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May 14, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

May 14, 2006

The Human Dumping Issue

An offhand comment starts a firestorm of indignation

OK, let’s start with the basics. I do NOT believe that homeless people should be rounded up and put into gas chambers. Nor do I believe that the operators of homeless shelters are evil demons that should be treated as badly as possible.

Also... and listen carefully folks... I do NOT believe that the presence of homeless shelters and halfway houses in my community downgrades my community by their presence. On the contrary, I think that the presence of such facilities is part of a healthy and well-rounded community.

A community that does not have the means to take care of their own marginal and indigent members of society is an incomplete community. Shelters are as necessary to a community as a fire department.

However, I DO believe that my part of town, the South End, has become the regional receiving ground for a variety of kinds of people that surrounding communities do not want. This includes homeless people, criminals undergoing rehabilitation, alcoholics, drug addicts, and all too many people who are rendered helpless because of mental infirmities.

I believe that this importation of “undesirables,” i.e. those who need massive support and/or supervision, has created a debilitating strain on our South End neighborhoods. I also believe that this importation, this “dumping” is immoral and harmful to the victims.

I believe that communities that export their “undesirables” to the South End of Albany are behaving in an immoral manner. These communities are not true communities, they are, in effect, behaving like parasites. They expect Albany and Albany taxpayers to to take care of THEIR human service problems.

For example, how many homeless shelters are located in Colonie? I have read about cast-off people from Colonie dying on the streets of Albany. Why are they here? Why aren’t they living and dying in Colonie?

Have I made myself clear?

Wrong or right, that is what I have seen and understood. Don’t ask me to cite statistics or reel off facts, because I have none of my own. Indeed, reliable statistics on homelessness in Albany are quite rare.

In addition, I do not claim to know anything useful about the subject that can be quoted in a scholarly article. So why, you may ask, am I bringing up the subject?

Well, sometimes my mouth gets me in trouble with people who are, shall we say, not feeling completely secure about what they are doing. It all started with this email I received from my Albany County legislator, Luci McKnight:

Wednesday, April 26, 2006 5:30 PM
Common Council Chambers
Second Floor, City Hall

1. Case # 4-06, 1213
The case of Capital City Rescue Mission regarding the premises located at 229 S. Pearl Street requesting an Area Variance to allow forthe installation of an eight (8') foot fence to surround the perimeter of the property, when fences shall not exceed six (6') feet in any yard without street frontage. The property is located in a C-1 Neighborhood Commercial zoning district.

That day I’d checked my email on the run, and fired off to Luci this rude comment:

What the hell do they need a fence for? To keep all their imported drunks and criminals from escaping back to the suburbs?

When I checked my email later, I noticed to my horror that Luci had broadcast this comment across the City. Yikes. Ouch.

Like an idiot, I made an attempt to explain my point of view to all who had received this, but of course that only made it worse. So I shut up and decided to let it blow over. Fat chance.

Along comes Mark Yolles, editor of Mansion News and Notes, which usually is an excellent online information service for the Mansion neighborhood and for those of us who live nearby.

But this time, Mark decided to editorialize. Here is an excerpt of what he wrote:

There will be a meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals... One of the items is a request by the Capital City Rescue Mission regarding the premises located at 229 S. Pearl Street... requesting an Area Variance to allow for the installation of an eight foot fence to surround the perimeter of the property. While the current zoning says “fences shall not exceed six feet...” this would presumably be a routine request except that opposition to the Mission seems focused on the fence. For example, a recent email sent from a nearby neighborhood stated " What the hell do they need a fence for? To keep all their imported drunks and criminals from escaping back to the suburbs?”

“Opposition to the Mission?” A fascinating distortion. I humbly asked Mark for a chance to reply, but I guess he considered my humbleness to be a sign of weakness and basically told me that I should publically prostrate myself. Oh, and he would not let me reply in HIS newsletter. Thanks a lot for broadcasting my private comment, Mark.

So then I had to endure backlash from several reverends and a politician, not to mention the rantings of some nutcase. All of it was baffling, sidestepping the issue of human dumping on the South End. For example, this excerpt from the statement by Reverend Covington of Union Missionary Baptist Church, which Mark endorsed as “an eloquent reply” to my comment:

The Capital City Rescue Mission is a blessing to mankind. It is the perfect picture of what a church is supposed to be. I am reminded of the words of Jesus Christ in the Gospel account of Matthew, chapter 25 verses 31-46. I would suggest that one take the time to visit the Rescue Mission and tour the facility and the programs offered prior to judging a book by its cover. If we oppose the Rescue Mission how long will it be before we ask Albany Med, St. Peters, St. Margaret's and the other care facilities to close their doors to providing services that any one of us could need at any time?

This left me scratching my head. No offense intended toward Reverend Covington, but when did I say that I opposed the Mission? I have said elsewhere that I oppose importing human beings into the South End to feed the Mission. We have plenty of homegrown folks of our own in need of help. We don’t need more. And we don’t need to subsidize the suburbs by taking care of their “undesirables.”

Or, is that the problem? Am I stepping on somebody’s well-oiled business model here?

Well, I thought everything was settling down, when I heard from Tom McPheeters a few days later. Tom is a guy we all respect for his tireless work on behalf of the poor and working class in the City and especially the South End. He wears, as they say, many hats, representing in some capacity ARISE, Council of Churches, FOCUS, Albany Civic Agenda, NYS Community of Churches, The Free School, Mansion Neighborhood Association, and various political and activist campaigns too numerous to mention.

