self-immolation.

I tried and tried to learn what did they do to get a mentally ill person into a shelter or mental hospital until it became clear that they did nothing. (They did offer that if a person was exhibiting extreme behavior I should call 911 to get the assistance of a patrol car but they never explained how two patrolmen would get somebody like my black bag dweller into the patrol car and then to a secure facility.)

As I pressed for an answer, one of my young social workers asserted, “Some people live in the streets for years and years” and then I had my answer—Breaking Ground could only conduct to one of their shelters a homeless person who agrees to go. (They offered that they continually invite some committed homeless over and over again for years until some soften and want to just “take a look at the shelter.”)

What I did learn some weeks before from Charlie, my West Village reader and fundraiser for Breaking Ground, was that they did know the name of my creature in the black bag and that s/he had been identified years ago in two other boroughs. But they had been instructed by our neophyte press defender not to admit this and she broke into the conference to demand I wrap it up and ask my final questions. I exploded and asked her to leave the room.

This encounter is typical of any government office or corporation under contract to the city—they accept and live within their limitations and even defend them. It is the job of the community newspaper to uncover and report on them.

So, our creature in the black bag will be with us for months perhaps even years because nobody is in charge of removing him or her to a mental facility where, just maybe, he or she might be helped.

(On the first day of Passover, I noticed the black bag was gone and I asked a Slavic-accented congregant what happened and he smiled, “They agreed to move for Passover.” The day after that, the bag was back.)

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1 thought on “You Are Only Homeless if You Want a Home: Of New York’s 60,000 Homeless, Some Prefer the Streets

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      Excuse me, I am new to this city and am not a resident of the village but the other night I was walking through your lovely neighbourhood and was stopped by a person, a human, who asked for a coffee. I talked with this person, looked them in the eyes and learned a lot from them and of your hateful words. Calling this person a creature and discrediting their struggle to survive is disgraceful and you should be ashamed. He is a human, he is intelligent, he is passionate about dismantling structures of oppression that cause trans people and LGBT people to be homeless and he is caring. This article reduces him to a creature and strips him of complex humanity we all share. Perhaps he has some mental illness as do so many people in this country, especially populations that have undergone trauma and violence. Did you know that there are no shelters for LGBT people above 24 years? Did you know that mental health services and law enforcement continually retraumatize marginalised populations ? Perhaps you should use your powerful position and well-read platform to change these systems, to address deeper issues and to show humanity of people less fortunate than you. Or at least stop being so heartless.

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