Unruly passengers, fire hazards, and human waste: an article that ran in the New York Daily News (4/27/2020) painted a grim picture of the New York City subway in the age of COVID-19. With subway ridership down 95% and the city’s shelter system unable to guarantee social distancing for shelter residents, the city’s homeless population has become more obvious than ever as people take refuge on otherwise empty trains and in stations.

But rather than grapple with the humanitarian crisis at the heart of these heartbreaking scenes, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called the homeless people on the system “disgusting” and “disrespectful to essential workers.” The governor’s reaction laid bare the sheer inadequacy of capitalism and its political representatives in New York to address the real problem of the homelessness crisis before and during this pandemic.

COVID’s Impact on NYC

As of the writing of this article, over 176,000 people in New York City have been confirmed infected with COVID-19 and nearly 20,000 have died from the virus, with many more infections and deaths underreported. 794 homeless people have been confirmed infected and 61 have been confirmed dead as of April 29. If you would like a more in depth article on how COVID-19 has affected working people in New York, please read this article

The economic toll on working class people is also staggering. As of April 16, over 1.2 million people have filed for unemployment and people are struggling to pay rent, many who are paying rent late or can’t pay at all. Governor Cuomo’s eviction moratorium has been extended to August 20, but only if one can prove unemployment or “financial hardship.” This still leaves open the question of who qualifies and who doesn’t. Undocumented immigrants may not qualify, and even tenants who do qualify may find themselves on the hook for paying back rent. 

Coronavirus and the economic recession are only going to further overwhelm the housing and homeless crisis with the glut of evictions that will be filed after August 20, and many working people risk being left without a home to fend for themselves in overcrowded shelters or on the streets. Unsafe for senior volunteers, many food pantries have also become overwhelmed, while underfunded services for the homeless struggle to serve people safely. This, along with pressure from big business to reopen, will only ramp up the risk for a second wave of reinfection, leading to a spiral of misery for months and years down the road unless serious action is taken.

Homelessness Crisis

Coronavirus did not create this global economic meltdown nor did it create our homelessness crisis — it merely exposed the underlying contradictions of the capitalist system working people have to live under. According to advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless: “In January 2020, there were 62,679 homeless people, including 14,682 homeless families with 22,013 homeless children, sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system. Families make up more than two-thirds of the homeless shelter population.” An overwhelming majority of homeless heads of households are either Black or Latinx. Over 19,000 single adults live in congregate shelters, where people are forced to stay in dorm-style rooms, in some cases with just three feet separating them from their neighbors.

With the shelter population at an unprecedented level even before the crisis, many vulnerable people — including those with underlying health issues such as heart disease, mental health issues, malnutrition — find themselves warehoused in settings that often exacerbate these vulnerabilities without providing a clear path toward stable housing. This environment not only puts homeless people at risk for infection, it also risks the health and safety of shelter workers trying to keep the system running against a backdrop of state and federal cuts to shelters, public housing, and hospitals. To top it all off, Cuomo forced on the state legislature this year a new $600 million cut that will hit New York Medicaid once federal emergency funds are exhausted.

Delayed Reactions

A new rule from the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) effective May 6 called for the nightly closure of the subway from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. for cleaning – the system’s first full closure in 115 years. Over 1,000 police officers take part in nightly sweeps of the trains for anyone still on the trains during these hours. This means that homeless people on the subway find themselves swept up by the NYPD, fined, and removed, even forcibly, from the trains. While there is talk from Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio that the police will bring people on the trains to shelters and hospitals, in reality, only 20% of people removed from the trains are sent to these services. Many are calling the sweeps counterproductive, dangerous, and harmful, but the act of sweeping homeless people seems to have created a rare form of cooperation between de Blasio and Cuomo.

But why do the homeless sleep on the train to begin with? Beyond the issue of overcrowding described earlier, many shelter residents find themselves victims of physical or sexual violence. Many are separated from their communities, services, and support networks, with the Department of Homeless Services placing people wherever they can find a place, rather than borough preference. And most shelter residents are forced to abide by strict rules and curfews under threat of losing their beds to other shelter residents, which can lead to bureaucratic delays if and when they attempt to return to shelter.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 7,000 people have been moved out of the congregate shelters and into non-congregate hotel rooms. Many more are still waiting for proper accommodation with social distancing. But to understand the real negligence involved, one need only to look back in the past month. 

