The Urban Design Forum’s 2018 Forefront Fellowship, Shelter for All, addressed the homelessness crisis in New York City by examining how to dignify the shelter system through better design and exploring the root causes of homelessness and housing precarity. Fellows developed original design and policy proposals on how to address the prison-to-shelter pipeline, public bathrooms, public realm management, supportive housing, and racist housing policies, which we are pleased to publish alongside interviews with leading experts.
The following interview with Marcus Moore, an artist and activist known as The Homeless Poet, and Rob Robinson, cofounder and member of the Leadership Committee of the Take Back the Land Movement and staff volunteer at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), accompanies Systemic Radical Change. Read the full set of Shelter for All proposals and interviews here.
April De Simone: Rob, I think your story is powerful for so many reasons. How did your journey start?
Rob Robinson: What I went through transformed how I think and see the world. I was raised in a working-class Long Island family. Dad was a chef and then a restaurant owner. My mom didn’t work when we were kids. I went to the University of Maryland on a college scholarship to play football. I started out working in the restaurant business when I was 18 years old, and I worked as a chef at well-known restaurants in New York. I was the executive banquet chef at Tavern on the Green. Eventually, I had to get off my feet, so I went into customer service working at an insurance company for a friend of my Dad’s, and then eventually landed a job at ADP.
At ADP, I worked myself up the ranks. They put me through an IT program and I became a project manager overseeing a piece of software that ADP said “would guide the company’s growth in the new millennium”. In March 2001, after 13 years of employment, I was asked to move to Miami to oversee the installation of the new software and beta testing in a new division of ADP. When I got down there, they give me a car to drive and a hotel to sleep in for three months and a $10,000 relocation fee. I’m sleeping like a king. Then, on July 1, 2001, I got called into the manager’s office and was told, “there’s no more money in the budget for your position. We’re going to have to let you go.”
I was kind of cocky at the time, confident: “I got this job, I’ll get another job.” I hadn’t done any homework on Miami. Miami was going through tough economic times in the early 2000s. I got a year of severance pay and unemployment. That ran out. I started to tap into a bank account; that ran out. Before you know it, I tapped into a 401k, wiped that out, and I was on the streets of Miami. I spent two and a half years on the streets of Miami, just struggling to get by every day, panhandling when I could, begging for food.
At an intake center in Miami beach, I told the outreach team that I was from Long Island. A few days later, they put me on a bus with some food and a couple of dollars in my pocket and sent me back to New York City. Eventually, I reached the Port Authority bus terminal.
But the last part of that trip was to go from Port Authority to Hempstead, Long Island, where my family would greet me. I got to Port Authority, looked in the mirror, and I was unshaved and a little bit unkempt, and I felt a little embarrassed. The whole two and a half years, I never told my family that I lived in the streets. I would call my sister every Sunday, “Hey sis, how you doing?” and hang up the call. Even if I had to panhandle to just get $1 to make that call. I found it difficult to tell my family of my situation. I was the first person in my family to graduate high school and a university. All the problems in the family were always put in my lap, and I was always told, “figure it out. You’re the smart one, you’re the one with the education.” My dad would repeatedly say that. So, I said “They can’t figure this out. I’m going to have to figure this out on my own.”
I get back, go to Port Authority bathroom, don’t like the way I look, so I ask somebody, “Where can I go to get cleaned up?” They point to a shelter called the Open Door, which was on 40th Street and 9th Avenue. I spent 10 months there and finally came out, as I like to say, transformed. I said to myself, “everything I was taught—I gotta empty my head and I have to re-learn life again.” As I was going through the shelter and coming out, everybody kept saying, “you’re homeless because you don’t want to work. You’re homeless because you don’t have an education. You’re homeless because you have a chemical addiction. You’re homeless because you have a mental illness.” I’m like, wait a minute, I worked since I was nine years old and I went homeless after working for 35 years. I have a college degree from the University of Maryland. I was never diagnosed with mental illness and I don’t have a chemical addiction. This is a lot of bullshit. And there’s got to be more people like me, so I have to find them.
I just started speaking out. The first chance I got to speak out was at a conference at Columbia University. I made a statement to the audience that day. I said, “I came to this theory on my own: gentrification leads to displacement, which leads to homelessness, which leads to criminalization.” Neil Smith, a distinguished professor of Anthropology and Geography at the City University of New York Graduate Center was sitting in the audience and stood up and said, “say that again?” And I said, “Gentrification leads to displacement, which leads to homelessness, which leads to criminalization.” And he said, “Can we meet after this? I want to know how you came up with that theory.” And Neil said to me, “What you’ve experienced and learned, a lot of other people need to learn from you. I want you to come to speak to my class.” Well, Neil was teaching at the CUNY Grad Center. I said, “Me speaking to Ph.D. students?” And he said, “Just because you don’t have a piece of paper doesn’t mean you don’t have any knowledge to share. My students can learn as much from you as they can from me. So, come on up and talk to my students.” He made me a regular lecturer in his class.
