Homelessness Isn’t Something You Can Scrub Off the Streets

Acknowledging that the systems which are meant to help homeless people need immense restructuring is more urgent than ever.


By Alejandro Villa Vásquez, Contributing Writer

This isn’t the first time a picture taken of homeless people has sparked debate about the potentially — and almost invariably — exploitative nature of photographing them, most of the time when they’re just minding their own business. A quick Google search reveals article after article trying to qualify or decry this. My stance is unwaveringly on the side of eschewing such photography. The 6th Precinct, which  — shocker — mainly oversees the wealthy neighborhoods of the West and Greenwich Villages, reminded us today via Twitter that the most vulnerable members of our society are still often seen as nothing more than things meant to be moved around. Instead of treating these individuals as people simply trying to get through their days, society often treats them as stains that can be power-washed off the sidewalks.

In the despicable tweet, which has now been deleted, four images are attached. The first is of a group of homeless people in on Washington Place, right next to the Brown Building. Anyone who frequents that area can tell you these people use it simply as a place to eat, sleep and generally keep to themselves. I doubt the picture was taken with consent, and I wonder if that even matters. These innocent people, by the looks of the image taken, were just trying to rest. This spot is especially hospitable in comparison to other street corners because warm air rises through the gates below. And I know I don’t need to further underscore the importance of warmth during the winter, especially for people without access to shelter.

As you scroll through the images, it is unclear if the group was forced to leave the area, and it looks like maintenance workers disposed of the cardboard pieces some of the people were using as beds. But regardless of what happened, the tweet was congratulatory, saying “Great to job by everyone who participated!” The tweet was exploitative and intended to give the impression that the police were actually serving the community, at the expense of citizens actually in need of help.  

In a metropolis as luxuriously unequal as New York, you’ll often be flanked by a couple of bottle-blonde yuppies, and in the same step walk next to a homeless man asking for a dollar. Income inequality is growing nationwide as the middle class disappears. I don’t think any place represents this better than New York City, but that’s a piece for another day.

I might be a hypocrite. No matter who I am, no matter what I have or don’t have, I still attend a prestigious private school. The incident took place on Washington Place, a street surrounded by NYU’s academic buildings, and a street that you and I walk down almost every day. When I saw the photo, I instantly recognized some of the figures, and I know I’m not the only one. I must admit that seeing those photos made me confront a guilt I often feel, the guilt that I don’t do enough to help those in the worst conditions.

However, I refuse to make this about my or anyone’s privilege-guilt. Guilt is unproductive. This isn’t about anyone other than those dealing with the dangers of homelessness. The fact is that these people were photographed and exploited in some shabby, callous, disconnected attempt by an arm of the police state in order to make themselves appear beneficent. The irony is almost jarring. If our city’s police force actually wanted to supposedly clean up the streets, if anyone actually wanted to, there would be greater pushback against overcriminalization and more legislation passed to secure adequate housing for the poor and those in need, a demographic that is disproportionately and depressingly constituted of non-whites.

Perhaps I’ve tried making a point here that is out of touch because my scope is limited, as I have never been on the other side of that camera lens. Society will keep razing buildings set aside for affordable housing to build luxury condos only the modern-day bourgeoise can afford. The least I can hope for is that someday someone that actually knows what it feels like to be the object of such heinous photography will see this piece, and think it did right by them.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Alejandro Villa Vásquez at [email protected]