Only by embracing the lessons embedded in our city’s history can we avoid repeating the failed policies of both the recent and distant past, and have true clarity about what action is required to correct today’s public policies. The Poor Among Us is not just a history; it is a foreboding and a call to action.
—Ralph da Costa Nunez, co-author of The Poor Among Us
Last month, The New York Times ran a much-read and discussed series of five articles entitled “Invisible Child,” profiling 11-year-old Dasani (pseudonym), a homeless child living with her family in the decrepit Auburn Family Residence in Fort Greene, a Brooklyn neighborhood where there are also million dollar homes. According to the source notes for the series:
Andrea Elliott, an investigative reporter with The New York Times, began following Dasani and her family in September 2012. The series is written in the present tense, based on real-time reporting by Ms. Elliott and Ruth Fremson, a photographer with The Times, both of whom used audio and video tools.
Throughout the year, Dasani’s family also documented their lives in video dispatches from the Auburn Family Residence, which does not allow visitors beyond the lobby. Ms. Elliott and Ms. Fremson gained access to the shelter to record conditions there.
Mayor Bill de Blasioreferred to Dasani and her neighborhood to illustrate the economic disparity that exists in New York when he announced his appointment of Lillian Barrios-Paoli as his Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services by saying:
The story of this one young lady, Dasani, I can tell you–having criss-crossed the city and talked to all sorts of people in the course of this week–that it’s been gripping to a lot of people. It’s been gripping to all of us who are part of this transition. It’s not that we didn’t know these problems exited before, but to see them through the eyes of one child and one family brings it home in a very forceful way. (source: politicker.com)
One of de Blasio’s priorities as mayor will be to address New York City’s homelessness crisis and to change the way the city treats its poor, recently putting out his Five Point Plan to Reduce Homelessness.
Homelessness is a social issue at the forefront of New Yorkers’ minds. The Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness (ICPH) has launched two indispensable resources to help the public understand this complex and important issue, a book and a website.
The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Homelessness in New York City by Ralph da Costa Nunez, president and CEO of ICPH and professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and Ethan G. Sribnick, senior research associate at ICPH is a new book, published by White Tiger Press, that focuses on New York’s poor children and families. According to the book’s press release:
Conditions that perpetuate homelessness and poverty today have deep roots in America’s past. The Poor Among Us explores the world of New York’s poor children and families, from the era of European settlements to the present day: their physical and social environments, the causes of their poverty, and the institutions and social movements that evolved to improve and regulate their lives. This comprehensive history examines the successes and failures of past efforts to reduce poverty and homelessness, providing the historical context that is often lacking in contemporary policy debates.
Poor Among Us uses more than 100 photographs, etchings, and maps to bring the reader face-to-face with the experience of poverty and homelessness throughout New York City’s past and present. Dozens of accounts of children and adults — from those experiencing poverty firsthand to the philanthropic reformers working on their behalf — provide a window into what it was like to live during each time period. Click here to read an excerpt from the book.
At the end of the 19th century, Jacob Riis did this with the publication of How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890), a groundbreaking early publication of photojournalism that documents squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. Like Poor Among Us, Riis used the power of images to illustrate and underscore the terrible plight of “how the other half lives.”
PovertyHistory.org is a new interactive Web site launched by ICPH detailing New York City’s long history of poverty and homelessness that “investigates public policies that have shaped the lives of poor and homeless New Yorkers. With comprehensive timelines, analytical maps, striking images, primary sources, and informative essays, the site is a valuable resource for students, teachers, service providers, and policymakers with an interest in the history of these seemingly intractable issues.”
One hopes that the work of ICPH, as well as the recent reporting in The New York Times and our mayor’s new initiatives will open the eyes of a public who, though aware of New York’s homelessness and poverty problems, often feels powerless to effect change and thus often look away instead of facing the issue head on.
Read a discussion of How the Other Half Lives from The Big City Book Club hosted by Ginia Bellafante at The New York Times: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/category/big-city-book-club/
View a slideshow of Riis’ images: http://news.yahoo.com/photos/how-the-other-half-lives-photos-capture-new-york-slums-in-1890-slideshow/