He had this theory that knowledge is something that is shared. Functionally, the academy goes out into the community to learn, the community comes into the academy, and it’s a wheel that constantly turns.
Nova Lucero: One of the ideas that came out your work with Take Back the Land was that the human right to a home outweighs the right of a landlord to make a profit. I feel that this idea completely throws off people’s worldview, especially those who believe in capitalism. Why would we take away the ability to make money?
RR: Let me go back to why Take Back the Land was formed, to help you understand where we were coming from. When the housing bubble collapsed in the late 2000s, President Obama said that big banks couldn’t fail, so we’re going to take your tax money and support Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and all of these other banks. Then those banks started foreclosing and evicting us in record numbers. But in a state like New York, once you get evicted—first, you had to buy an insurance policy that’s going to guarantee that you pay off that mortgage—the bank got paid off even though they evicted you; now they have the house too. They’re profiting twice. That turned my stomach. And it was happening primarily to people of color, who were probably given a predatory loan, to begin with. You were set up to fail, no matter which way you looked at it.
Take Back the Land was founded on the principle that these were our houses, and we’re going to take them back. We would find houses that were foreclosed by a bank or government agency, break-in them, move in families, and defend their rights to stay using international human rights law. We have enough houses, right? During the height of the crisis, there were 14.4 million vacant homes and 2.3 million homeless people. We said, if we just play matchmaker, problem solved! Put the homeless people in the vacant homes.
Alp Bozkurt: When are we going to reach a tipping point in the US for people to take action on housing?
RR: I don’t know how you move people to action. I know for us at Take Back the Land, it’s like, take the shit back! The way you get a capitalist’s attention is to take their shit. You take back—you hit them in the pocket or you take their shit. And all of a sudden they want to talk to you!
So, here’s a perfect example. During the height of the housing crisis, the housing movement in the US was divided. Take Back the Land was saying, “We need transformative organizing. We need to change the way we look at society.” At the same time, post-buyout, attorneys general from around the country sued the banks, and the banks offered principal reduction. So, if you bought a house in 2005 and it was worth $300,000, you took out a mortgage from a bank and in 30 years you’ll pay back $400,000, or whatever it is. Come to 2008, here’s the economic downturn, your house is now worth $200,000. But the greedy bank is still asking for the mortgage on $300,000. So, the people started demanding principal reduction.
At Take Back the Land, we said, principal reduction is not going to transform the world. You can get principal reduction; it will give you some immediate relief. But, you won’t build a movement, because we’re a selfish society: “Okay, I got mine. Have a nice day! Thanks for the principal relief! Thank you for everything! See you!”
Many groups took a principal reduction from the banks. We at Take Back the Land said, “Unless you put that house in a land trust, we’re going to shut down the bank branch closest to that house. You won’t do any business. We don’t want any fucking principal reduction. It’s not going to change anything.” Because if we give everybody principal reduction, five years down the road, you create another financial crisis, and we’re going back to, “Oh, can I get principal reduction please?” They’re jerking you around.
“We always said the human right to a home outweighs the right of a landlord or speculator to profit off a home.”
We said, “That’s not going to change anything.” The way you create fundamental change is by altering that relationship to land and housing. The only way we can do that is to remove land and housing from the market. As long as they’re market commodities, there are going to be problems in this country. This means the only way you’re going to change the equation is for the 99% to rise up and take back the shit. It’s simple. You gotta rise up and take it back! Folks get freaked out by language like that, but at some point, there’s got to be a social clash to take back the land.
We always said the human right to a home outweighs the right of a landlord or speculator to profit off a home. That’s going to challenge civil rights law, and that’s because we’re looking through the lens of human rights law when human need outweigh civil rights. Laws are written to benefit a select few. They’re not always written to benefit the masses.
NL: A theme for our exhibit is about challenging the dehumanization of these systems, and how they take the “people” out of it. When we’re talking about creating housing, when we’re talking about even how to defeat the homelessness crisis, they fail to mention people. Marcus, I wanted to get your thoughts on how you’re using art to challenge that. I think that this form of art is a different way that gets to people that sometimes just standing up in front of a room and talking to people doesn’t quite reach.
Marcus Moore: I take a lot of experiences with people, especially people who have been pushed out of their communities, and get into the heart and mind of folks. I still eat at soup kitchens with the people. I get a chance to take these real-life talks and put them into monologues. It gives a different perspective to those who hear these misconceptions that homeless people are crazies. I get a chance to bridge the gap because people from all walks of life come to my shows.
