April 2021 Alumni Spotlight
Alumna and Senior Policy Analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, Jacquelyn Simone is an advocate for the homeless in New York City. In this spotlight, she discusses the challenges of the pandemic on the homelessness crisis, the obstacles of hostile architecture and over-policing, the psychology behind how we think of the homeless, and more.
How have you made use of the skills you learned at the Marxe School to help advocate for homeless New Yorkers during the pandemic?
New York City was already facing a historic homelessness crisis prior to the pandemic, but the past year has posed a host of new challenges for New Yorkers without homes. Homeless people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 — in congregate shelters or on the streets, it is difficult to follow basic public health guidance like social distancing and washing your hands. It has been critically important to ensure elected officials and members of the public understand the risks facing homeless New Yorkers and act swiftly to protect them. The Marxe School gave me the skills to analyze and effectively communicate the disproportionate toll the pandemic has had on homeless New Yorkers in a chaotic time. Most importantly, I have shared the lessons and skills I learned at the Marxe School with people who are experiencing homelessness, to demystify government systems and empower them to speak out about their firsthand experiences through op-eds, public testimony, and engaging with elected officials.
Are there any environments or features in New York City that are particularly hostile to the homeless? Is it possible to reduce or eliminate any to better accommodate the homeless while keeping public spaces safe?
Hostile architecture and over-policing are designed to make allegedly public spaces less welcoming to members of the public who happen to be without homes. Most homeless people in New York City reside in shelters rather than on the streets or in the transit system, and in fact many people who are essential workers are homeless due to the skyrocketing cost of housing in the city. Meanwhile, the several thousand New Yorkers who do sleep in the transit system or on the streets often encounter barriers designed to make their lives as uncomfortable as possible — from bars on benches to prevent people from lying down, to the nightly closure of the subways, and much more. These features and policies treat witnessing homelessness as an inconvenience for people who are fortunate enough to have homes, rather than recognizing the trauma of homelessness for the people who are actually living without shelter. If we want to reduce the number of people sleeping on the trains and on the streets, we need to give them a better, safer option by offering them permanent housing. Otherwise, we are just moving the problem out of sight instead of addressing the root causes of homelessness.
Can you talk a bit about the psychology of how we typically think of the homeless and how that translates to the sociology of how we treat them?
There is a common tendency to pathologize poverty, or assume that someone is homeless due to individual mistakes or characteristics. In reality, homelessness is a manifestation of intersecting systems of oppression that have made some people — disproportionately people of color — more likely to fall through our tattered social safety net. Viewing poverty and homelessness as the result of personal failings allows the rest of us to ignore the issue and our own role in perpetuating and benefiting from unjust systems. But if we recognize the systemic drivers of homelessness, we can marshal the political will and resources to actually do something about it — by investing in permanent, affordable housing as a basic human right and by removing barriers to support services.
What are the biggest barriers to getting the homeless into – and keeping them in shelters?
New York City has a right to shelter, which is an essential component of the safety net. However, many homeless New Yorkers avoid the shelter system for rational reasons, such as not feeling safe in dorm-style facilities especially during the pandemic. It is important that we look at what services we are currently offering people, and listening to what they actually want and need. For example, many people who are not interested in going to a congregate shelter would gladly accept a single-occupancy hotel room where they can have more privacy and practice social distancing, but this option is not being offered universally to everyone on the streets. Ultimately, people want a home of their own, but the shortage of truly affordable housing and unnecessary bureaucratic barriers in accessing housing resources have left people on the streets. We must adopt a true housing first model, in which we offer everyone the dignity and stability of permanent housing along with support services as needed.
What got you interested in this human issue?
I moved to New York City in 2011 and worked as a journalist for a few years, but I was shocked and heartbroken by the scale of homelessness I saw around the city. I refused to accept that such a wealthy city, in such a wealthy country, would leave thousands of people without the basic necessity of housing. I started volunteering with various charities in my spare time and ultimately decided to make a career change to work on addressing homelessness. The Marxe School gave me the skills I need to be an effective advocate for people experiencing homelessness. We cannot just accept or become inured to the suffering of our neighbors — we need to fight for a better, more equitable society.