“That’s Just the Way God Works”: How Not to Talk about the Homeless

Yes. God is black. Just like Santa Claus.

Last week, the New York Times ran a five-part article, “Invisible Child,” an intensive, heart-wrenching look into the plight of one homeless family in New York City. It’s the kind of article that almost immediately goes viral (in this case, its popularity was fueled by a teasing tweet the night before it was posted online), the kind of article that almost everybody agrees is an essential read, despite its being close to novel-sized in length. With the glaring exception of the New York Post’s editorial board (which considers the piece “homeless hooey”), opinions were almost universally positive about “Invisible Child”, which highlights the experience of an adolescent girl, Dasani, as she navigates not only the difficulties of living in a run-down, rodent-infested homeless shelter, but also the trials of middle school and a chaotic family life. Of all the people who have publicly commented on the article, one notable voice was missing. Up until today, outgoing-mayor Mike Bloomberg had remained quiet on the story of Dasani and her family, but he finally broke that silence so that he could remind New Yorkers that the flaws in New York’s approach to homelessness were unfortunate but that ultimately the real bad guy in this situation is none other than God. Yes, that’s right. Bloomberg actually admitted that someone else has more power than he does. Sure, it’s the supreme being, but still. This is huge.

In one of his last press conferences, Bloomberg was asked about the story, and about his homeless policies in general, and responded by saying, “It’s fair to say that New York City has done more than any city to help the homeless and we should be very proud of that…this kid was dealt a bad hand. I don’t know quite why. That’s just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not.” So let’s let that sink in for a minute. Bloomberg, who has always seemed to operate under the principle that nothing is inevitable and that change can and should come from mandated policy and that through institutions and government action people’s lives can improve, has suddenly become dismissive of all that and just shrugs off the fact that a family of ten spent 3 years in a one-room, bathroom-less homeless shelter because it’s God’s work.

Bloomberg’s callousness and deflection of blame with regards to Dasani’s situation are not entirely surprising. In the twelve years since Bloomberg was elected, New York’s homeless population has spiked to the highest levels of any city in America. While the Bloomberg administration has enacted a great deal of legislation designed to aid homeless families like Dasani’s, including reforms that “subsidized health care, childcare, job training, shelter, counseling and placement services and temporary cash assistance” for those in need, the city government has also made it much harder for the homeless to enter the shelter system in a way that will meaningfully benefit them and lead to permanent housing. Earlier this year, in an excellent piece in The New Yorker, Ian Frazier also wrote about New York’s homeless population and noted this about Bloomberg’s sometimes beneficent nature and what it’s contingent upon, “I think the contagious Bloomberg twinkle comes partly from the Mayor’s role as a sort of Santa figure. He works for the city for a dollar a year, he gives away his money by the hundreds of millions, and he manifestly has the city’s happiness and well-being at heart. Every rich person should be like him. His deputies and staffers twinkle with the pleasure of participating in his general beneficence, as well they should. “You can’t make a man mad by giving him money”—this rule would seem to be absolute. And yet sometimes people in the city he has done so much for still get mad at Bloomberg and criticize him. At the wrong of this, the proper order of things is undone, and the Bloomberg twinkle turns to ice.”

This sums up Bloomberg and his legacy perfectly. It is clear that Bloomberg has done everything he thinks necessary to help the people of the city, including those who need the most help. However, when it comes to people who still haven’t been able to benefit in a substantial way, then Bloomberg not only loses all sympathy, but brushes off any personal responsibility. Such is the case with Dasani, whose parents are both jobless and dependent on methadone and have a whole host of other problems that impact the young girl and her seven siblings in a myriad of negative ways. Rather than figuring out a way to help people like this (and their children) Bloomberg sees them as being beyond help, even though they are the ones who need it the most. Instead, Bloomberg resorts to saying things like, “If you are poor and homeless you’d be better off in New York City than anyplace else.” Which, maybe that’s true. But “better off” clearly isn’t good enough. Not when children are living in housing “where mold creeps up walls and roaches swarm, where feces and vomit plug communal toilets, where sexual predators have roamed and small children stand guard for their single mothers outside filthy showers.” God isn’t going to put down roach traps and plunge toilets in public housing. That’s the city’s job. It was Bloomberg’s job. And it is one area in which he failed.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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