English: A close-up of dryer lint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Just about all Manhattan neighborhoods are a mix. A mix of ethnicities, political views, religions, and socio-economic status. My neighborhood is particularly mixed when it comes to the latter. We have a high number of SROs. Single Room Occupancy hotels–boutique hotels, if you’re a naive young tourist who believes all the pretty pictures posted on the internets. Many times I’ve come across 120 pound tourists with 150 pound packs strapped to them, looking for the “boutique hotel” they paid for in advance, online, from their clean and comfy homes or universities somewhere in Europe, maybe the Netherlands. Sometimes I run into these same young tourists 2 days later in the drugstore, looking for products to combat bedbugs and lice.
Most frequently, SROs house those who have fallen from the fringe into the lint pile, a few house those have recently arrived in America and are first trying to climb up to the fringe. Rent controlled, very cheap housing, what you get is one room and a shared bathroom and kitchen. Some are reasonably clean and safe, many are dirty, in desperate need of repairs, and not somewhere you’d like to find yourself–day or night. Many who live in the SROs are basically homeless, mentally ill, drug addicted, and either HIV+ or have full blown AIDS.
I’ll be honest, there are certain blocks I avoid walking on at night, even with Big Senile Dog at my side. As the economy has grown tighter, the problems and crimes that spill out of these buildings has risen. Most of the people who live in even the seediest of the SROs seem fairly harmless, I’ve lived here for years and so have they; I recognize their faces, those who aren’t drug or booze addled recognize mine. OK, so it was more than a little unsettling when Fatigue got a new puppy in his ground floor apartment and was assured a few weeks later by one particular man that he didn’t have to worry about said puppy while he was out at work–the man was watching him through the window, and he was ok. Ummm, thanks?
This summer, violent crime has escalated, there have been a couple of fatal incidents, and the city is planning to place an additional four hundred people in SROs in the immediate neighborhood. Predictably, there are petitions circulating to stop this placement. Social service agencies place people in this housing, and it is great and necessary to have somewhere for the ill and indigent to go besides the front stoops of churches; but then they don’t provide supports to keep the people well, clean, or even safe. A Catch 22 that affects not only the people living in these buildings, but all living around them.
Some of the people living in the SROs are elderly, some work fringe jobs, some work regular jobs that just don’t pay enough for rent on an apartment, many live off their SSI/SSD checks and supplement by panhandling. Ah, the panhandling. “Mama, you got a dollar? How bout a cigarette?” Usually not, and usually, when I just keep walking, they’re asking the next person before I’ve even passed them. Sometimes it’s annoying, if the person in question decides to follow and continue asking for half a block, sometimes it pisses me off, if I say no and the person immediately switches modes from smiling, hand extended, “God Bless,” to snarling and “fucking bitch.” Sometimes it’s frightening. Flower Child doesn’t understand all the cues and clues, which seems to attract the most fractured of the crack addicts, “oh little Mommy, you’re so beautiful, I don’t have my babies anymore, can I touch your hair?”
When Man Child was little, he used to announce what we were having for dinner and invite the homeless he saw on our way home from nursery school to join us.
A lot of my younger internet friends think of me as an ex-hippie. Though I’m too young to actually have played on the streets of Haight-Ashbury, the politics and philosophies wouldn’t be far off, and it’s true, my favorite pair of jeans in high school was a pair I had tie-bleached with a friend in the basement. In the eighties and early nineties, I worked in social services where most of my jobs were a direct result of the push to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill. So I feel for all of those living in the SROs, had many opportunities to get to know and understand they aren’t just lint, these are people with histories, many of them histories that would make you lose your breakfast, and some, indistinguishable from the others, with histories that would be uncomfortably similar to yours.
The petitions want them placed “somewhere else.” Where? The people behind the petitions fear for safety, other vulnerable residents, and property values. They want them placed somewhere with enough security and supports to minimize these issues. I would like that last part too, but where would the money come from to make that happen?
My left leaning, ex-too-young-to-have-been-a-real-hippie, ex-case manager, all too aware of how easy it can be to drop from the fringe to the lint-self wants to see more people placed in local SROs, campaign for donations and fight for the city to help them once they’re in. How can we not care, pretend they don’t exist? But I’m also a mom who is thinking about an escalation of violent crimes, Man Child and Nerd Child old enough and independent enough to be walking the streets on their own, and my vulnerable Flower Child.
What do you think?