Saturday, August 29, 2015

Rudolph Giuliani’s Outrage on Homelessness, and Richard Gere’s
AUG. 28, 2015
Big City

If the offenses of Donald J. Trump weren’t getting played out by the hour at the volume of a jackhammer in competition with a Nascar event, then recent comments by another New Yorker synonymous with unchecked expressiveness, and also touched by the pixie dust of presidential aspiration, might be generating more outrage. In an interview with NBC’s local news channel in New York, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani explained, with both glee and self-regard, that not long ago he had paid a visit to the 19th Precinct station house on the Upper East Side to complain about a homeless man who had taken up residence on his block.

“Do you know when people lived on the streets and didn’t use bathrooms inside?” he said. “It’s called the Dark Ages.”

Needless to say, Mr. Giuliani did not pause and follow up that remark with, “And how disgraceful that so many centuries later we are still not able to house all of our neediest.” He instead went on to remind us how in the 1990s, his “brain” and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton’s “people” got rid of the homeless, the panhandlers, the nuisances. “You chase ’em and you chase ’em and you chase ’em and you chase ’em, and they either get the treatment that they need or you chase ’em out of the city.” (Clearly we should be enticing the naked ladies of Times Square to head to Atlantic City, maybe with brunch coupons for Trump Taj Mahal.)

Advocates for the homeless responded with fury, pointing out that Mr. Giuliani’s views were “morally appalling” and ignored the way that his own policies had fueled the crisis of homelessness. Of course, his conception of those with no place to live as essentially a gross inconvenience for the rest of us is hardly singular. In recent weeks, an unsettling narrative has unfolded in New York, promoted in large part but by no means exclusively in the tabloid press, demonizing the homeless as a growing presence and a threat to bourgeois life. “Going to the Park? Don’t Trip on a Bum,” read a headline in The New York Post.

Over the summer, pictures of people sleeping on the streets have been posted on social media with insinuations that their presence is proof that the city is returning to the mayhem of the 1970s. This would suggest that we knew something definitive about the propensity of homeless people to commit serious crimes. We don’t. Years ago, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University looked at arrest records in Baltimore for 1983 and found that although homeless people were more likely to commit nonviolent offenses like camping without a permit and indecent exposure, they were less likely to commit crimes against people or property. Homeless people themselves are considerably imperiled; last year, a report from the National Coalition for the Homeless revealed that from 1999 to 2013 there had been 1,437 documented acts of violence in 47 states perpetrated against homeless people by those who were not homeless.

Last year, the number of homeless men, women and children in New York City reached record levels, in large part because of failed or discontinued policies implemented during the Bloomberg years; the issue of affordable housing is obviously one of the most serious and vexing facing the de Blasio administration. At the same time, the number of people spending the night in city shelters, the metric by which the homeless population is measured, has, in fact, been in steady month-to-month decline since December.

This has not stopped the Sergeants Benevolent Association in New York City from implementing an initiative aimed at getting members and their friends and families to photograph homeless people lying on the street or urinating in public and posting those pictures online. (What could be more benevolent?) The association’s president has said the campaign — called Peek-a-Boo We See You Too! — was a response to “the diminishing” of the city’s reputation as a pre-eminently safe place. “It’s outing,” as the actor Richard Gere remarked to me recently.

We were talking about the new film he has produced and in which he stars, “Time Out of Mind,” due next week. It is one of three movies that will be released in fairly quick succession that deal with homelessness in New York, including a documentary about a former male model who now works as a photographer and who lives on a fire escape, “Homme Less,” and a feature film, “Shelter,” written and directed by Paul Bettany. Mr. Gere’s film had been in development since the late 1980s. “Unfortunately, it was still relevant,” he said.

Mr. Gere has worked with the Coalition for the Homeless for years; he has spent time in shelters; and as a longtime New Yorker, he has committed himself to thinking about his encounters with homeless people. “I went through a period where I insisted on talking, and then I realized how abusive that was — asking people about their stories and these intimate details of their lives,” he said. Now he gives every homeless person he sees some money — from $1 to $5 — and moves on.

Spare and free of melodrama, “Time Out of Mind” examines the immiserating realities of dealing with the bureaucracy around the shelter system and other social services. The film takes great care to render the assault of noise, the difficulties that homeless people have getting any sleep anywhere, and the kind of madness that it produces. It should remind anyone who might have forgotten that homelessness isn’t awful because it degrades the streetscape; it is awful because it degrades lives.


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