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U.S.: Homeless “Tent City” in Harlem Ends in Arrests

NEW YORK, Aug 2 2009 (IPS) - New York City police arrested 10 people who refused to leave a vacant lot in a demonstration for homeless people’s rights in East Harlem on Thursday. Early in the day, dozens of homeless people had occupied the lot, which is currently not being used, setting up tents and a makeshift kitchen.

A young boy named Anthony participates in the Harlem "tent city". Credit: Sam Lewis

A young boy named Anthony participates in the Harlem "tent city". Credit: Sam Lewis

The “tent city”, a reference to the Great Depression, was intended to temporarily house the homeless, but was also a publicity tactic, designed to draw attention to the increasingly dire crisis of homelessness.

“We are here to send a message,” Jean Rice, a board member of Picture the Homeless (PTH), which organised the action, told IPS.

Picture the Homeless is an advocacy group founded and run by homeless and formerly homeless people. Rice says the occupation of this vacant lot represents an escalation in the housing problem that is sweeping New York City.

Picture the Homeless is demanding that the City convert vacant lots and buildings into low-cost housing.

Homelessness in New York City has reached its highest levels since the 1930s. Precise estimates of the number of homeless in the city elude researchers, but more than 109,000 homeless people have turned to shelters over the past year, a two-thirds increase over the past decade, and many homeless people still refuse to use shelters.

“So many people feel threatened in shelters because New York’s shelters are violent,” PTH member Lorenzo Diggs told IPS.

“There is more control and better chances for a person in prison than there are in New York City shelters, and that is a fact I can attest to,” he said.

According to PTH, there are currently more empty housing units in abandoned buildings in New York City than there are families living in shelters. They say 24,000 apartments exist in standing buildings that developers are intentionally keeping empty because of real estate prices.

“They are warehousing vacant lots like this, and then taking homeless people and warehousing them in the shelter,” Sophia Bryant, head of PTH’s Housing Project, told IPS. “Take just half of the 750 million dollars the city spends each year to keep homeless people in deplorable shelters and spend it on fixing up these buildings and putting up new ones.”

Bryant went on to question why the city continues to award building contracts to large developers.

“These developers are supposed to reserve 20 percent of housing for poor and disabled people, but of course they don’t. They sit on the empty buildings until the city isn’t looking, and then they turn them into expensive apartments and condos and sell them at market rate,” she explained.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg had promised to move thousands of families out of shelters and into permanent housing, but the plans appear to have stalled, while studies continue to show homelessness in New York is increasing.

“They haven’t been helping people, just been warehousing them,” Bryant, told IPS. “I got into this new programme and then it came out they were selling people’s vouchers. I got no explanation or apology, and now my voucher, which I never got, has expired.”

Bryant further described the conditions of those who do get permanent housing from the city as less than livable. “The inspection process is non-existent,” she said.

“The housing they’ve moved people into is contaminated with chemicals and has lead paint and ceilings that are falling down. The city has millions and millions of dollars in lawsuits now because so many children have lead poisoning.”

After organisers took over the lot, which is owned by the bank JPMorgan Chase, they set up tents, a pair of food tables from which they offered meals to poor and homeless people as well as neighborhood passers by, and a stage. Hundreds of New Yorkers rallied to support the action, chanting “They say gentrify, we say occupy!”

“It is manifestly unjust that trillions of bailout dollars are given to Chase Manhattan, who owns this empty lot, while the ranks of the homeless are endlessly swelling,” said Joshua Nessen, executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), one of the many organisations that showed up to support the PTH action.

“If Bloomberg and Obama will not provide enough affordable housing, we the people must build affordable housing for ourselves. This is not a crime – people have the inalienable right to housing,” he said.

The occupation took on a festive tone, as a drum circle formed and musicians and spoken word poets performed, led by the local band, Welfare Poets. Participants in the attempted takeover even put together an impromptu “homeless fashion show”.

But dozens of police, who had gathered in the streets surrounding the lot, became increasingly firm in their demand that the group abandon their new home.

Around 5:00 PM, the “tent city” ended when NYPD dragged people out, arresting 10 organisers.

“We never gave (the police) any reason to be anything but courteous,” Rice, one of those arrested, told IPS.

“You’ll see people have their parking spots on the other side of that lot, and we put this orange partitioning up to let the police and owners of those vehicles know that we are not about destroying property, we are about a more equitable distribution of the property that is in the public domain,” he said.

Picture the Homeless continues to aspire to find or create housing for every person in New York, and connects their struggle to those going on around the world.

“There is a connection between the townships is South Africa, the favelas in Brazil and the gentrification and displacement in Harlem,” Rice told IPS.

“A few years back I was privileged to go to Porto Alegre to attend the World Social Forum, and I brought back to my organisation the concept of participatory democracy,” he explained.

“I was so impressed that the people in Porto Alegre actually play a real part in the budgeting process. Much of what you see here with the way PTH organises, from the town hall meetings to the way we interact with the legislature, is a product of our experience in Porto Alegre.”

Porto Alegre, Brazil, employs a “participatory budgeting” process in which everyone contributes to the formation of the city budget through citizens councils and elected representatives.

“I think participatory budgeting isn’t just possible here, it’s inevitable,” Rice said with a smile.

“They’ve gotten comfortable in a situation where 10 percent of America is absorbing over 80 percent of the wealth. So here you see the beginning of a grass roots struggle that is going to make what they call ‘the impossible’ happen.”

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