To start, I admit to being a thick-skinned New Yorker. After nearly forty-years here, there is little that this city can offer which would evoke even an emotion. This is particularly true in the New York City subways. Rats run across the subway tracks.
People commit any number of lewd and crude public acts on a daily basis. Just a month ago, a drunken fellow passenger decided to convert the subway car into a urinal. I fled with other passengers who seemed to revel more in the spontaneous camaraderie of the experience rather than disgust in the offensive act. Things changed during a recent ride on the 6 train.
For the past few months, there has been a noticeable difference in the homeless population I have encountered above and below ground. Most New Yorkers, myself included, have become accustomed to the city created during the violent regime of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Intent on enforcing his “quality of life” agenda, Giuliani used the police to drive the homeless out of public view. The severity of the economic crisis is reversing this. The homeless are back in New York City. There are more homeless, many more – new people with fewer of the habits and appearance of hardened street people.
On Friday, April 3rd, I was riding the 6 train downtown to participate in a protest against Wall Street. A woman entered at 42nd street. She was in her late 20s, neatly dressed with all appearances of a sturdy working class person. Noticeably pregnant, her jacket was clean, shoes relatively new and hair neat – all signs that she had been recently well tended to. As she sat down, I and others noticed a hand-written note paper clipped to her bag. “I have a six-year old girl. I am pregnant. We have been forced into a homeless shelter. Please, God help.” She sat with a hand out meekly looking for donations.
But, the role of a public beggar was too much for her to handle. After a few moments, she began to sob. She cried deeply – the kind of crying normally reserved for the most intense, private, moments in your life. Tears streamed down her cheeks. I and others in the car were witnessing the destruction of another human being’s self-identity – her self-respect poured out one tear at a time. Passengers tried to help by placing dollar bills in her hand or offering a tissue to wipe her face. But, dollars and tissues could not solve this problem.
I sat across from her paralyzed. Sure, I was off to a demonstration to condemn the banks at the heart of an economic crisis that likely forced her and her children into the street, but what could I do immediately. I was quite shaken when I exited the train. As the train pulled off I turned to catch a final glance of the woman slumped in hey seat, still crying with no possible relief in sight.
This woman is not alone. Homelessness is clearly on the rise in New York City. The Department of Homelessness has reported a more than 20% increase in requests for housing. Food pantries throughout the city are reporting high demand and declining donations as the economic crisis deepens. Scheduled budget cuts will simply accelerate the problem. Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to cut a program that offers mediation between distressed tenants and landlords to prevent homelessness. To make things even worse, Bloomberg also proposes to cut the cleaning products provided to people exiting the shelter system.
No need for a socialist sermon here. The condition this woman has been put in is a clear illustration of the inhumane capacities of capitalism. Destroying her self-identity and endangering her children, born and unborn, does nothing to improve society. It de-humanizes us all by forcing us to rationalize things like human suffering brought on by homelessness.
There are however, those of us who refuse to see something rational or inevitable in this woman’s condition. So, for this woman on the 6 train I dedicate my mind, my hands and my heart to building a democratic socialist society in which she can enjoy guarantees to things like housing, healthcare and useful work. This would be a new social basis of freedom – a solid base from which to build a self-identity. In the meantime, the economic crisis will produce many more instances of human degradation. The choice is ours – thicker-skin or more justice.