People of the faith-based communities love holding my events. I’m humbled. But I even get on them, because I have one skit where the person, who is a homeless man, is having a problem with his leg. And some churches and places, they got all this property, and for some reason, they don’t see any reason to help when it comes to housing. If they do, it’s only a weekend. This particular character is being kicked out, because the Reverend at the church says, “It’s Monday morning, you gotta get out of here.” The character is telling the Reverend—I got a dummy dressed as a reverend—and the Reverend is trying to tell him nicely, “Listen, go to where you go, go to the shelter, go wherever.” And the character is telling the Reverend, “Listen, Reverend, you know what happened to me last time in the shelter? They beat me up and they stole my cellphone.” So, the character goes on, and the Reverend is just, “No, no, no,” and the character busts out in frustration and tears and hurt and says, “I don’t need any more pantry.”
He doesn’t need any more pantry! He needs a place to be!
AD: I love what you’re saying. It’s like, “I don’t want to be at a pantry. I want to be something more humanized. What can I be empowered to do?”
I feel so helpless sometimes, in the sense that, everyone would rather just act like homelessness is not there, or just making a comment on how people who are homeless smell.
RR: I would rather somebody tell me that you don’t want my help than to not approach them. Tell me to go away. Okay, I know I made an attempt; at least I can walk away saying I tried. I think a lot of us give up once they’ve pushed us away and there’s a part of me that understands it—not necessarily agrees with it, but understands it. I’ve made an attempt, what else can I do? Everybody’s different.
I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. I think people are different. Sometimes it takes constant engagement, and eventually, somebody gives in and sees the good in you, and says, “Okay, I’ll go where you want me to go. I’ll do what you’re asking me to do.” A lot of us often don’t want to commit time, and that’s generally what it takes. It takes some time because you’re going to have to build a relationship.
NL: I think that building a relationship is the hardest thing to do. It’s much easier to give people money, or to a pantry.
I remember we had this woman from the New Destiny Housing, and she said, “It’s important to go and ask people, ‘Do you want some help? Do you need some help?’” Just because somebody is in a situation that others might deem traumatic doesn’t mean that today is the day. Everybody has their own journey and it might take some time to figure out what they need and when they need it and when they want to start.
RR: Here’s what I’m going to say. Even at a shelter, I don’t think they’re intentionally trying to treat you badly. They may not do all the right things for a number of reasons. I think their overall intention is a good one. For whatever reason, the results may not be the best, whether it be finances—and usually, it’s money that is driving the results.
I know people will dispute this, but I think the City is making a genuine attempt to do better with respect to homelessness and “meet people where they are.” So, if someone asks for help, you should be calling 311. That’s going to initiate a response from Bowery Residents Committee or Urban Pathways. And 311 should initiate a response. The one good thing about 311 now is they should be giving you a tracking number, and you should be asking for that number before you get off the phone. If you have to call again about that person, you should be referring to that number because then the history is recorded, and then the delivery service can be challenged whether it’s been delivered in the correct way.
Emma Silverblatt: Rob, can you tell us more about what you’ve been able to achieve through the Coalition on the Continuum of Care?
RR: One of the things we’ve pushed through is called coordinated assessment. The shelter industrial complex that was built in New York didn’t assess people well at the front door. They mixed people in the wrong way. From the time they came to the City looking for a bed and when the City committed to giving them a bed, the system sends people in bottlenecks and down wrong avenues. Now, by taking this problem outside of New York, you can take somebody with lived experience from here to DC and say, “Y’all are giving the City all this money, but they don’t do a coordinated assessment. They’re constantly sending people down the wrong avenues and pouring your money in a hole.”
Now HUD is forcing New York, starting in January, to do something called coordinated assessment. You have to prove to HUD that you sent them down the right avenues. It’s a whole different world for New York.
So, if the shelter puts somebody at the front door, and let’s just say, for argument’s sake, they’re paying me minimum wage, do you think I care who is who and what avenue I send you down? I just need to send you someplace. I need to checkboxes on a piece of paper and send that paper on its way, because I need to be shuffling paper. But now you’re forced to have the right people at the front door. It’s not going to make it perfect, I’ll be the first one to tell you. But some of the fun that I have, is taking that voice outside—as we like to say, to a higher authority. We go to a higher authority: HUD. “New York is fucking up, look! Tell them to straighten their shit up or pull that money back.” $120 million—that’s a lot of money for New York City.
AD: Can you both share more about your experience in the shelter system? Since we’re focusing on the dehumanization of people, and how people are treated in these experiences, and then reduced to numbers and all of that—what is it about these systems that is glaring for you?
