Homeless Group Honors the Dead, and Celebrates Victories

ImageHomeless Group Honors the Dead, and Celebrates Victories
A service held this week at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan honoring those who died in the past year while being homeless. A group called Picture the Homeless was founded in the sanctuary basement of the church in 2000.CreditCreditSpencer Platt/Getty Images

As they have every December for the last for 17 years, members of the Picture the Homeless group gathered on Thursday night at a Manhattan church to remember friends and strangers who died over the past year without a permanent place to live.

Members lit candles and called out names, even if they only knew a nickname, like “Big Africa,” or a first name, like “Johnny.”

It was a night of reflection inside Judson Memorial Church, in the West Village, where the group founded by two homeless men in 1999 opened an office in the sanctuary’s basement the next year.

But it was also a night to acknowledge that a small-scale nonprofit whose members are homeless, many of whom live on the street, could take credit for significant new laws and policies. Rogers, an organizer for the group who goes by one name, told the crowd that the group didn’t have a lot of money, “But you know what? They made a few changes in City Hall these past few days.”

In about a week’s time, Picture the Homeless witnessed the mayor and the City Council embrace three ideas the group has championed: turning so-called cluster housing into affordable apartments for formerly homeless people; keeping a census of vacant properties; and analyzing vacant city-owned lots and buildings that could be turned into affordable housing.

The policy victories would have been proud moments for any group, but they were especially so for Picture the Homeless, one of the nation’s few advocacy organizations founded by homeless people and led by people who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness. With a staff of seven and a budget of about $350,000, the group has made itself a formidable influence on city policy.

Picture the Homeless was founded by Anthony Williams and Lewis Haggins Jr. who had been living in the same men’s shelter and were upset about the criminalization of homelessness. “It’s amazing from where we started in the basement of a church to an office on 126th street,” said Mr. Williams, 54. “They are still creating leaders. We have the power to lead and the power to change things within the structure.”

Mr. Williams now lives in his native Baltimore where he still advocates for the homeless. Mr. Haggins died in 2003.

Picture the Homeless has grown into a citywide organization with an international reach. The group has about 50 active members and a database of as many as 20,000 people, Monique George, the executive director said on Wednesday afternoon in the group’s East Harlem office that was abuzz as members congratulated each other on the Council legislation that was approved.

On Tuesday, the New York City Council approved legislation that requires Department of Housing Preservation and Development to report its inventory of all vacant buildings and lots that could be used for affordable housing. Another piece of legislation requires the city to take a census of vacant properties zoned as residential every five years.

And last week Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would negotiate with landlords and would use eminent domain if necessary to transform so-called cluster housing, or private apartments used as shelter, into permanent affordable housing for formerly homeless people. With the help of public financing, nonprofits would eventually own the buildings.

The bills on vacant properties, known as the Housing Not Warehousing Act, were 10 years in the making. Homeless people went from street to street documenting every boarded-up building in the city.

Picture the Homeless has also criticized the cluster program since its inception in 2000 as a stopgap to opening traditional shelters. The private apartments are expensive and often owned by neglectful landlords, and Picture the Homeless has urged the city to use the stronger tactic of eminent domain.

While the successes this month affirm that the organization is being heard, the group will remain scrappy, Ms. George said. “We spent a lot of years kicking tail to be at the table. You cannot make decisions without talking directly to people who are affected,” said Ms. George, who was briefly homeless as a teenager. “We’re at the table. But don’t get it twisted. We will flip the table over.”

The persistent voice of the organization at City Council meetings and on the steps of City Hall now prompts city officials to regularly seek its input.

When Steven Banks, city commissioner of social services, was developing a new strategy on homelessness, he met with members at the group’s office. He said they have a “very common-sense perspective” that has offered guidance.

But the group is still fighting City Hall. Last year, the organization accused the police of profiling homeless people on the street and filed a complaint with the city’s Human Rights Commission.

Earlier this year, the city settled a lawsuit filed by the organization and the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three men whose belongings were destroyed after police officers awakened them in October 2015 and accused them of trespassing on the grounds of a school in East Harlem.

The men — Floyd Parks, Timmy Hall and Jesus Morales — said sanitation workers threw their belongings a garbage truck. The discarded property ranged from hard-to-replace documents to sentimental effects.

The city paid the men $1,515 in total for their losses.

Mr. Parks, 63, who is now in a shelter, said he had been depressed by the encounter with the police but the fight for his rights restored a bit of his pride. “I’m not just a homeless person you can walk over,” he said. “I’m a human being.”

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Born of Homelessness, a Group Takes Stock of Its Policy Victories

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