Don’t talk about the weather. Don’t ask anybody where they’re from or where they went to school. Oh, and don’t worry if they don’t want salad: Chances are they’ve eaten more vegetables in the last week than you have.
That’s the advice I was given when I first started volunteering at a homeless shelter. The weather, of course, is a testy subject when you lack shelter from it; home is a difficult idea because even memories of home can be sorrowful; and salad, well, it’s much easier to find fruits and vegetables at a shelter than potato chips or fruit snacks.
For years, I have wanted to write about the men and women I have met in shelters up and down the East Coast. I have wanted to write about them because they are like anyone else: complicated, curious beings with stories worth telling, but also because I feel strongly that they deserve more than what they have; that I, and most everyone in my daily life who goes home to a heat-filled or air-conditioned home with a refrigerator full of food and a shower with hot water, have failed them. I have wanted to write about them because I believe that homelessness is one of this country’s greatest sins.
But I have found myself unable to write something, anything about homelessness. The causes are too systemic and the policies are too intractable to detail; most profiles of the homeless are too saccharine or superficial. Writers either observe from the skyscraper-high meeting rooms where policies are written and the reader feels absolved of any responsibility, or they go down on their knees in the cardboard shelters that fill our streets and the reader feels too rebuked to finish reading.
We are so enamored with works like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that we fail to realize James Agee didn’t end poverty with his book. Forgetting that millions in this country still go hungry and lack even basic shelter every night, we slumber soundly in our Sleep Number beds. But how can we write of so pervasive a social sin?
Ian Frazier seems to have found a way. Frazier has said before that he’s “opposed to expertise,” and his recent New Yorker piece “Hidden City” evidences the ways in which, despite having learned every dotted I and crossed T of policy and case law surrounding the right to shelter in New York City, he can still speak as though he were still one of us, the uninformed masses.
His lede is catchy, especially since his piece appeared the same week as the World Series:
For baseball games, Yankee Stadium seats 50,287. If all the homeless people who live in New York City used the stadium for a gathering, several thousand of them would have to stand.
It’s hard to do something meaningful with statistics, especially one so shocking as that, but Frazier conveys the grand scale of New York’s crisis. His second paragraph is an olive branch: “Most New Yorkers I talk to do not know this. They say they thought there were fewer homeless people than before, because they see fewer of them.”
Frazier is a writer in whom there is no guile: The olive branch is extended so that you will keep reading, knowing that you are not alone in your ignorance and feeling safe that no expert is lecturing you; it’s only a guy who talks to people like you, and who even likes baseball like you do.
Talking is what Frazier does best, and the most remarkable feature of the piece is his rendering of dialogue. At one point, near the beginning, when he visits the PATH (Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing) Center at 151 E. 151st, he writes: “Some of the things people have said to me outside the PATH center.” He then, without commentary, lists those things:
“I came here first when I was eighteen, when foster care maxed me out. I been in the system for fourteen years, and I don’t know how many times I’ve had to come back here. When you go to PATH, they always want to deny you. They don’t believe you really homeless.”
“You know what is the best shelter? Covenant House. But it’s for homeless kids, and only has about two hundred beds. There they max you out at twenty-one.”
“This new place, PATH, is better than what used to be here, the E.A.U.”—the Emergency Assistance Unit. “The E.A.U. was horrible.”
“Here they treat you more horrible than a drunk bum.”
“The food here is not too bad, the bag lunches they give you. The baby likes the animal crackers.”
“Hey, yo, you a writer—do you know Denis Hamill?”
“We left PATH at twelve-twenty-six last night and they bused us to a shelter in Queens and we had about three hours of sleep and then they brought us back here at seven this morning to be reassigned, and my kids was falling asleep in the chairs, and a security guard hit the chairs with his radio and made them jump out they sleep, and I told him not to do that because they tired, and he yelled at me and wrote me up, and I filed an incident report, and I’m sure it ended up in the wastebasket.”
“They spend so much money on us. It costs three thousand dollars a month to put one family in a shelter! Why don’t they just give us part of that money so we can afford our own place to live?”
That strange sequence stands without correction or addition. To it, Frazier adds the voices of Diana (“I been in this shelter three years, and I don’t care if I never see pancakes, French toast, or waffles again for the rest of my life”), Kiki (“Bloomberg put us in a corner and said fuck us!”), Marcus (“In this shelter they treat you like an inmate”), and many who go without names because they are only passing players on the stage of an enormous production.
The homeless can’t stop talking in Frazier’s piece, but Mayor Bloomberg gets only a few words, all of them quotations from earlier speeches or radio addresses. There is no reason to interview the mayor when his staff speaks for him, and the dangers of believing anything but his policies is clear when Frazier juxtaposes an interview of staff from the Coalition for the Homeless with an interview of staff from City Hall. The coalition staff talks to Frazier about “the many things the Bloomberg administration has done wrong;” the City Hall staff tell Frazier “of the things it had done right.”
As if the advocates and the bureaucrats were in a courtroom presenting their version of the facts, Frazier artfully splices the two separate interviews together. The city says it reformed the shelter system despite interference from advocates; the coalition says reform came only because advocates pushed for it. The city says it ended Section 8 priority because it was a perverse incentive; the coalition says there’s decades of data showing that incentives work. The city says it provides better subsidies now; the coalition says they are too short-term and most recipients end up homeless again.
That back-and-forth is one of Frazier’s most clever uses of dialogue. It’s much more powerful than letting the two sides tell their stories separately, without rebuttal, and even more compelling than if he had locked them in the same room for a debate.
Frazier is a master of voices, especially his own. Nowhere is his voice sharper than when he describes Mayor Bloomberg. After meeting Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs, who is tasked with the administration’s policies for the homeless, Frazier writes: “Her blue eyes often have an expression that can only be described as a twinkle.” He sees that twinkle not only in Gibbs’s eyes, but in the eyes of the entire Bloomberg administration, which launches Frazier into one of the most powerful first-person passages in the entire piece:
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 paragraph is Ian Frazier at his best. You can imagine the Shouts & Murmurs version of this same passage: a Santa Claus who finds that no children want his paternalistic toys or a sad, sad billionaire who finds his city wants fairness and equal opportunity, not charity.
The whole piece is Frazier at his best. Honesty and humor meet in every sentence, such as this one: “If you declare, in a famous poem affixed to the Statue of Liberty, in New York Harbor, ‘Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me,’ you might consider that a certain commitment has been made.” Clarity abounds, such as when he outlines the two philosophies of ending homelessness: “The Mayor’s plan to reduce homelessness HAS always stressed ‘client responsibility’” versus “(what) the homeless need, this other philosophy says, is a stable place to live, not a system telling them what to do. Once stable housing is achieved, changes in behavior, if necessary, can follow.”
Stable housing is the gift Frazier gives readers in “Hidden City.” From the piece we get a footing in one of the greatest social injustices of our time, and from that stable perch we can begin to change our behavior. We can volunteer by serving meals or assisting with job training. We can give more freely to shelters and to the people who struggle to make the transition from them, into permanent housing. We can vote and advocate for better housing policies at the local and national level.
“Hidden City” inspires us to do better: as writers, as human beings.
For our “Why’s this so good?” archive, go here.