Homeless Union launched by NYC shelter residents
Bright, twinkling advertising strips mark the facades of old buildings in and around Times Square. Crowds of people leave Broadway shows; tourists and workers get tacos and hot dogs from food stalls. A constant flow of images, sounds, faces from all over the world. Abandoned city bikes fight with scaffolding. The construction never stops. Cups are shaking for change. The selfie sticks extend. Buskers, comedy presenters, shoe shiners, window washers, gadget salesmen and street sweepers cross paths with hedge fund managers and real estate heiresses.
A young homeless man sits outside a convenience store filled with “I♥NY” sweatshirts and bongs on a late June afternoon in the far reaches of the area. “Need shoes, zapatos,” reads his sign. Around the corner, well-dressed pensioners line up for a matinee.
“Homelessness is useful because in capitalism you have to have unemployment.”
Across from the theater outside a city Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelter, three people stand behind a table strewn with literature about homeless unions. One of them is Ender, 23, who has been living at the shelter for three months. “People are like, ‘Oh, I’m in my shimmy dress, yasss,’ and I’m like, ‘Can you spare a dollar?'” Ender said of the region’s stark wealth disparities.
“There are so many reasons why roaming is useful [for those in power]. In a way, homelessness is useful because in capitalism, you have to have unemployment. You need a reserve workforce. If everyone is employed, it’s harder for employers to negotiate,” Ender said. “These rooms are so expensive that the city doesn’t care about homelessness. If the city was trying to figure out how to make life cheaper for the homeless, then they’d put us in apartments. The average cost of keeping a single person in a city shelter is more than $4,000 a month, according to a 2021 report from the Independent Budget Office.
In late May, Ender formed a union at the shelter and is organizing other residents of the nine-story building with the help of Devon, 23, who has lived there for seven months. Both are members of Brooklyn Eviction Defense (BED), a tenant rights group that specializes in eviction defense and supports their union efforts.
At the table near the shelter, Ender, Devon and a BED member offered pizza to passing shelter residents. Their materials included ‘Know your rights’ leaflets, union sign-up sheets and ‘Why Start a Homeless Union?’ » zines. “What could we achieve if we worked collectively with each other?” reads the zine. “Currently, we don’t have access to basic necessities such as free laundry and three meals a day, even though we are supposed to be entitled to them. The city isn’t going to provide them unless we force their hand, and we can’t do it individually… Imagine if we had free therapy or clean bathrooms? »
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In March, Mayor Eric Adams began implementing his plan to “wipe out” all of the city’s homeless encampments. At an April 11 rally in Tompkins Square Park, homeless people spoke out against the city’s actions during the traumatic time. A young speaker named Gianni explained that at his shelter, where many people are on parole, a punitive pattern is maintained in the shelter system. “Reception is reception; anyone would call it a reception. In the shelter, we call it a bubble. … a bubble is a prison sentence, you understand? It keeps you mentally incarcerated. How the fuck are you gonna get the help you need? ” he said. As of March 30, police had evicted 239 encampments, but only five people had agreed to go to homeless shelters, the supposed purpose of the sweeps.
Ender, who has been homeless for five years, learned about BED through the group’s involvement in rapid response efforts. “BED is kind of famous for its activism, and I’ve always been drawn to that,” says Ender. “I’m drawn to groups that will say, ‘Yes, we’ll stop this building from being evicted, even if it means eight people will be arrested.'”
Shortly after joining BED, Ender formed the Homeless Union. The first thing Ender did to recruit members – the first step in organizing in any building – was to slip flyers under the residents’ doors.
Devon responded within hours. “I was really excited but also confused and cautious,” he said. The Independent. “[The union] gives purpose and strengthens the community.
The young union has nearly 20 members. Membership is roughly defined by being added to one’s WhatsApp group. For now, it’s limited to those who live at the Midtown shelter, but Ender says opening up membership to people who live on the streets and expanding an organizing model to other shelters are longer term goals.
In addition to filings and flyers, the union does outreach via its Instagram, @homelesspals. But Ender has learned that person-to-person conversations are the most valuable organizational tool. “I will literally see people when I use the bathroom and say, ‘Have you heard of that homeless union? I will go to the basement and while they are eating I will ask them if they like the food from here.
The first issue around which the union organizes is food for the shelter. Members say eating healthy meals is nearly impossible. Ender, a vegan, says tofu patties are often the only thing offered to vegans, but after eating one, “you don’t feel good.” Ender spoke to one person who wants kosher food, another who wants more fruits and vegetables, and several who said the food made them feel bad.
The shelter offers food from a freezer in the basement, which is available from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. There are not three different meals available; the same meal — which often does not include vegetables — is available in the freezer all day and residents can reheat it in the microwave. There are often apples and bananas, but coffee is not available in the basement every day. There is no designated drinking water or kitchen; residents get water from sinks in shared bathrooms.
Some of the shelter residents find food elsewhere, in grocery stores, begging or dumpster diving, Ender and Devon say.
“When people come to the union…the most common request is: ‘I want out; I need a friend.'”
Several residents have died at the shelter in the few months that Ender and Devon have lived there and harm reduction from drug use is a resource the union would like to offer in the future.
In recent years, homelessness in New York has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression. In March, nearly 50,000 homeless people, including about 15,000 children, slept each night in the city’s main network of municipal shelters. Ender and Devon’s hideaway has single 80-square-foot rooms, but dorms are common. Of the “countless” shelters Ender has stayed in, most offered shared rooms, they say.
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Everyone who stopped by the recent drop-in session agreed to receive further communications from the union. A few older residents gave their room number and said it was okay to knock on their door.
“Hells Kitchen needs this now!” said a woman who lives at the shelter and was eager to read the documents. “We need more literature – the power of ink,” she said.
The Homeless Union is already forming a community of mutual aid. He has received offers from groups who would be willing to cook for the shelter, but need to find transportation to make it convenient. Emotional and mental support is another goal. “When people come to the union, they usually don’t even have a request like, ‘I need help with food,’” Ender said. “The most common request is, ‘I want to hang out; I need a friend.'”
Ender became involved in community organizing after coming across a meeting of the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council when he was 18. There was no rational reason to improve my rights. I just went out there to hang out,” Ender said. “I have always had a taste for militant actions. I was never interested in ‘Let’s pass a bill.’ My first workshop was about the formation of human barriers. Ender also organized with the food industry workers group Brandworkers and drew inspiration from the survival programs of the Black Panther Party.
The “Why create a homeless union?” The Homeless Union’s zine on the table includes lessons from homeless organizations in Philadelphia and Oakland, Calif., that have had success in taking over housing.
“The National Homeless Union has a message like, ‘You only get what you arrange to take away.’ I’m not interested in demanding anything,” Ender said. “There are politicians out there who don’t see you as human. What’s the point of asking for things when these people have repeatedly denied you housing , health care, food? You just have to take it.”
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