Our recently completed 4380 Bronx Boulevard along with current shelter projects at 233 Landing Road, 2570 Fulton, 91 Pitt, 149 W 132, and 8 E 3rd Street, have us thinking about the public perception of shelters and the homeless. Last Wednesday several of us from ESKW/A trouped up to the Bronx Museum to attend and show support for a student presentation on the culmination of a summer spent investigating the ins and outs of the shelter system in NYC. CUP, the Center for Urban Pedagogy, and the College Now program of Hostos Community College brought in teaching artist Patrick Rowe to work with the teens throughout the project and teach them to funnel their newfound knowledge into a visual form (poster shown below).
The students conducted numerous interviews with city council members, the NYC Department of Homeless Services, community board members, and individuals directly associated with local shelters. They also visited a non-profit shelter as well as Picture the Homeless and garnered a better understanding of the system as seen from the inside.
In the resultant presentation, the class was careful to show both sides of the arguments for and against the types and locations of shelters. Many members of the audience were surprised to learn that shelters are not evenly distributed over the boroughs but rather are quite concentrated in the Bronx.
“We like to keep families applying to shelters close to their support systems, their children’s school, and to their last known address,” said Lisa Black of the NYC Department of Homeless Services. Even with the large number of shelters within the borough, however, they fill up and people can sometimes be relocated across the city. As one student explained, “Let’s say you’re from here [the Bronx], but let’s say all the shelters in the Bronx are full—then they will end up moving to the next closest shelters, which could be in Brooklyn or could be far away, like Staten Island. From that standpoint, you’re taking me away from my home, from people I grew up with, where I’m very comfortable.”
No discussion of the shelter system can go without touching on the concept of NIMBY, and the class addressed this as well. In his interview with the students, Sam Miller of Picture the Homeless explained, “The Bronx is one of the areas that sends the most families into the shelter system. Many times when communities in the Bronx oppose a shelter, they’re opposed to their own neighbors who’ve been driven out by rising rents.”
It was gratifying to hear that on an individual level many of the students felt that their eyes had been opened and their assumptions challenged. As one teen told the audience:
“We were asked the question, ‘Who do you think these people are? Where do you think they come from?’ and unfortunately I had a very low opinion of them. To be honest, the only homeless people I saw were basically crazy people, drunks, drug addicts, people that didn’t really cause me to think about this issue. But as the program went on and as we did our visits, and especially when we went to meet some people from Picture the Homeless, they opened my eyes. Talking to one of the men there taught me through the way that he spoke that not all homeless people are drug addicts, etc. I hope one day to be as smart as him.”
Her sentiment was common amongst her classmates, many of whom echoed the assertion that their preconceived notions about the system and especially the shelter inhabitants had been turned around. These students will undoubtedly continue to spread their new knowledge within their neighborhoods, raising awareness and altering the prejudices of those around them. The presentation focused on a serious problem faced by our community, but thanks to the students’ enthusiasm the tone of the evening was distinctly hopeful.