RR: They’re impersonal. They make you a number. You’re a statistic, you’re data. Data is important, I’ll be the first one to tell you. However, they dehumanize you at the front door. If you don’t fit in this box, then you can’t go here, you have to go to Bellevue Intake, or somewhere else.
For me, my thought wasn’t to stay at the shelter for a long time. I went to that place to take a shower. And then it didn’t seem so bad. It beat the street. I got a locker. There are two televisions, one showing sports, one showing movies, and there are three square meals here. I found myself, after a week, organizing inside of that shelter to change the conditions.
That’s what started my organizing. It was the Executive Director of Urban Pathways, Fred Shack, who came to the facility to shake the hands of the guys that were writing him these letters and saying, “Your organizing needs to go to a higher level. You can have a bigger effect on homeless services and how it’s delivered in New York City.” And he sent me to the Coalition on the Continuum of Care.
MM: When I was at the shelter, it seemed to me to be a holding place. I couldn’t understand what was the next step for people to move on from this place? I knew that people after a while became desperate and would do almost anything to get housing. Once a fellow told me, “I know that I have to either get some housing from one of these caseworkers, or I will return back to the street.” This person said to me, “Marcus, yo man, take the pill, take the pill. And once the doctor turns his back, just take it out, spit it out.” But once you put in these pills, that will decide where they’re going to put you and what you’re diagnosed with.
When I went to the shelter, I was still pretty much a healthy dude. I felt good, but it was a mental shock to see how long you have to be on this to get housing. It could be years before you get called.
I remember never really being assessed properly. Anything could’ve happened to me in the dorms, with individuals who are just going through a tough time and looking for an outlet, like a punching bag, because there are no punching bags on the facility. You rub some of these individuals wrong, and they can take it out on you—the whole six to seven months of their frustration.
Once I realized the form of desperation for getting housing, I couldn’t get down with that. I’m not taking any drug pills. I knew right then and there that guys were doing this to be able to get housing faster. If they have to attend meetings in these places, as far as they’re concerned, at least they have their housing. But I realized that follows you the rest of your life, and I can’t do that to myself.
I came across some information for Picture the Homeless. I think it was in the cafeteria. From then on, for me, where I was at was just a holding facility and a dead end for people who wanted to move forward. If you didn’t develop a revolutionary mind, or an underdog mind—“I’m gonna do this regardless of what!”—then you would be dependent on a system that just looks at you as a federal check. And that can be a revolving door.
RR: I also saw the shelters as a warehouse, of storing bodies, because I came in there with something of a work history. I was bugging my caseworker about a resume: “Type this up for me. I need to keep moving on.” I was a little bit of an enigma for her, and some of those things they make you comply with, I wasn’t doing them.
The only good thing that came out of it for me was them putting me on disability. “You clearly have a disability, file for disability.” But the mentality that they use was, “Here’s the form, it’s 11 pages. I have to help you with it.” “Excuse me. Why do you have to help me? I can fill this out.” So, she gives it to me and she says, “Okay, sit down and try to fill it out.” I had it filled out in about 10 minutes. It’s repeating the same information page after page. “Oh, you must’ve made a mistake, because you filled it out too quickly.” There’s a way they treat you and think about you in these facilities, which put me at odds with the caseworker. I saw a lot of people who needed a caseworker, but I’m not going to knock on your door just to interact with you. Tell me where to go and I’ll go. You don’t have to have a caseworker lead me down to 125th Street. I can figure out how to get there on my own.
So, I understood a lot of what you just laid out, Marcus, and I’ve seen the way they interacted with the people that were in the facilities. And I hear what you’re saying about dangers. The Open Doors shelter was an open space. You felt that way, but there were about eight of us that stood in the back of the facility, so, there were seven people that had my back constantly. If you mess with one of us, you had to mess with the four of us. We set a tone in the place. And we were so serious about how we operated.
That’s probably how I survived because I will say—people talking about the challenges and the dangers—but I had support in a way. People had our backs. The experience was a little bit different. But I agree with you. People come in, they’re angry. But you also have security guards. You had Kingsley, who was about 350. You come in and you mouth off, Kingsley will bounce you off those walls in a minute. Many a time, we’ve seen a guy come in a little drunk, mouth off to Kingsley: “I tell you to sit your ass down. You want to challenge me?” Bouncing off the walls and nobody saw anything. He was acting up, and Kingsley gave him what he was supposed to get.
I agree with you about the warehousing people. It seemed like people were stuck there. And that was my biggest fear because you hear people are here for two years. And I’m like, man, two years of this shit? No, man, I gotta get out of here.