In addition, Tom is this year’s recipient of the prestigious Thomas N. Sechnya award from the Neighborhood Resources Center for community service. It’s hard to think of anybody who deserves this honor more than Tom.

Unlike the others, Tom had written a thoughful reply to my offhand private comment. You see, he’d been thinking of writing a reply ever since I posted the February 26 article on this blog, which brought up the subject of human dumping on Albany. I listed it as one of the contributing factors to the wholly preventable blight on lower Morton Avenue, and pointed out that these folks were being shamelessly exploited by slumlords.

Tom really wanted me to publish his reply on the blog. Like, immediately. Well, since my blog is not a forum I didn’t jump to do what he demanded, but I didn’t forget about it either.

His statement may be well considered, but quite a bit of it is really more of the same stuff that I’d been getting. For instance:

Homeless people are an easy target, and so are the organizations that serve them. I can only hope that people take the time to look past the myths of homelessness to the reality of this very complex issue.

When did I target homeless people? I know damn well that one day I may be one myself. I just want to know why these poor miserable folks are being imported into the South End. Well, Tom does indeed tackle this issue. What he says is very interesting:

Of the individuals who were homeless in Albany last year, four percent came from New York City, three percent came from Rensselaer County, three percent from Schenectady County, and a half of one percent from Saratoga County. Nine percent came from out of state, and seven percent from other New York State counties.

Unless I’m counting wrong here, Tom is saying that 26 and a half percent of the City of Albany’s homeless come from outside of Albany County! So then... how many come from Colonie, Guilderland and Bethlehem, etc.? Tom writes:

HATAS [Homeless And Traveller's Aid Society] does not keep statistics of people who come to Albany from other parts of the county, but it does not appear to be a large number.

I’m sorry to hear that statistics are not available. And with all due respect Tom, I don’t believe for one nanosecond that the number of homeless from the suburbs of Albany is a statistically insignificant number. I’ve talked to too many people over the years who have said otherwise. Can anybody prove me wrong?

This is not to say that compiling such statistics would be an easy task. By what criteria do we determine who is native? How long does one have to live in Albany? This is a frustratingly relative concept.

I first moved to Albany in 1977, but there are plenty of folks who consider me to be an outsider because I wasn’t born here. I know a fellow who was born here, but his parents were immigrants, and he told me that some consider him to be an outsider. Some of these hardcore Albany natives can be quite vehement on this point, as I have found out.

It’s unfair to talk about property and stability as criteria for residency. I’ve lived in the house that The Wife and I have owned for twenty years, own various pieces of property nearby, run a business in my neighborhood, am heavily involved in civic affairs and maintain a blog that proclaims on every page that my neighborhood is beautiful. That does not make me a more legitimate member of my neighborhood than the guy who picks through my trash for bottles.

Tom, to his credit, acknowledges this problem:

“Like other Capital District residents, low-income people move around from county to county,” says Ira Mandelker, director of HATAS. “Many of the out-of-county homeless people have close ties to our city or county, despite the fact that they may have most recently lived in Rensselaer or Schenectady.” It also seems likely that people who move here from out of state, or from Buffalo or Rochester, are more likely to be coming because of some previous connection or family ties, rather than some unfounded idea that the grass is greener here.

“Unfounded idea” indeed. I would guess that every single person living on the streets of Albany can give a reason for ending up here. It is a human trait that we almost always find justification for our actions, no matter how irrational or desperate.

Let’s be honest here. A city, no matter how blighted and wrecked by exploitation, is an infinitely better place to live than the suburbs. This applies to everyone, but it is especially true of those who possess nothing. That is why it is so easy for suburban towns to push their unwanted persons in the direction of Albany.

In the suburbs, the only public space is the automobile roadways. If you don’t own a car, you can’t use the public space. If you cannot traverse public space, then you cannot do simple things, like eat. Or sleep.

If the suburban municipalities do not provide shelters or services for the indigent, then it is a simple matter for the suburban authorities to push them toward the place that provides these things as a matter of course. It seems to me that there is probably no need for such crude routines as handing the unwanted a bus ticket to Albany and telling them to find the Mission on S. Pearl Street. One learns where one is not wanted.

If you don’t have the cash, the suburbs are an inhospitable desert. No one can survive there without a pricey badly built house and an expensive to maintain car. If you don’t possess these two survival tools, then you have to leave the desert for more fertile places.

This makes one thing crystal clear. We here in Albany cannot simply exclude imported homeless people from our community without providing them somewhere to go. Like most American cities, Albany is literally an oasis in the middle of a suburban wasteland. We cannot drive them forth into the suburbs to perish.

As Tom says in closing, “It is a very complex issue.” Can we force the surrounding suburban municipalities to grow up and begin taking care of their own? Perhaps... but first we have to acknowledge that there is a problem here. And we have to stop thinking of ourselves as a human dumping ground... no matter how noble it seems to engage in such sacrifice.


So, the other day Tom sent me an another email demanding that I publish his bit of writing. I tried to discuss this with him, but apparently he wasn’t feeling very rational. He all but accused me of wasting his time by trying to discuss it privately.

Okay, Tom, here it is. This didn’t start out as my issue, but now it is. And we’ve hardly touched on the issue of providing halfway houses in the South End for the region’s criminals.

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