Monday, September 9, 2013

The Silent Epidemic of Middle-Class Homelessness

 Yesterday, I ran into a friend of mine in Soho. I hadn’t seen him in a long time.
“Long time no see,” I said to him. “You look good.”
He shrugged in his self-deprecating Jewish way.
“Well, at least you’re eating regularly and you have a roof over your head,” I said.
He shook his head.
“You’re homeless?” I asked, half-joking.
He nodded.
“You’re kidding me!” I said.
He told me that he’d been sleeping on the F train for the last two years, with the exception of one month, when he was able to stay at a friend’s co-op, and his birthday (his 60th), when he treated himself to a room at the Y.
As I was talking to him, I realized that I personally knew four people who either are or have been homeless.
At this point, if you’re a Republican, you would probably say, “What’s wrong with these people?”
And I would say, “What’s wrong with our economy (and our society, in general) that people who were formerly what you would call ‘middle-class,’ people who played by the rules and did everything they were supposed to do, still wound up being homeless?”
It’s no surprise when people like Mitt Romney are tone-deaf on this issue. But the reality is that most politicians—Republican and Democrat—are so wealthy that they’ve lost touch with the challenges facing middle-class people. (And forget about the poor. Nobody even talks about them.)
My Soho friend, Norman (not his real name), is a photographer. I don’t know exactly what happened to his last apartment (he was living in New Jersey), but he’s been working as a messenger for the last few years because he couldn’t support himself as a photographer.
I have another friend who was recently forced to move back with his sister in Virginia because his landlord stopped accepting his rent check at the apartment he’d been subletting for the last 19 years. He had been working as a doorman at an apartment building in Soho, but quit his job, partly because the staggered hours were destroying his health. He retired shortly afterwards.
A third friend, who admittedly had certain mental health issues that prevented him from working in office buildings—a serious liability in a city like New York—slept for a period of time in a Korean deli on Fifth Avenue and 13th Street before, after a long period in which he studied to be a priest among other things, he found a room in a house upstate. I’m not sure what he’s doing for a living now, but I know that at one point when he was still sleeping at the Korean deli, he was distributing flyers for a copy center.
A fourth friend, formerly a successful architect, has had to move back with his family on Long Island because he hasn’t been able to find work as an architect. I’m not sure what he’s been doing for money the last few years.
As you can see, some of my friends have been forced to take jobs (messenger, flyer distributor, doorman) that would make it hard for them to find so much as an apartment share, let alone their own apartment, in a city as expensive as New York. So what we’re seeing is a crisis in jobs, as well as housing.
A fifth friend just started a new job at half his normal salary after being unemployed for almost two years. Fortunately for him, he owns his apartment and had received a substantial severance package when he left his previous job.
But most people who describe themselves as “middle-class” are just one crisis away—one job loss, one medical emergency—from being homeless.
So the next time some Republican tries to blame a homeless person for being homeless, I would say, “There but for the grace of God go you.”
And I.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Goodbye to All That (with apologies to Joan Didion)

New York is dead.
The New York I moved here for over 30 years ago, the New York of writers and actors and musicians and artists and cheap apartments, restaurants and clothing stores, is dead and will never return. Bloomberg dealt the final death blow to the last bit of creativity that wasn’t extinguished by the twin evils of Giuliani and AIDS and, even if Bill DiBlasio becomes our next mayor (which I sincerely hope and seems likely), it won’t make a difference. The damage is done and there’s no turning back.
What has taken its place is the New York of fat-assed yuppies backslapping and high-fiving each other as they smoke their cigars and contemplate their next real estate deal over $300 prix-fixe dinners at Per Se. The New York of Sex and the City wannabes tottering through the Meatpacking District in high heels and yelling loudly to no one in particular. The New York of Russian oligarchs (read criminals) plunking down $88 million for an apartment and then never setting foot in it. The New York of the genetically and/or financially gifted, like the two models I saw walking their baby this morning without a care in the world.
The TV show that perfectly encapsulates this moment in time is, of course, “Girls,” a show by, about and for a generation of trust fund babies. As much as I admire the intelligence and talent of Lena Dunham, its creator and staras well as being the most talented, she’s also the least blessed-by-rich-and-famous-parents of the four starsI can’t help but have mixed feelings about a show that suggests that having your parents support you until you’re 30 (if not later) is normal.
And don’t tell me to move to Brooklyn. For all the hassle that would involve (both moving and living there), I might as well move to Los Angeles, an option which is starting to sound awfully attractive right now.
In fact, any second-tier city—whether it’s Los Angeles or Asheville, NC—sounds awfully attractive right now. Sure, I may not be able to get my beloved New York pizza and bagels or go grocery shopping at Dean and DeLuca, but surely there are pizza and bagels, as well as overpriced produce, elsewhere. (Hello, Whole Foods!) And as far as everything else goes, it would be a win-win.
The two things about New York that have really driven me over the edge lately are noise and the subway. New York has always been afflicted by these two facts of life, but lately they’ve gotten much worse. 
I live on what is perhaps the noisiest corner in the city, situated as it is in a direct line between the Williamsburg Bridge and the Holland Tunnel. The noise here has gotten so bad that recently the city took down its “No Honking” signs (which were never enforced even when they were still standing). The city itself has given up!
And the subway. While the population of New York has more than doubled since the subway was first built over a hundred years ago, there has not been a single new subway line added. And yet they keep building more high-rises!
When I look at the faces of people riding the subway, they seem completely drained of hope. Most people here are struggling just to stay on the treadmill. And many—like my best friend, who was forced to move back with his sister in Virginia—are falling off.
I can’t think any other place in America where people pay so much to live so poorly.
So, yes, I’m ready to move out of my beloved New York City, my home town, my heart and soul.
There’s just one problem: I can’t afford to move.