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September 30, 2005

At one point, I had some jokes in my comedy act about moving to New York, including a bit about homeless people, and how it would really help if they were cuter, because that’s what matters for endangered animals.

In the process of making that point, I commented “When I first moved to New York, I was really disturbed by all the homeless people everywhere. But then I went through a six-month Empathy Adjustment Period, and now I could give a shit like the rest of you.”

I like making people feel bad for laughing.

Piled in my to-do pile is an article I tore out of Big News, that newspaper that homeless people sell on the subway for $1. Persuaded by the “this gives us a job and keeps us from asking for handouts” speech, I bought one, and was absolutely confounded by an article therein.

The article, by Toby Van Buren, is entitled “A Guide to Homelessness.” Here is the introduction:

When I was suddenly homeless in Mamaroneck, New York, in April, 1996, I knew that I had to quickly get out of there — it’s no place to be homeless!” New York is where I knew I had to go, the homeless capital of the world, where you can blend in with people & get things you need. Even though I had my last $600 or so on me, I wanted to get where I knew I’d eventually have the basic necessities when my money ran out.

Now, I know conservatives are busy ragging on gays and Muslims right now, but during various periods (for instance, the Reagan years), conservatives have been preoccupied with vilifying the poor. Mr. Van Buren — who goes on to talk about living on the streets for five years because he “hated the idea of shelters,” and instead loitering at McDonald’s and Barnes & Noble, and using the internet in public libraries — is just giving them ammunition. He seems to be saying that the more social services we provide, the more marginally poor (and, apparently, lazy) people we will attract to homelessness!

He had only his “last $600,” and his solution was to become homeless? I mean, I know plenty of comedians who get by, non-homelessly, without ever having $600 on them at one time, except perhaps the day before the rent is due. Does it occur to them to live in the park? Park-bench living makes it difficult to keep the corners of one’s headshots from crinkling. So, no, those down to their “last $600″ crash on a friend’s couch, or rent a room in a bad part of town, or move back in with relatives. $600 is not an insubstantial sum of money. I moved to New York with less.

Mr. Van Buren’s article contained a passage about the value of spending time in nature, as public parks are free and “very healing.” So, someone down to his last $600 (in a town that almost certainly offered more reasonably-priced housing than New York) was so attracted to park space and free food and blankets (with no job-hunting requirements) from charitable organizations that he actually elected to move to the city and become indefinitely homeless.

Good job, New York! You have made homelessness aspirational.