On March 30, FEMA approved funding to move people from congregate shelters to hotels. Knowing the congregate shelters were petri dishes ready to cost the lives of some of the most vulnerable, de Blasio on April 11 announced a plan to move 6,000 people from the shelters to hotels. By the time de Blasio had announced the plan, around 600 people had already been moved into hotels. But it had still taken a full 42 days after the first New Yorker was reported infected with COVID-19! 

Equally shocking, almost 250,000 apartments remain vacant in all of NYC, many of them overpriced and un-rentable luxury apartments. Every person has a right to a safe home, but our capitalist society seems to prefer leaving the homeless in front of us, as pity cases at best, or at worst, a vilified warning to working people to keep their heads down or face further suffering.

Cover the Tracks: Divide and Rule

So how does Cuomo address these facts to working people? In one photo op, Cuomo portrays himself as a leader, taking a small chunk of his time to help clean the subway alongside cleaning staff risking their lives to contain the virus. Yet he offers little in the way of meaningful action to address the plight of homeless people sleeping on the trains.

In response to the governor’s inflammatory rhetoric, and under pressure from Mayor de Blasio, the MTA is now ramping up the hiring of more police to clear out the homeless. In a radio interview, Cuomo explained that if the MTA needs more police, “Whatever they need, they need to tell me and I can get it done.”

Socialists and progressives should be clear about what the governor is really saying in his comments about the homeless. His language reflects an attempt to distract working class people from what our capitalist government’s real priorities are: pitting the working class, poor, and oppressed against each other while billionaires are asked to pay nothing more! Cuomo pointing the finger and criminalizing the homeless while anointing himself as a leader of action is a classic example of divide and rule.

Real Priorities

Right now, New York State faces potential budget cuts of $8.2 billion. Health care and education are on the chopping block, as are grants to non-profits that provide services to the most vulnerable New Yorkers. New York City faces a $7.4 billion loss in tax revenue and will readjust and delay spending for social services to make up for the shortfall. Incredibly, Cuomo has said tax increases on the rich are off the table during this crisis, and neither Mayor de Blasio nor State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have held him accountable for this failure of leadership. Why? 

Cuomo and de Blasio received over $4 million and $1 million, respectively, in campaign contributions from the real estate industry in 2018 and 2019. Andrea Stewart-Cousins herself has received over $100,000 from big business. Taking campaign contributions doesn’t just affect this or that policy position, such as Cuomo’s commitment to cap tax increases. Cuomo and de Blasio held off a lockdown until mid-March, weeks after they should have locked down, in an effort to calm markets and Wall Street. Now their negligence has a body count: nearly 20,000, including 68 transit workers, as of April 21, have died from the virus.

Even when this system claims it is working, we get a delayed reaction, with a heap of slow and sloppy responses (or lack thereof) from nearly all of our elected officials on top of our suffering. The homelessness crisis under COVID-19 is the culmination of deliberate choices to ensure one thing: that working people pay for the crisis created by Cuomo, de Blasio, most of our elected officials, and all of the shareholders they serve.

An Alternative is Needed

We cannot rely on politics that prioritizes corporate profits over people’s lives. In every single instance, what this will create is a slow and insufficient response that just barely pulls society back from the brink. What this crisis has shown is that corporate politicians are more than willing to single out groups of people to hide their mistakes instead of acting on what the situation calls for. In the immediate term, the city should immediately move 20,000 people out of congregate shelters and off the streets, and into vacant hotel rooms. The state should go beyond banning evictions and should suspend rent for all renters through the end of the crisis. And low-income people and seniors should be guaranteed the delivery of high-quality, nutritious food so that no one goes hungry while sheltering in place. 

But beyond these measures, the city, state, and federal government should construct or requisition thousands of units of new, high quality social housing. All people deserve to have a stable home. We need to stop the endless cuts to healthcare, mental health services, public housing, and tax cuts for the rich. We need a tax on Wall Street and a tax on the largest businesses to fund the necessary services for the homeless and all people.

The scale of this crisis calls into question the effectiveness of building housing around anarchic market forces and profits. We need to take all of the large landlords and the luxury housing market into democratic, public ownership as a step of ensuring everyone has a stable home. 

Socialists and working-class people should oppose any attempts to divide working class people against each other and other oppressed groups of society. To win any reform, working class people need to show that they are the leaders of uniting all oppressed groups of society under a clear program against all forms of oppression. A fighting labor movement and a movement of the oppressed could pose an alternate reality from the dystopia we are racing towards. Ultimately, we need to end this rotten system of misery and exploitation we call capitalism and replace it with a democratic socialist society.

First published at SocialistAlternativeNYC.org.

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