New York

Sanctioned Sadism


After a weekend of demonstrations on behalf of the homeless, Rudolph Giuliani looks a little like a cornered rat. On Monday, he accused his critics of demanding special rights for street people—the classic cry of a wounded conservative—while polls showed New Yorkers solidly opposed to his plan for denying shelter to those who don’t work. But the mayor may yet profit from the uproar.

In the short run, at least, Giuliani’s war on the homeless was a political wash. “He might have lost a bit in the city,” says Lee Miringoff at the Marist Poll—but not as much as Hillary Clinton did after the West Bank fiasco sent her numbers plummeting among the city’s Jewish voters. Meanwhile, in the suburbs and upstate, Rudy’s numbers were unchanged.

But the real gain for Giuliani is with a certain group of voters who have yet to embrace him. “This is another of Rudy’s red-meat issues for conservatives,” says pollster John Zogby. “It’s his way of saying, ‘What I’m not going to give you on abortion, I’ll give you on a whole series of issues to make you feel better about me.’ ” And for conservatives, homelessness is a bellwether issue; proof that poverty is a moral problem, not an economic one. There’s a right-wing consensus about who the homeless are, and it’s best summed up in the way they are described by conservative columnists: dirty, drug-addicted, mentally ill, violent.

Andrea Peyser of the Post used precisely those words last week to bolster her contention that homelessness is entirely “a result of alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental illness.” John Tierney, the Times‘s resident neocon, was more genteel but no less demonizing. Though national surveys show that only about a third of homeless adults are addicted to drugs or alcohol, Tierney jacked those numbers way up by citing a survey of derelicts in Times Square, where “more than 80 percent reported abusing drugs or alcohol.” Tierney even managed to taunt the people who give to beggars. They “go home warmed by the glow of their generosity,” he wrote. “The crackhead left behind is not their problem.”

What’s missing from this picture? Only the fact that the average homeless person in New York is a child. On any given night, about 5000 families, including 9000 children, make up most of the population in city shelters. This is the face of homelessness conservatives won’t see, if only because it shows the true impact of Giuliani’s threat to take away the children of street people who don’t work.

Next week, the Coalition For the Homeless will argue that the mayor’s new policy—which also includes barring the homeless from shelters if they fail to arrive at appointments on time—violates a consent decree requiring the city to provide a roof for those who need it. “When Newt Gingrich proposed in 1994 that the kids of people thrown off welfare be put into orphanages, it was too much for even the Republican Congress,” says coalition counsel Steven Banks. “But now we see Giuliani embracing exactly that policy.”

It hardly matters that the career criminal accused of throwing a brick at a young woman in Midtown lived only intermittently on the street. The homeless have become a means to the end of solidifying Rudy’s core constituency—especially the skeptics of the Conservative Party. It’s a time-honored tactic for Republicans; has been ever since the red-baiting rise of Richard Nixon. Giuliani looks more and more like the young Nixon, who owed his victory in 1950 to a red-baiting campaign against a liberal woman, Helen Gahagan Douglas. In the current conservative scenario, quality-of-life offenders are the enemy within. It’s a logical transposition since, as Nixon would learn from George Wallace, the real political elixir—the crack of American politics—is race.

It was race that elected Ronald Reagan, who built a potent backlash on the specter of the “welfare queen,” and George Bush, who rode Willie Horton to the White House. Ever since then, Republicans have profited from the popular confluence of crime and welfare, using the twin image of the predatory black man and the profligate unwed mother to secure a majority. There is always a face of evil in right-wing politics to give people a rationale for voting their fear and rage. That face is typically poor and black.

To understand how racism fuels the crackdown on homelessness, consider how the tabloids covered six recent attacks on innocent bystanders. When Kent Gasser was knocked unconscious by a rock-wielding assailant in Riverside Park in September, the incident went virtually unnoticed by the tabs. When Sofia Collazo was pushed onto the subway tracks in 1997, it merited only three small articles. Similarly scant coverage followed the deaths of two women pushed onto the tracks in 1995 and ’96.

The attack on Edgar Rivera last April, which left him crippled, did make page one of the Post, but within a day it vanished to page six. (It never got closer than page five in the News.) Kendra Webdale’s murder last January wasn’t front page news at all, though her schizophrenic assailant helped inspire the editorial about getting “the violent crazies off our streets” that ran in the News—but only after the Barrett attack.

