Some People Think We Have No Obligations to the Homeless. Here’s Why Those People are Wrong

What the New York Post got wrong about the New York Times’ moving portrait of homelessness.

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There was a beautifully written piece published in The New York Times on December 9th that painted a very poignant, solemn, and frustrating picture of homelessness. It was an exhaustive read, and an uncomfortable one, as writer Andrea Elliot went out of her way to paint a picture of poverty as seen through a child’s eyes.

The story was about an 11-year-old girl named Dasani, for the simple luxury of bottled water, which her mother, who has a history of substance abuse, could not obtain. The story goes on to describe her family’s home (if the word has any accuracy) in the Auburn Family Residence, a city-run shelter for the city’s homeless.

Dasani and her family are nestled in the newly-trendy Fort Greene neighborhood, and yet they are miles away from its plush accommodations. Mice run within the walls. An infant is kept warm by a strategically placed hairdryer.

I saw this piece trickle down my Twitter timeline again and again, each person passing it along with a RT about how arresting they found the account to be. As I read, I took note of the temperature outside and felt helpless.

With a piece written so vividly, it's hard not to empathize with its subjects. It was with great surprise, then, that I found the New York Post’s callous and curt response — signed not by some contrarian columnist but by the paper's editorial board — to the piece:

"Yes, the family’s housing has problems, including mice and reports of sexual assaults and other crimes. But the Times and Elliott, like much of the liberal establishment, seem to think it’s the city’s job to provide comfortable lives to outrageously irresponsible parents. In this case, that’s a couple with a long history of drug problems and difficulty holding jobs.

Something’s wrong with that picture."

While I know better than to take The Post to heart, I did find this exceptionally disturbing. In the cited passage alone, the paper’s editorial board dismisses sexual assault as a casualty of war for the homeless. Something to be expected, even as a condition of poverty.

This refrain is doled time and again to those who are less fortunate. Despite statistical evidence about the cyclical nature of poverty, media and political pundits sit on high and declare that the penance of being poor — of failing to tie up their bootstraps — is victim-blaming and social isolation. Nevermind that there are some working, middle and upper class people with “a long history of drug problems and difficulty holding jobs.”

What’s more, the editorial board mischaracterized Elliot’s empathy as a permissive tone toward the irresponsible behaviors of Dasani’s parents. No, it’s not the city’s job to provide “comfortable lives” for the homeless, but a sanitary place to rest one’s head is a start.

Dasani’s story wasn’t about being a liberal or a conservative. It was about a little girl being lost in a world that is not of her doing. And that should be enough to make anyone want to reach in and help.

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  • ProjectRenewal

    The problem of the callousness of the NY Post’s article aside, it was factually inaccurate. It would be wonderful if those providing services did so purely because of their compassion, but we do so as a society because it also makes financial sense.

    For example, the annual cost to taxpayers of allowing a mentally-ill New Yorkers to remain homeless is more than $40,500 in emergency treatment. [Culhane, D.P., Metraux, S. & Hadley, T. (2002)]

    Every $5 spent on food stamps generates $9 in economic activity, in addition to decreases long-term healthcare costs to the state when the children receiving nutritional assistance become adults.(Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Department of Agriculture).

    Far from being too generous, the supportive services that are provided by the City allow everyone to benefit, and an increase in their quality and quantity would only further benefit the City as a whole–not just the men, women and children who are direct recipients. The Post calls the parents “outrageously irresponsible” because of their difficulty maintaining stable employment and recovery from addiction. Instead we could listen to medical and social sciences that demonstrate addiction is an illness needing treatment just like diabetes, and barriers to employment require specialized assistance that reap long-term results for individuals and communities.

    Shelters are emergency housing that supply people with temporary shelter from costlier and more inhumane alternatives. The anticipated average cost per person for a single day at our organization’s Bronx Boulevard Men’s Shelter is $55. This marks a dramatic savings when compared to the other facilities likely to house homeless men with mental illness, including hospitals ($1,185/person/day). But through serving 15,000 homeless and low-income New Yorkers that we know that only with stable, permanent and affordable housing coupled with supportive services can homeless people remain housed and maintain their health and employment.

    We need more supportive services and far more affordable housing, and those responsibilities fall not on families like Dasani’s, but on citizens, lawmakers and journalists (like the Post) to advocate for those policies proven to make us a better City as a whole.

    Joanna Stanberry, Director of Communications, Project Renewal

  • Enuf already

    While the below has some validity, it still doesn’t address all of the facts, e.g., fraud, people making this a way of life, what WE the taxpayers are already spending on providing free to people in housing, food stamps, SSI etc. and personal responsibility.

  • Keziyah Yisrael

    According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, around 3.5 million people experience homelessness every year with around 1.4 million of these victims being children (the National Coalition for the Homeless, 2012). In Philadelphia alone, about 1,500 people face this growing problem and are forced to deal with a difficult life resulting from it. With these staggering facts one would think that poverty and homelessness would be problems of more importance to today’s society and that many would take actions to help better this situation. However, it is still just a topic of discussion among our citizens; one could even describe it as an ongoing debate. Many argue over who has obligation to the poor and who has the necessary tools to help solve this problem, yet little to no action has been taken. While in most studies, such as that shown by Project HOME, it is evident that substance abuse is the leading cause for homelessness there are also other prevailing factors such as: the lack of affordable health care, inexpensive housing, as well as the lack of jobs that will provide one with the money necessary to comfortably live in today’s economy.

    While this article brings about some significant reasons as to why taxpayers do possess an obligation to the poor there are also many reasons as to why this is not entirely true. Most taxes currently do go towards providing some sort of shelter for the less fortunate. Understanding how difficult it is to succeed in today’s competitive job field I see the reason behind your view on the subject; however, I do not believe that the blame for this or the financial burden should be applied to all citizens who have been able to make a substantial living. This problem is of grave importance but this issue has roots that are deeper than just taxpayers being obligated to pay higher taxes. For this problem to be resolved there must be a significant and thorough change in the economy as a whole, as well as in the thought pattern of today’s society and government. This is not a problem that will be fixed overnight but with time, dedication, and change it can slowly be corrected.