Fight for Urban Space


In spite of the fact that humans occupy less than 1% of the total land available on Earth, land scarcity is an omnipresent urban reality. Partly due to urban aggregation behavior and availability of conducive habitable spaces, the fight for space especially in urban areas has been intense. Be it the ever-growing slums in Mumbai or the problem of homeless in New York, the fight is also never fair or equal. Although common sense tells us that economics should be enough to dictate property rights, the point of contention arises at the boundaries of public and private space. As in this case:

A Madison Avenue antiques dealer is suing a group of unidentified homeless people for $1 million, saying that the group has taken up residence outside his posh Upper East Side business, using the sidewalk in front of the shop as a urinal, spittoon and occasional dressing room [source].

Now the problem of homelessness in the United States is something that Americans wish that would simply disappear if they ignore it long enough. Hardly has anyone tried to understand the underlying cause of homelessness. Some term it as a urban truth that we have to live with while others look at it as nuisance that we could zone out of our visibility cone. While not being an expert on homelessness, I understand that in spite of millions of research dollars thrown at it, authorities haven’t been able to agree on a politically and economically feasible solution.

Why not give all homeless a free home? Of course, the United States so busy in resettling whole countries in the Middle East can afford it. But then that might logically lead to free-ridership and creating dependencies in the long run and definitely goes against the American ethos of work hard and you’ll succeed. At the same time, the core cause of homelessness is mental illness. I have seen numerous incidents of previously well-to-do individuals like lawyers, doctors, or businessmen being forced into homelessness due to chronic mental illness and lack of family support. Strangely a count of the homeless in the United States put the figure at an astounding low 744,000. But addressing causes of homelessness or seeking a solution may be beyond the scope of this post and let me return to the topic of discussion brought up by the article cited above.

“My concern is the health of the man,” Mr. Kemp said by phone from his store’s East 10th Street location today. “Sometimes he’s out there in blizzard conditions, and you and I pay taxes in New York City and some of that is to maintain decent shelters. And he should take advantage of
that.”While Mr. Kemp referred to one of the homeless men as a “nice guy,” he said it is time for them to part ways. “It’s nothing against him,” Mr. Kemp said. “I want him to be safe and not to be an obstruction to us.”

If you notice the tone in this paragraph, it goes beyond the usual get-out-of-my-way apathetic attitude that you would normally associate with the landowner. Mr. Kemp may have developed a personal relationship with the homeless man after seeing him around for more than 2 years and although understands the plight of the afflicted man, he is now taking a more practical stand by wishing more for the man. But at the same time, shifting the responsibility onto the city seems like a likely and easy solution.

Has the city or Mr. Kemp tried to understand why does the homeless man not want to go to a homeless shelter? Definitely a warm place however seedy might seem like a better option than living out in a New York winter. Probably the answer might be similar to that of a slum dweller who rather live in the squalor of a drain in Bandra than relocate to Mira Road. The homeless man might be thinking in economic terms as well – why move to a distant homeless shelter and spend time and money commuting when you can in fact live right on Madison Ave.and hope for better alms. After all, he is occupying public space. Mr.Kemp’s ownership ends at the threshold of his store.

But at the same time, a case can be made to the city on the grounds of harm to his property value/business due to presence of the homeless. The city may very well be interested in addressing the issue if it leads to loss of revenue through sales tax. Unfortunately apart for the humanitarian argument, the homeless may have little support.

The larger question here is, where should we move the homeless man to? Should he become someone else’s problem or should we just zone them out of sight? However ignoring a social problem has never solved any.

[article hat tip: Bongo Pondit]

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