Unlike most homeless organizations in New York City, Picture the Homeless is not just in the business of improving conditions. They don’t offer beds or free meals.
“We’ve always got a hot pot of coffee, bathrooms, and a computer lab available, but that’s not what we’re about,” says Senior Organizer Alfredo Carrasquillo of Picture the Homeless.
What they are about is empowering homeless people to speak for themselves, fight for themselves, and advocate for themselves on a political level.
Founded in 1999 by Anthony Williams and Lewis Haggins Jr., both homeless, Picture the Homeless is led by the homeless for the homeless. Their struggle began with police raids on homeless shelters, crackdowns on panhandling, and stigmatized headlines of homeless people as criminals. Their hope is that people will see homeless people as human and get them the same rights as everyone else.
In January, the Department of Homeless Services reported there were more than 60,000 homeless people sleeping every night in the New York City municipal shelter system. That number is 91 percent higher than it was 10 years ago.
In part, New York’s large shelter population is due to a “right to shelter” mandate, which requires city authorities to provide housing for those without homes.
Number of Homeless People in NYC Shelters Each Night
Still, there is no accurate measurement for the thousands of unsheltered homeless people fast asleep on subway seats, park benches and other public spaces. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, one of the nation’s oldest advocacy and direct service homeless organizations, recent New York City surveys have vastly underestimated what that number could be—it could be anywhere between 300 and 600.
At one of the weekly orientation meetings for potential new members, Alfredo unfolded twelve chairs into two rows and waited for everyone to take their seats.
The room was open-faced, with a hallway leading to a kitchen and several private offices, but except for new faces he wanted the room to be cleared. Old photos from rallies hung high on the blue walls and protest signs on the windows read, “Picture the Homeless in Homes, Not Shelters!” and “House keys not Handcuffs.”
Ten people, mostly men, gathered their seats.
“Why do you think we are called Picture the Homeless?” Alfredo asked, passing out a sign-in sheet. He waited. “Anyone?”
A man who had been nodding off in the second row opened his eyes now and spoke.
“Well I think it’s saying to visualize what we go through everyday, being homeless,” said a man named Jeremiah. “Picture going to a soup kitchen. Picture waking up in a cardboard box. Picture getting harassed by the police. Picture being homeless.” He likes to describe himself as a Renaissance man, but “one that the system failed.”
“Look at my dirty hands,” said Jesus Morales. Although he sat away from the rest of the group, he was one of the most active voices in the discussion.
He held out his arms, palms facing upward. Starting in English, he stuttered. “They look at me, not knowing I got a job. Am I homeless because my hands are dirty? Just because I have a dirty jacket on?”
Angry, he slipped into Spanish and although not everyone in the room could understand him, they waited for him to finish.
“What did he say?” someone asked.
“Basically what he said was we come from all types of diverse backgrounds, but there’s only one stereotype about being homeless. We supposed to challenge that stereotype,” said Spyda. He’s Dominican, from the Bronx, thin, boisterous and well-invested in the discussion Alfredo’s leading.
Many of their orientation meetings are run like a discussion because Picture the Homeless members make the decisions that shape the work of the organization. Currently, 75 percent of their board of directors are or were homeless.
They create coherent campaigns, pooling resources, politicians, and contractors together to find solutions to problems homeless people face.
Solutions for homelessness have often left too many stones unturned, neglecting to address the problems they face like racial disparities, underemployment, police brutality, rapid gentrification, and unaffordable housing.
Picture the Homeless takes on two of those giants—the NYPD and big real estate.
Members of the organization attend “Know Your Rights” training sessions where they learn how to interact with police officer, avoid illegal searches, fight tickets, and protect themselves while panhandling. They’ve also held rallies, holding up posters on the steps of City Hall’s asking for permanent housing and helped draft property bills. They go door-to-door, inviting shelter residents to their meetings.
One historic victory is the Community Safety Act. As an ally of Communities United for Police Reform, Picture the Homeless helped endorse legislation to combat discriminatory policing along with many other organizations like Coalition for the Homeless.
The law consists of four bills. One of those laws, Local Law 71, expanded the categories of individuals protected from discrimination to include age, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, immigration status, disability and housing status.
Jesus Morales, a dark-skinned Hispanic man, told the orientation group that he had been harassed by police more times than he could count. After he spent time in prison on more serious charges, he got out and experienced more of the same.
“They always think I’m up to no good,” he said. “Eighteen years they had me locked away.” The others in the room did not face him. No one was surprised.
“When I got out, they got my close friend. He wasn’t bothering anyone. He just didn’t have a home,” Morales said.
“We oppose the quality of life laws that criminalize homeless people in any form by the city, state and national governments,” Alfredo said. “We’re working to change these laws and policies and challenge the root causes.”
Picture the Homeless has worked to change housing and civil rights policies alongside politicians like New York City’s Public Advocate Letitia James, Speaker of the New York City Council Melissa Mark Viverito and 45th District Council member Jumaane Williams.
Politics isn’t the most common arena homeless people are known to fight in, but members of Picture the Homeless believe it should have been the most obvious place to start. However, Alfredo believes it to be the toughest.
“Politics is a videogame,” he said. “If I know how to play Streetfighter and you play against me, but you don’t know how to play, I’m going to combo the crap out of you… You got to know how politics work.”
Picture the Homeless continues to work on civil rights for the homeless, but they’ve rolled out a new plan to focus on housing, or the lack thereof.
Their latest project, called the Gaining Ground Project, aims to provide permanent affordable housing. It’s their plan to repurpose vacant lots and buildings into homes.
“Imagine that [unaffordable] housing is a rock,” Alfredo said. “The tactics we use are ways to chip away at that rock.”
To start, they conducted a citywide count of vacant buildings and lots that proved that there’s enough vacant space in 1/3 of the city to house 199,000 people.
Now, the campaign has three bills aimed at turning vacant properties into housing for the homeless—Introduction 1034, 1036, and 1039 which are primarily sponsored by Letitia James, Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams respectively.
One bill would require the owner of any real property in the city to register the property as vacant upon it being unoccupied for one year.
The second bill would require the mayor to conduct an annual census of vacant properties and compile the list.
The third would require the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to conduct annual surveys of city, state and federal government-owned properties to identify vacant buildings or lots suitable for affordable housing with a report on recommendations for rezoning and development.
Street homeless people have been known to squat in vacant buildings. The proposals aim to push for vacant properties to become homes, fine the owners if they remain vacant, and put more responsibility on the city to redevelop vacant lots.
Charmel Lucas joined the Gaining Ground committee after Picture the Homeless grabbed her attention during its outreach last summer. She was on her way out of her temporary home when someone handed her a flyer for new member orientation. She’s been coming to their place on 126th and Lexington ever since.
“For me, politically, I want to get across, ‘The money you’re spending on the shelter, you should put people in apartments,’” Lucas said. “We have this gentrification, rezoning pushing everybody out of their apartments. People who have lived here all their lives are being pushed to places they don’t want to go, families are being split up.”