For a few years in the late 1980s the homeless managed to push themselves into the conscience of America. As individuals, they stood daily on street corners and made their case for help. As a group, they found more political means of expression. Through organized encampments, squatting campaigns, protests–even a march from New York to Washington–they questioned whether the world’s richest country was willing to deal with its poorest people.
Ten years later, in thousands of municipal laws, budget allocations, and court decisions, America has delivered its answer. Atlanta and Seattle have made it illegal to lie down on a public sidewalk. In Jacksonville, they passed a law against sleeping in public spaces and washing clothes in public fountains or lakes. In Los Angeles, “sleep zones” have been created where the homeless recline behind a line painted on the sidewalk until they are rousted at dawn and their cardboard boxes are taken away and trash-heaped.
While some cities–with New York in the forefront–have allocated significant resources to shelters, services, and transitional housing, overall expenditures on low-income housing have always been inadequate. Since the mid-1970s, housing costs have risen for the poor faster than their incomes–and far, far outpaced federal housing subsidies. We seem to have decided we can live with the homeless–as long as we don’t have to look at them.
John Jiler’s remarkable new book, Sleeping with the Mayor, forces us to place the homeless back at center stage. Jiler returns us to a six-month period in 1988 when the national response to homelessness was still being formed.
The book chronicles the events of “Kochville,” a protest by homeless people in the latter half of 1988. Jiler follows the trail of Larry Locke and Duke York, two homeless leaders who come to City Hall Park for a one-night sleep-in to raise awareness of homelessness during the annual budget hearings. At the instigation of then-Councilwoman Ruth Messinger and Marc Greenberg, leader of the Interfaith Assembly for the Homeless, the protesters eventually decided to stay in the park until the end of the year.
Relying on interviews with the participants and published accounts of the period, Jiler attempts to reconstruct the speech and thoughts of the homeless men, the activists who helped them the politicians they targeted.
Jiler has combined some of the players into composite characters, a technique which may grate on readers who remember these events first-hand. In one of Jiler’s less restrained moments, Ed Koch, not a man known for karmic transformations, hands Larry Locke a quarter and blesses him in front of Zabar’s on Passover.
Yet even here Jiler is making an important point. Despite the hostility of many activists who fought Ed Koch’s “bed of nails” shelter strategy, Jiler presents Hizzoner as a complex, often compassionate man. The portrait may seem like a whitewash to Koch critics, but the book would do well to spark a reassessment of Koch’s record on this issue. After all, it was on his watch that the city embarked on the nation’s most significant urban housing initiatives.
In his sketches of the homeless, Jiler doesn’t shy away from their drug abuse, violence and pathologies. But he also expresses respect for them as individuals and praises their courage in daring to shape their own history.
At one point, Larry Locke is asked to open for Jesse Jackson at St. John the Divine. As his speech builds toward its planned conclusion where Larry is to declare, “I am Larry Locke. I exist,” event organizers cut him off abruptly to yield the podium to Jackson’s arrival. Locke’s unspoken words resonate as powerfully as anything Jackson or anyone else ever said about the homeless.
Yet for all the storytelling, Jiler never forgets that homelessness was directly linked to the massive loss of affordable housing among the poor.
In New York, if only for a few years, the homeless were accorded a measure of respect. For a time, real solutions were sought to the crisis in low-income housing and the results are visible in the thousands of new and renovated apartments in neighborhoods like the South Bronx.
As with any book built around historical events, we know the outcome before we turn the first page. Sleeping With the Mayor makes us see the same events–and our present comfort level with homelessness–in a different light.
Kochville and Koch’s housing initiatives are now history. Once again we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the homeless living ghostlike, sleeping in shadows, moving onto the streets after everyone else has gone home.
To his credit, John Jiler has succeeded in bringing them back into the light.
Tom Kamber is a research associate at CUNY’s Center for Urban Research.