New York is the city that never sleeps. But this renowned insomnia would not be possible without the more than 200,000 men and women who work the nightshift – the fry cooks and coffee jockeys, train conductors and cab hacks, cops, docs, and fishmongers selling cod by the crate. Inverting the natural rhythm of life, they keep the city running as it slows but never stops.

In our book, NIGHTSHIFT NYC, we tell the stories of New York City nightshift workers. This ethnography of the night investigates familiar sites, such as diners, delis and taxis, as well as some unexpected corners of the night, such as a walking tour of homelessness in Manhattan and a fishing boat out of Brooklyn. We show how the nightshift is more than simply out of phase, it is another social space altogether, highly structured, inherently subversive, and shot through with inequalities of power. NIGHTSHIFT NYC presents the narratives of those who sleep too little and work too much, revealing the soul of a city hidden in the graveyard shift of 24-hour commerce when the sun goes down and the lights come up.

But there is more to the story than found its way into the pages of the book. Here you'll find more stories of the night in New York City and around the country. And we hope you will add your own stories and comments in the months to come. Stay tuned and check back often...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Food and Shelter

This month, the federal stimulus bill (or, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) will start affecting real life. Some have already seen their paychecks notch up a little.

For others, part of the 12.5 million people out of a job right now, the perks will take longer.

If they (or you) were already enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – the renamed food stamps program – each family member will receive an extra $18/month for groceries. That’s nothing to spit at these days. In many neighborhoods, families can use that money at farmer’s markets and CSAs. (If you’re feeling energetic, make sure this option exists in your neighborhood and fight for it if not.) And, according to this City Limits article, the Department of Agriculture estimates each $1 spent on food puts $1.84 back into the sluggish economy.

If they (or you) have housing but cannot afford it, take note of another acronym: HPRP. This is the new Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. It offers an unprecedented $1.5 billion for homelessness prevention, diversion, and re-housing programs. During other slumps in the economy, or deindustrialization (e.g., a local economy flush with factory jobs turned into one full of internet jobs), the near-homeless quickly became homeless. Operated by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), charities and other “third parties” apply for grants. (Applications are due May 18; more information here.) Individuals who meet strict guidelines are eligible for assistance from those organizations. They won’t pay mortgages, but they might pay up to 18 months of rent and utility payments on current housing; security and utility deposits on new (cheaper) housing; motel vouchers up to 30 days between the current and new apartments; and various other case management benefits.

If they (or you) were already homeless, however, things still need to improve a great deal. In New York City, the Department of Homeless Services (wait for it … DHS) recently reported yet another decrease in street homeless people, according to their annual count, the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (with the sunny acronym HOPE). These counts began after HUD required cities receiving federal assistance for homelessness to supply data. At the time, Mayor Bloomberg’s plan, “Uniting for Solutions Beyond Shelter,” sought to end chronic homelessness.

In 2005, the first year it was held in all five boroughs, the count turned up 4,395 individuals. In grad school at the time, focusing on chronically (or street) homeless men in New York City, I found that number highly suspect. Researchers and some advocates were saying the number and the survey methods were deeply flawed. Many other advocates, silenced by the federal and city funding they receive for their programs, admitted – off the record – it was flawed, but publicly said it was at least doing something about street homelessness.

Soon, Bloomberg’s goal morphed: not to end chronic homelessness (why not if there’s only 4,395?) but to decrease “street homelessness” by two-thirds by 2009. I decided to volunteer to lead a team for the 2006 count to see its survey methods up close. Lo and behold! Though my 2006 HOPE team was forbidden to wake up anyone; had to walk around with police escorts; went out on a weather-advisory night in January; and thus all the homeless men I knew were, on this night at least, indoors, DHS estimated, in their e-mail to team leaders, that there were “3,843 unsheltered individuals … a 13 percent year-to-year decrease from HOPE 2005.” A few days before, still wanting to be a believer, I’d asked one of the homeless men I’d been shadowing for a year what he thought of HOPE. He’d been living on the streets since the 1980s. “That will never work,” he said. “You’ll never find them. First of all, it’s cold. You can’t do something like that in the winter. And then you can’t be waking them up in the middle of the night. But mainly you’ll never find them. They have their places but you’ll never find them.” I asked one of the two police officers with us that night what they thought. “Call 311, call DHS, call your congressman,” he said. “You have to tell them this isn’t working.”

In 2007, we encountered a team leader, Will, during our nightshift research; he’s in the book. We spent a night walking around with Barry, a formerly homeless man; he’s also in the book. Various advocates from Housing Works went out on the count and, as this link shows, found it flawed. They literally called it “flawed.” DHS, meanwhile, issued a press release in February 2008 that said opaquely, HOPE 2007 found “a 15% drop in the number of unsheltered homeless people from 2005.” That’s 2% since 2006.

In 2008, I skipped it. So too 2009. But DHS keeps issuing their press conferences. In 2008, they reported a 12% decrease from the previous year, and a 25% decrease since 2005. This year, they announced there were now only 2,328 “unsheltered individuals living in New York City,” down 47% since 2005.

It’s not a lie. Many chronically homeless individuals in New York City have been housed via Housing First models and other innovative programs. (Here’s an article I wrote on some of them, including Care for the Homeless and Pathways to Housing.) And numerous advocates give thanks that at least the city is doing something.

But as the safety net struggles to hold up under more and more people who need help, something isn’t enough. Spring is here. When it’s hot out, DHS officials should go into the parks after midnight. Then their count will be accurate. Then maybe every New Yorker will have their own home.

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