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Homeless Union Launched by NYC Shelter Residents

Issue 272

Its first campaign is to improve the quality of the food they are served

Amba Guerguerian Jul 6

Bright, flickering ad strips mar the facades of old buildings in and around Times Square. Throngs of people exit Broadway shows; tourists and workers get tacos and hot dogs at food stands. A constant stream of images, noises, faces from around the world. Abandoned city bikes fight with scaffolding. Construction never ends. Cups jiggle for change. Selfie sticks extend. Buskers, comedy-show announcers, shoe shiners, window cleaners, gadget sellers and street sweepers cross paths with hedge-fund managers and real-estate heiresses.

A young homeless man sits outside of a convenience store packed with “I♥NY” sweatshirts and bongs on an afternoon in late June in the outer reaches of the area. “Need shoes, zapatos,” his sign reads. Around the corner, well-dressed retirees form a line for a matinee.

“Homelessness is useful because in capitalism, you need to have unemployment.”

Across the street from the theater, in front of a city Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelter, three people stand behind a table scattered with literature on homeless unions. One of them is Ender, 23, who has lived at the shelter for three months. “People are like, ‘Oh I’m in my shimmy dress, yasss,’ and I’m like, ‘Can you spare a dollar?’, ” Ender said of the glaring wealth disparities in the area. 

“There’s so many reasons that homelessness is useful [for those in power]. In one way, homelessness is useful because in capitalism, you need to have unemployment. There needs to be a reserve labor force. If everyone is employed, it’s harder for employers to negotiate,” said Ender. “These rooms are so expensive that the city doesn’t care about homelessness. If the city was trying to understand how to make it cheap for homeless people to live, then they would put us in apartments.” The average cost of keeping a single person in a city shelter is more than $4,000 a month, according to a 2021 report by the Independent Budget Office. 

At the end of May, Ender formed a union at the shelter and is organizing other residents in the nine-story building with the help of Devon, 23, who has lived there for seven months. Both are members of Brooklyn Eviction Defense (BED), a tenants-rights group that specializes in eviction defense and has been supporting their union efforts.

At the table near the shelter, Ender, Devon and a member of BED offered pizza to shelter residents who passed by. Their literature included “Know Your Rights” flyers, union sign-up sheets and “Why Start a Homeless Union?” zines. “What could we achieve if we work collectively with each other?” reads the zine. “We currently don’t have access to basic necessities such as free laundry and three meals a day even though we’re supposed to be guaranteed rights to them. The city isn’t going to provide these unless we force their hand, and we can’t do that individually… Imagine if we had free therapy or clean bathrooms?”

•   •   •

In March, Mayor Eric Adams began to carry out his plan to “sweep” all of the city’s homeless encampments. At an April 11 rally in Tompkins Square Park, homeless people spoke out against the city’s actions during the traumatic period. One young speaker named Gianni explained that at his shelter, where many people are on parole, a punitive template is continued through the shelter system. “Front desk is a front desk; anybody would call it a front desk. In the shelter, they call it a bubble. … a bubble is a jail term, you understand? That keeps you mentally incarcerated. How the fuck you gonna get the help you need?” he said. As of March 30, police had evicted 239 encampments, but only five people had agreed to go to homeless shelters, the sweeps’ supposed goal. 

Ender, who has been homeless for five years, learned about BED because of the group’s involvement in sweep-response efforts. “BED is sort of famous for doing militant action, and I’ve always been attracted to that,” Ender says. “I’m attracted to groups that will be like, ‘Yes, we will guard this building from getting evicted even if it means eight people will get arrested.’” 

Shortly after joining BED, Ender formed the Homeless Union. The first thing Ender did to recruit members — the first step in organizing any building — was slip flyers under residents’ doors. 

Devon responded within hours. “I was genuinely excited but also confused and cautious,” he told The Indypendent. “[The union] gives purpose and strengthens the community.” 

The young union has almost 20 members. Membership is roughly defined by being added to its WhatsApp group. For now, it’s limited to those who live at the Midtown shelter, but Ender says that opening up membership to people that live on the streets and expanding an organizing model to other shelters are longer-term goals. 

In addition to tabling and flyering, the union does outreach through its Instagram, @homelesspals. But Ender has learned that person-to-person conversations are the most valuable organizing tool. “I’ll literally just see people when I’m using the bathroom and will say, ‘Have you heard of this homeless union?’ I’ll go to the basement and while they’re eating, I’ll ask if they like the food here.” 

The first issue the union is organizing around is the shelter’s food. Members say eating healthy meals is nearly impossible. Ender, a vegan, says tofu patties are often the only thing offered to vegans but that after eating one, “you don’t feel good.” Ender talked to one person who wants kosher food, another who wants more fruit and vegetables, and multiple who said that the food makes them feel bad.

The shelter offers food out of a freezer in the basement, which is available from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. There are not three different meals available; the same meal — which often doesn’t include vegetables — is available in the freezer all day and residents can heat it up in the microwave. There are often apples and bananas, but coffee isn’t available in the basement every day. There is no designated drinking water or kitchen; residents get water from the sinks in communal bathrooms. 

Some of the shelter’s residents find food elsewhere, from grocery stores, begging or dumpster-diving, say Ender and Devon. 

“When people reach out to the union… the most common ask is, ‘I want to hang out; I need a friend.’”

Multiple residents have died at the shelter in the few months Ender and Devon have lived there and harm-reduction around drug use is a resource the union would like to offer in the future. 

In recent years, homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression. As of March there were nearly 50,000 homeless people, including roughly 15,000 children, sleeping each night in the city’s main municipal shelter system. Ender and Devon’s shelter has 80-square-foot single rooms, but dormitories are common. Of the “countless” shelters Ender has stayed at, most offered shared rooms, they say. 

•   •   •

Everybody that stopped by the recent tabling session accepted receiving further communication from the union. A couple of older residents gave their room numbers and said it was okay to knock on their doors. 

“Hells Kitchen needs this right now!” said one woman who lives at the shelter and was eager to read the handouts. “We need more literature — the power of the ink,” she said.

The Homeless Union is already forming mutual aid community. It has received offers from groups that would be willing to cook food for the shelter, but needs to find transportation for that to be practical. Emotional and mental support is another goal. “When people reach out to the union, they usually don’t even have an ask such as ‘I need help with food,’” said Ender. “The most common ask is, ‘I want to hang out; I need a friend.’”

Ender got involved with community organizing after stumbling across a Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council meeting at the age of 18. “I was like, ‘I’ll go with my friend.’ There was no rational reason to improve my rights. I just went there to hang out,” said Ender. “I’ve always had a taste for militant actions. I’ve never been interested in ‘Let’s pass a bill.’ My first workshop was on forming human blockades.” Ender has also organized with the food-manufacturing workers’ group Brandworkers and is inspired by the Black Panther Party’s survival programs. 

The “Why Start a Homeless Union?” zine on the Homeless Union’s table includes lessons from homeless people’s organizations in Philadelphia and Oakland, California that successfully took over housing. 

“The National Union of the Homeless has some message along the lines of, ‘You only get what you organize to take.’ I’m not interested in demanding anything,” said Ender. “There are politicians that don’t see you as human. What’s the point of asking for things when these people have repeatedly denied you of housing, health care, food? You just have to take it.” 

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