Members of the NYPD are snapping photos of homeless New Yorkers around the city, asking their family and friends to do the same, and posting the picture on Flickr. The Sergeants Benevolent Association’s (SBA) president Ed Mullins issued the call: “As you travel about the city of New York, please utilize your smartphones to photograph the homeless lying in our streets, aggressive panhandlers, people urinating in public or engaging in open-air drug activity, and quality-of-life offenses of every type.”
“We, ‘the Good Guys,’ are sworn to protect our citizens,” Mullins continues. “Shouldn’t our public officials be held to the same standard?”
Supposedly, this campaign is meant to document New York City’s ”homelessness problem,” which some media outlets believe is increasing. Mullins, a critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio, sees this problem as the result of the city’s failed policies, and views the increase in “vagrancy” to be a serious decline for the city.
Some of Mullins’ claims are highly questionable. Though homicides in the city have worryingly increased 10 percent so far this year, it’s not at all clear that this has anything to do with homelessness. And overall, crime in New York City is down.
Between 2013 and 2014, homelessness rose by six percent in New York City. While this is a problem, its worse effects befall those who are homeless (obviously). The SBA’s plan to “hold public officials accountable” involves shaming homeless people and posting images of them online without their consent, rather than emphasizing any greater respect for them.
In fact, the language used on the account is blatantly derogatory. Many of the individuals are labelled in the caption as “bums,” or “disgusting.” Somebody apparently thought they were clever for labeling this photo “bed and breakfast.”
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with photographing people who are homeless. Humans of New York has featured photos and stories of homeless individuals accompanied by their stories. This work is done is a respectful way, and it is meant to reflect their dignity. It can give us a glimpse into the lives of other people and help us understand them a bit better.
|NYC homeless (NBC pic)|
The SBA’s Flickr album, named “Peek-a-boo,” is instead purposefully meant to portray these individuals as a plague on the city. While I’m sure most people would agree that we would rather people not go to the bathroom in the street, sleep on sidewalks or “aggressively panhandle,” these behaviors themselves are not the fundamental problem. Treating the behaviors as if they are the problem only further stigmatizes a vulnerable population.
In 2014, a survey from the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that city officials listed affordable housing, unemployment and poverty as the major causes of homelessness. If you want to stop homelessness, you have to first tackle these root problems.
Some might defend SBA by saying that they’re trying to shine a light on these problems, but clearly the campaign sees homeless people as the problem, not homelessness. If they cared about helping homeless people, they could create an account that detailed their stories, how they ended up where they are and what kinds of policies they think could help. Instead, the Flickr account is focused on petty crimes, which are the concerns of those who are privileged enough not to be homeless.
Instead of focusing on crimes, we should focus on helping people live better lives, which will actually be more helpful in reducing crime anyway. An increasing amount of research suggests that it is in fact far cheaper to provide homeless people with housing and social services than to “treat” the problem of homelessness with more policing and emergency services.
But substantive, researched solutions to homelessness are not the point, not when your goal is to shame the city’s mayor by using the homeless New Yorkers as pawns. And particularly not when the proposed solutions suggest that we might need fewer police officers and more direct services.
Our society and, particularly, our police forces, need to rethink the way we regard homeless people, if this is the kind of treatment and shaming they can expect. It starts with taking down the photos that have been posted on the SBA’s page, as advocated in a Care2 petition.
Mayor de Blasio has a plan to spend $22 million to find and treat those suffering from mental illnesses in the New York City streets. There are additional plans to train police to better interact with this population. I have previously endorsed a guaranteed basic income for all, which could help alleviate poverty and homelessness. But we shouldn’t be satisfied with cities that treat them as shameful burdens, or try to sweep them under the rug, either.