Live From New York

I’d Like a Table By the Dumpster

The New York media has a new set of darlings: the voluntarily homeless.

By 9.2.11

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I am a habitual watcher of Turner Classic Movies, cable television's destination for films from a bygone era. Thankfully, only a smattering of Ted Turner's misguided political beliefs work their way into the channel's programming (example: professor and frequent Al Jazeera guest Jack Shaheen, who recently hosted a series of films supposedly proving his thesis that Arabs are unfairly vilified in film). Mostly, TCM sticks to anodyne fare like the largely forgotten Academy Award nominated 1947 Christmas film It Happened on Fifth Avenue. The film depicts a "bum" -- in the less delicate parlance of the day -- who winters each year in the boarded-up Fifth Avenue mansion of a steely business magnate. The mansion's owner is oblivious, as he in turn winters in Florida. Through a convoluted chain of events, the owner's daughter begins living with the bum and an expanding cast of motley interlopers. None of them are aware of the woman's true identity as the daughter of the wealthy homeowner. Spoiler alert: zany hijinks ensue, the woman finds love, and her father learns the true meaning of Christmas.

A decidedly less heartwarming story involving a bum of sorts is currently playing out on real life Fifth Avenue. The New York Times recently devoted some ink to the "plight" of Sojourner Hardeman, a woman who has drifted in and out of homelessness for 20 years. She is currently panhandling on Fifth Avenue, which has raised the ire of law enforcement. She was allegedly "harassed" by members of the NYPD, who had the nerve to take umbrage that she is creating a sidewalk impediment on one of New York's key thoroughfares. She took her case to court, where a judge effectively affirmed that the NYPD has been overzealous in their interpretation of disorderly conduct laws, and Ms. Hardeman should be allowed to continue to provide her brand of charming local color in one of the most expensive commercial districts in the world. Scarf by Hermes, shoes by Louboutin, cardboard sign by Sharpie.

I tend to subscribe to the masterful arguments of City Journal's Heather Mac Donald that the public space is for all and should not be violated in such obnoxious ways, but I'll give Hardeman the benefit of the doubt. Her panhandling, provided that it is not aggressive, is likely a constitutionally protected act. But what really raises my blood pressure is her sense of entitlement about the whole thing.

The Times notes that Hardeman had a job as recently as last August as an assistant in a law office, but quit because she wanted something more fulfilling. About a month thereafter, she lost a rented room in the Bronx. This cause and effect relationship should be clear, but nothing can be taken for granted in a paper that has marveled on multiple occasions that crime has gone down despite an increase in the prison population.

Remember, Hardeman has been homeless on and off for 20 years. We all personally know people with advanced degrees who would gladly work as an assistant in a law office, given the current economy. I am not saying that this woman doesn't deserve fulfillment, but perhaps preemptively quitting her job to become a living street obstruction was not the wisest way to seek it. The least she could do is entertain us by spray painting herself gold like one of those living statue street performers.

Ironically, her panhandling technique is to hold a sign advertising her skills as a typist and computer operator. Those sound like marketable skills. I wonder if there is some sort of job which calls for a similar body of expertise? Oh, I've got it. Perhaps Ms. Hardeman could apply to be an ASSISTANT IN A LEGAL OFFICE!

This air of entitlement is not unique among New York City's homeless population. In my neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, far less tony than Fifth Avenue, lives an individual known as Cadillac Man. He is embraced by the locals as a sort of folk hero. For years, Cadillac lived under a railroad viaduct, filling endless notebooks with prose. He was discovered, started writing for Esquire and the New York Times, and eventually published a book which was reviewed with great fanfare. Now a published author, he found a new girlfriend, moved in with her, and closed the book on life on the streets. While his writings do not match my literary tastes, his is a remarkable American story of success and redemption.

I have never met Cadillac Man, but I have exchanged words with him on an Internet message board for residents of Astoria. He has always been polite, but he has an even more galling sense of entitlement than Hardeman. Despite the turnaround in his fortunes, he decided that the shopping cart which was formerly his base of operations should remain a permanent blight on Astoria's streets. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, he variously cemented and chained his cart in place, while readily admitting that it is not an attractive looking street fixture. He once defiantly vowed that if the city removed it, he would simply put it back. While I appreciate Cadillac Man's unique success story, I don't quite think he's entitled to a monument in the public space unless and until he becomes president. Thankfully, he has since decided to remove his wheeled eyesore from Astoria's streets.

Even more infuriating than Cadillac is one Astoria homeless guy who regularly camps out in ATM vestibules and bus stop shelters. He drinks cheap liquor from a paper bag and eats Chinese food out of metal containers with his hands. Occasionally someone will leave him a box of food at one of his hangouts. It sits there for weeks moldering in the sun. I have only been fortunate enough to witness him in the act of defecation once when I was using an ATM, but his favorite haunt is the doorway of an industrial building close to my apartment, I regularly have to look at, and smell, his little presents. Surely, these must fall outside of the bounds of constitutionally protected actions. New York, by the way, is a "right to shelter" city where anyone can seek refuge for the night.

Well meaning advocates claim that it is understandable that men like this should want to remain on the street, since New York's shelter system is no picnic. I fail to see how brown bagging rotgut whiskey and ignoring plates of food left by kind hearted people is a more therapeutic and compassionate alternative. I have seen the man flag down FDNY ambulances on multiple occasions, and he is usually wearing a hospital bracelet, so he is clearly known to the system. Leaving him on the streets, unmolested, is wrong for both him and the neighborhood. To say nothing of the fact that he lacks the mental capacity to "decide" to remain on the streets.

As a New Yorker, I pay damn high rent and taxes. I'm not without human compassion, but I feel that what I pay out entitles me to not have to look at the excretory byproducts of homelessness every day. This city bends over backwards to dispense social services to the underclass. The subway is full of ads from city agencies, purchased at great taxpayer expense, advising people that they might be entitled to services like free lunches for their children during the summer, food stamps, and free or low cost health screenings. These services are a fine thing, provided that they help people move on to better circumstances. But that does not seem to be the case.

I cannot tell you how aggravating it is to me every time I see a story on the local news about poor conditions in public housing. The story usually leads off like this: "Ms. Jones has lived in the such-and-such projects for over 30 years. Since that time, she says that conditions have deteriorated markedly." Is the real problem the quality of the free stuff we provide, or that Mrs. Jones and many like her spend decades living off of our government mandated munificence? Mrs. Jones would be foolish to leave, anyhow. In New York City public housing, she is probably lucky enough to have a parking spot. Many, myself included, are unable to afford cars because of the high cost of rent, let alone the difficulties associated with parking in the city.

New York is a place where beggars can be choosers, if we let them get away with it. Travis Bickle, the iconic sociopath played by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, famously hoped for a "rain" to cleanse the city streets of filth. I'd settle for policy solutions that promote self-reliance for the underclass, rather than a lifetime of dependence.

But if that rain does come, I'll just see if I can hole up in some wealthy industrialist's Florida residence while it passes.

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About the Author

Bill Zeiser is a communications consultant living in New York City and a 2012 Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BillZeiser.