What made the Barrett case stand out? For one thing, none of the other victims (except Webdale) was a young white woman. And in the Webdale case, the perp was a white male. But the attack on Barrett had all the makings of a tabloid feast: an attractive, white female victim and a wanted poster featuring a fearsome black man. For Rudy, it was a perfect way to distract people from the image of a heartless politician ripping children away from their mothers. Instead, the face of Paris Drake could stoke another, deep-seated image: the one that brought Bush père to power. This is the rationale the right always offers voters, and it’s why—in a time of sharply dropping crime—they need the homeless now.

But racism is only one reason street people are such an inviting target. Their presence provokes deep anxiety, especially for the children and grandchildren of immigrant groups that once filled the city’s poorhouses: the same white ethnics Giuliani is courting. These people are the largest voting bloc in New York State, and their reaction to homelessness today is an amalgam of pity and horror. This ambivalence is why the homeless are a hot-button issue to liberals and conservatives alike: Both sides see the larger stakes in the public’s response. It’s been that way in the city since colonial times.

City Hall Park, where Al Sharpton was arrested last Monday for protesting the mayor’s crackdown, was the site of the city’s first poorhouse, erected in 1736. Here, criminals were housed with vagabonds, beggars, “parents of Bastard Children,” and any servant or slave deemed “ungovernable.” They were all subject to ritual labor—such as shredding old rope for reuse—in order to teach them industry and deference. Those deemed unruly got “a moderate whipping.”

The heirs to this tradition of coercing the poor into virtue and industry are running New York again, thanks in no small part to the Manhattan Institute, the think tank that helped Giuliani craft his social agenda. It’s also Heather Mac Donald’s base. You might have seen her on TV when the mayor’s roundup began, referring to the homeless as “a so-called victim class.”

From Mac Donald’s meditations in City Journal, the institute’s influential publication, you learn that “illegitimacy is the natural cause of poverty.” She wants the city to launch a crusade to “restore the burden of having a child out of wedlock.” To achieve this, every health-care worker should be “required to discuss adoption as the most loving alternative for the child.” Unwed mothers should be forced to live in supervised group homes and denied additional benefits if they have more children while on welfare. As for the fathers, if they are too poor to provide child support they should be forced into workfare, and if they are already enrolled their “hours should be increased.”

Of course, Mac Donald notes, it will take years to achieve these goals, but clearly Giuliani has made a strong start by threatening to take away the children of welfare recipients who don’t work. This is precisely the kind of initiative Mac Donald recommends.

It’s easy to forget that New York had poorhouses up until Franklin D. Roosevelt made welfare an entitlement in 1933. So the Manhattan Institute’s approach is a throwback to an old tradition, right down to the breakup of indigent families. “The underlying dynamic, from my point of view, is that when the poor rise up they get some relief,” says Frances Fox Piven, professor of sociology and political science at the CUNY Graduate Center. “But when quiescence is restored, partly as a result of these programs, there is an effort to roll them back, and those who do get relief are made into pariahs as a lesson to everyone who is working about the degradation that awaits them if they don’t.”

This fear of falling is a major motivator, even in boom times. It’s why so many people are willing to work long hours in uncertain jobs with meager benefits. But that’s not all. “Everybody looks at welfare as a psychodrama, which distracts attention from what’s happening to the broad safety net that’s been constructed over the past 60 years,” says Piven. “Unemployment insurance is being cut back, social security is being tightened.” We’re being propelled toward an economy of chronic insecurity, and whipping up stigma serves to blind us—as it always does—to our common destiny.

There’s a moment in a recent Forbes testimonial to Heather Mac Donald when she approaches a homeless man in a soup kitchen, the reporter in tow. Fixing “her unblinking gaze at him,” Mac Donald fires off questions about his work history and personal life. When the man mutters, with “glazed eyes nervously darting back and forth,” that he has no family and no home, Mac Donald delivers her verdict: “He should be diagnosed for drugs.”

The right word for this response is sadism—and it’s not limited to fellows of the Manhattan Institute. It’s the dominant political style of the right. First they create anxiety by stoking a sense of danger, then they turn it into pleasure by inflicting punishment on those deemed dangerous, deviant, or merely unworthy. The right rises on this cycle of resentment and gratification. And now, in this most political season, they are using the homeless to light their fire.


Research: Jason Schwartzberg

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