There’s a homeless encampment across the street from my apartment. It’s been expanding since I moved in. At first, it was a sleeping bag and a cardboard sign, hardly noticeable. It’s been accumulating stuff ever since: blankets, a sleeping pad, bags, trash. Stuff.
My room’s been accumulating stuff over the same period of time too: books, clothing, empty coffee cups, receipts, flyers for protests.
I walk past the encampment every day, watching it expand as my life expands here too. There’s hardly ever anyone there. Occasionally, mid-day, I see a rail-thin woman’s head peeking out from under the assorted blankets and sleeping bags. She’s always asleep. When I walk by late at night – 2, 3 am – she’s isn’t there.
I’ve never seen anyone talking to her, or touching any of the things. I live a block from a busy subway station, on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. But no one seems to mind the increasing space taken up by my neighbor’s belongings.
Occasionally kids marvel at the stuff as they walk by. There’s a school at the end of the block, so we get a lot of foot traffic. One time, a little girl stopped to look more closely at the pile of trash (I do not call it trash as a judgement, but merely to speak of what much of it consists of now, as it grows: plastic bags, food wrappers, empty cups). Her mom, or older sister, or whoever, tugged on the girl’s shirt, hurrying her along the way adults do when teaching a child how to behave in public. That was the closest I ever got to seeing someone acknowledge the encampment.
New York housing is a nightmare, which I sometimes think is why no one looks perturbed by the woman’s accumulating stuff. The inability to live, to pay rent so as to avoid sleeping outside, is a fear the majority of the city’s residents have, so we can relate. Rents continue to skyrocket, with people pushed further into the distant edges of boroughs. We all then commute in, creating a dilemma for our cities with their failing infrastructure.
Here, that dilemma is becoming a crisis. The MTA is ridden with dysfunction: trains shut down without notice, leading the agency to advise passengers to stop going to work entirely, promising to begin an ‘awareness campaign’ of emailing employers to encourage this ‘solution.’ A video went viral the other day of passengers trapped on the F train, the footage more evocative of a zombie thriller than real images from one of the world’s wealthiest cities. The Governor, Andrew Cuomo, refuses to address the issue, ignoring the thousands of “FIX THE SUBWAY” replies his voters leave to his every tweet. The post-industrial city suffers under its own contradictions: advertised as a post-material economy and under girded by austerity, the city still relies upon the ability of real people to travel through real, not cyber, space, to our real jobs.
I started this essay a few days ago, intending to make it some meditation on public transit or housing. But this evening, on my way home from dinner, I walked by the part of the sidewalk where the encampment should have been. The sidewalk was immaculate; my neighbor’s stuff nowhere to be seen. I stopped walking, with no idea what to do. Had the woman moved on of her own accord? Had someone – the city? a business? a vigilante? one of my other neighbors? – thrown it all away while the woman wasn’t there? I looked around, but no one else seemed perturbed. No one else was even looking in my direction, the foot traffic as steady as ever. There wasn’t a trace of the stuff left. There was nothing I could do. So I crossed the street, put the entry code into my apartment building, and walked inside.