On November 16, 1999 at Madison Avenue and 42nd Street Nicole Barrett, a 27-year-old office worker, had the misfortune to be hit on the head with a brick by a man she had never seen. As Ms. Barrett fell to the ground the assailant fled, and witnesses were quick to testify that he appeared to be both homeless and mentally unstable. With an ever increasing ability to locate fortune in other peoples misfortune, the Giuliani administration seized upon the event to further their recent mobilization against the homeless.
Police began their hunt for the assailant; shelters were searched and on the streets the police used the opportunity to arrest hundred's of people for refusing shelter. Eventually an inmate at Riker's Island told authorities that Paris Drake, who had been arrested on November 23 for a minor drug charge, had been bragging that he was the perpetrator of the assault. On Tuesday November 29, after Mr. Drake had already been released, detectives drove the informant around midtown Manhattan until he was able to point out Mr. Drake at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Mr. Drake was then taken in for questioning.
When Giuliani made his now famous remark that people do not have the right to sleep in the streets, and that "Streets do not exist in civilized cities for the purpose of sleeping there. Bedrooms are for sleeping," the circular nature of his logic became apparent to many New York residents. It did not take a great deal of effort to remember that only one month prior to the attack the Giuliani administration announced plans to enforce work, and other welfare rules, as a condition for staying in shelters. Those who refused to work would be denied shelter. Those who were denied shelter would inevitably end up sleeping on the streets. And here we have come full circle, for those sleeping on the streets would now be arrested for refusing shelter.
When the mayor spoke of the homeless it was strictly a pejorative reference. The word homeless, which is simply describing a fact, i.e. someone does not have a home, is not a moral judgement about who a person is, it merely describes what has happened to them. If there is any moral judgement attached to the term it can only be in reference to a society as rich as ours that does not provide homes for it's population. Homeless was once a term used to rally sympathy for those in just such a predicament. In its current usage the term homeless begins to signify panhandling thugs looking to get over by taking advantage of liberal policy. This was certainly the image conjured up after the assault on Nicole Barrett.
The issue of whether or not someone has the right to sleep on the streets should also be considered a moral judgement only against those who would assert that sleeping on the streets, particularly New York streets in the winter, is some sort of choice. Surely when the mayor cast this little aspersion it was not in reference to Upper East Side residents looking to camp out on the sidewalk for kicks, it was directed at those who have specifically been denied not rights, but fundamental conditions for being a living sensuous being on the planet earth. But for the mayor, not only are streets not for sleeping, he asserts that really the only place one has a right to sleep in is the bedroom. As we will see Mayor Giuliani is a stickler for definitions, and so by his own admission that bedrooms are the only place to sleep we have to assume that the shelter system is about o be replaced my a prodigious bedroom program.
Mr. Drake never confessed to the crime during the interrogation but witnesses to the attack were brought in to look at a police line-up and one of them identified Mr. Drake as the assailant. Mr. Drake's criminal record revealed that he had a long history of arrests but there was no evidence that he was one of the 330,000 people that passed through the shelter system in the last decade (police found that Mr. Drake had been living with his girlfriend until at least three days prior to the assault), nor did he have any history of psychiatric treatment. If Mr. Drake was not homeless this would call into question the exigency expressed by the mayor for getting the homeless off the streets. Obdurate to reason, the mayor responded to the allegations that Mr. Drake was in fact not homeless, saying that Drake "..was living at Port Authority bus depot and panhandling. He fits every description of homelessness. The fact is, he was homeless." This petty quibbling over labels rang hollow once again.
Whether or not Drake is himself a homeless man is irrelevant to the Mayor's policies regarding aid and shelter for the homeless. His pious fulmination would make it seem that all actions taken against the homeless were contingent on Drake's status, and it would further imply that if Drake was not in fact homeless then the mayor would have to concede that the recent actions were unjustified.