Chris Arnade Photography

The very bottom 1%

"I’m not concerned about the very poor that have a safety net, but if it has holes in it, then I will repair it.”  Mitt Romney.

(Moses and Roy)

To enter the space where Michael now lives requires crawling five yards along a pipe, over a dirt floor littered with needles. The space, beneath a walkway, over a rail yard, against an expressway, is otherwise enclosed. A large sign proclaims, “No trespassing, NY State property.”

It’s a shooting gallery for heroin, hookup spot for prostitutes and Johns, and a home to a rotating collection of addicts. 

Michael has cleaned it up, swept up most of the needles, added some fake flowers, and brought in a plastic tub to wash up in.  His folded clothes sit atop an old burned-out box spring. Old clothes have been shoved into gaps, providing further privacy for those inside.  It has the look of a quiet spot: It’s concealed and still, yet the din from the surrounding traffic makes conversation difficult.

(“Addict Snowman” and Michael)

When I last returned, this Sunday, someone had set a fire. The clothes in the gap were ashes, and Michael’s “addict snowman” was no longer three dimensions. 

The space reminds me of Jamie’s home. I had met Jamie over a year ago: He was walking under the elevated Bruckner Expressway. He took me to where he stayed. As the Expressway arched higher, between two pylons, it formed a small living quarters. Reaching it required darting across a busy exit ramp. He had been there off and on for four years. His space was well kept and came with a cat, Mimi, as well as his shopping cart used for collecting cans and bottles.
(Jamie and mimi the cat)

Both spaces are officially on city property. Folks living there are trespassing, and can be ticketed and jailed. Any possessions found on the spaces can be removed.  The position of the city is clear. No living on city property, no creating fire hazards, no defacing property. Shelters are provided for the homeless. 

Many homeless choose to bypass the shelters and live on the streets, citing the lack of safety and privacy. In addition, New York shelters are dry, no beer or even the smell of beer. You must go cold turkey or drink furtively.


Roy, who has been homeless 22 years, the last four underneath an expressway bridge says, “Why do I live outside? Freedom. Freedom to drink, freedom to not live by the rules of others.”
(Roy’s home)

Roy’s space is massive, a large enclosed dirt bowl underneath a bridge, filled with garbage and five small camps. The walls and ceiling are bare concrete.  Massive pillars hold the traffic above. The still air is fetid with rotting garbage and human waste. A bridge inspector comes now and then. The men in the camp say he tries to get them to give him oral sex, saying otherwise he will evict them. “He wants us to suck his pathetic dick.” Their possessions, they say, are now safe.

As last winter started to turn I had brought Jamie blankets. I had a great deal of donations. Three days before Christmas, without warning, the department of sanitation removed all of his possessions, including the blankets.

I thought of this during the height of the Occupy Wall Street protest, in particular around the eviction of the protestors from Zuccotti Park.  That generated a lot of outrage: Twitter went crazy, blog levels were elevated, op-eds produced.

That eviction came with a notification. That eviction came with recourse for the owner’s possession.

(Decoration outside Roy’s space)

The homeless, the ones who choose not to live in a shelter, face far worse. No warning is given. They do not have a chance to regain their possessions. It’s a process that happens regularly and yet it receives scant attention, not even a quantum of the outrage the eviction from Zuccotti Park generated.

Outrage is often a very selective and selfish act. One can even be so busy fighting the 1% that the other 1%, the ones so far down they can’t be heard, are forgotten.

Find more here: Chris Arnade Photograhy


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    (Moses and Roy) To enter the space where Michael now lives requires crawling five yards along a pipe, over a dirt floor...
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