On Saturday October 5, a man attacked five people, four of whom were homeless, in the Chinatown district of downtown Manhattan in New York. Four people were murdered and a fifth was hospitalized in critical condition. City officials have only confirmed the identities of three of the people so far: Chuen Kwok, aged 83; Nazario Vazquez Villegas, 55; and Anthony Manson, 49*. The suspect was arrested and is currently being held without bail.
These people were murdered in a city where over 61,000 people are homeless and sleeping in shelters on any given night. According to Coalition for the Homeless, this number is now 63 percent higher than it was 10 years ago. Two thirds of that population consists of family units. We don’t even know how many more people are sleeping in public parks, subways or on the streets, though that number is estimated to be in the thousands.
City officials are responding to the Chinatown attack by increasing homeless canvassing operations, mental health outreach, social support services, and police patrols in the neighborhood. But none of those responses address what advocates say is the primary driver of homelessness: lack of affordable housing in New York City.
“Violence against homeless people is very real and potentially life-threatening, and the driving factor is people don’t have homes,” Joe Loonam, housing campaigns coordinator for VOCAL-NY, a harm reduction organization that serves many people without homes, told Filter. “If any of those people in this incident had had a place to go at night with some ownership and autonomy, they would have been much safer than they were on the streets.”
“What we’re seeing in this city today,” he continued, “is the result of decades of policy that has stripped New York of its affordable housing, and the failure of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to meaningfully increase affordable housing in the city and state.”
VOCAL-NY has been organizing its community members to demand that Mayor Bill de Blasio double the amount of affordable housing units set aside for homeless people in his housing plan—from 15,000 to 30,000 units between now and 2026. They are also pushing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to release funding for 20,000 homeless housing units statewide that he promised back in 2016.
The ballooning homeless shelter population over the past 10 years shows the limitations of public policy focused on shelters instead of housing. “Shelters are not a sustainable solution,’ said Loonam. “They cost a lot of money to maintain and they’re not necessarily good places for people to live. They rob folks of a lot of dignity and autonomy. Shelters have only become a ‘permanent solution’ because the housing stock has become so expensive.”
New York’s surging rate of homelessness has coincided with rising costs of housing and rentals citywide. In neighborhoods around the city, construction of affordable housing has slowed while private development of expensive and luxury housing has sped up.
According to data from the New York Comptroller’s Office, median rents for one- and two-bedroom apartments increased 61 percent and 53 percent, respectively, between 2005 and 2017. The average single adult spends more than 37 percent of their income on rent, the Comptroller found. Meanwhile the market for apartments selling for over $25 million has increased 50 percent since 2015.
“Our housing crisis in New York is not new,” Imani Henry, founder of Equality for Flatbush, told Filter. “We have a vibrant housing movement and the strongest rent laws we’ve ever had, and still we have record numbers of homelessness. Housing is operated as a for-profit endeavor, rather than a right for everyone to have.”
“If you’re looking to make money, you’re not thinking about creating affordable housing,” he continued. “So what we have is a process of gentrification that is pushing out people of color, poor and working class folks all over the city.”
Henry described how even systems designed to alleviate the financial burden of housing from low-income people, like the New York City Housing Authority and federal Section 8 housing vouchers, are not working as intended.
“We’re fighting every day across the city because landlords are not accepting Section 8 vouchers from people,” he said. “We’re fighting for heat, hot water and gas—just basic necessities.” And when people are no longer housed, they are exposed to even greater dangers on the city’s streets. Henry described how homeless people in New York face harassment and robbery from police when they try to find safety in public spaces.
But meaningful change, Henry noted, can come when communities unite on this issue. He described a battle currently taking place in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, where some residents and activists are protesting a planned rezoning of the Industry City commercial area to allow for further private development.
At a recent public hearing, City Council member Carlos Menchaca was forced to leave the stage after protesters jeered at his plan to delay the proposal and negotiate conditions with the developers.
“The community chanted, ‘no rezoning, no conditions’,” Henry said. “They took over the meeting and had a speak-out. There were hundreds of people—people of color and migrants—leading this. The building turned off the light in the auditorium, so people took their cell-phones out to continue the meeting. It was bad-ass!” Defeating of the Industry City rezoning plan will depend on the community’s ability to stay mobilized and keep pressure on politicians and other decision-makers.
It remains to be seen if the murder of four homeless people will force Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo to implement more comprehensive solutions to New York’s crises of homelessness and affordable housing. But until then, communities around the city and state can follow the example of activist groups like VOCAL-NY or Equality for Flatbush to put pressure on their governments to do what they have already promised to do.
*As of October 8, NYC police have confirmed the identity of the fourth victim but have not yet released their name until consulting with their family. Vazquez Villegas’ family told NBC that he was not in fact homeless, and instead was waiting in the Chinatown area after missing a bus.
Image of an end homelessness protest from VOCAL-NY via Facebook.