With Pope Francis in New York, focus turns to shortcomings in de Blasio administration policies


Before Pope Francis arrived in New York on Thursday, the de Blasio administration ordered the New York Police Department to once again clear a homeless encampment on 125th Street in Spanish Harlem.

The encampment, near the Metro North station at Harlem–125th Street, had been raided before, but the clearing in advance of Pope Francis' arrival, carried out on Wednesday, was viewed as sweeping some of New York's social and economic problems under the political rug, given that Pope Francis was scheduled to visit a Catholic school a few blocks from the site of the encampment.

For months, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) has faced criticisms over the failure of his administration to adequately provide shelter and essential social and healthcare services to the homeless, even in the face of a record spike in the number of people, who have no permanent place to call home.  Some of the loudest criticisms have come from conservative, big business leaders, who are aiming to deliberately portray the mayor as inept at handling basic municipal functions, like providing shelter to the homeless, as represented by the callous propaganda published by The New York Post, such as in one recent article calling the Harlem encampment a hobo village and referring to the homeless as vagrants, language with negative connotations no longer used to describe the victims of economic displacement. 

However, on the advocacy side, some nonprofit groups tasked with providing services and improving government response are hesitant to roll up political responsibility directly to Mayor de Blasio, out of fear of adding fuel to the fire being set by conservative critics, hesitancy that perpetuates economic, social, and legal disparities amongst communities most in need.  One of the rare examples of autonomous political advocacy in New York are some police reform activists, notably organised under one group, New Yorkers Against Bratton, whose members are sufficiently independent of the machine politics governing activism in New York to criticise Mayor de Blasio without fear or favor for his regressive policies and those of his race-baiting police commissioner, William Bratton.

The clearing of the Harlem encampment was reported in an article published by the online news Web site, Think Progress.

Besides the homeless, low-income and minority communities have also endured municipal policies that many decry as unjust, such as the NYPD's Broken Windows approach to policing, which has been described in the media as neoconservative and discriminatory, one in a string of  contradictions to Mayor de Blasio's promise of ending "A Tale of Two Cities" in New York.

In an article published by The New York Times, Mayor de Blasio was vaguely depicted as more interested in riding on the coattails of the popular Catholic pope during his high-profile visit to New York as a way to possibly, said some, make voters ignore his mixed record at City Hall and his sagging approval ratings following a very public spat with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York).

“Pope Francis is calling us all to action,” Mayor de Blasio said, in part, at a press conference on Wednesday, trying to once again frame his administration in accordance with a message of social and economic justice, similar to one that Pope Francis has embraced to wide global acclaim.

Mayor  Bill de Blasio , center, with  Cardinal Timothy Dolan , right, at a press conference announcing an initiative to provide new, incremental emergency housing for the homeless.  Source :  New York City Mayor's Office/YouTube (Public Domain)

Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, right, at a press conference announcing an initiative to provide new, incremental emergency housing for the homeless.  Source :  New York City Mayor's Office/YouTube (Public Domain)

Mayor de Blasio stood with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the Archdiocese of New York, at a press conference to announce further details about a new faith-based initiative to provide 500 new beds for the homeless.  An estimated 56,000 people are currently relying on city shelters for housing with an additional 3,400 choosing to sleep outdoors without shelter.  Over the course of the year, approximately 120,000 different New Yorkers have relied on the city shelter system for emergency housing, according to statistics compiled and published by the Bowery Mission.  

The new 500 beds will be insufficient to address the large number of people without shelter and, more directly, fails to get to the root causes of homelessness, which include the affordable housing crisis in New York City, the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, the austerity cuts by the government to healthcare and social services, and other causes, such as discrimination faced by LGBT youth.  Since taking office, for example, Mayor de Blasio has ignored a federal class action lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Society seeking to force New York City to provide shelter to all youths, as required by law.  The de Blasio administration, reeling from political pressure from conservative, big business interests, has abandoned hopes of raising property taxes, as it once sought, in order to augment resources for its lofty social policies, leaving the administration scrambling for a piecemeal approach to providing nominal shelter for the homeless, including embracing a limited plan with conservative religious leaders.

In the past, Cardinal Dolan has been a vocal critic of the enactment of marriage equality in New York and the landmark Supreme Court cases on marriage equality, inconsistencies with lay progressive politics that are being, too, swept under the rug under the expediency of papal politics.

Notwithstanding Mayor de Blasio's efforts to weave "morality with policy in a way that is rare in municipal politics," as The New York Times described, lingering concerns were expressed by some media outlets about a lack of integrity in Mayor de Blasio's administration.

On Thursday morning, POLITICO New York published a scathing report, already previously reported by other news outlets, including by Progress Queens, noting that Mayor de Blasio's nonprofit lobbying arm of City Hall, known as the Campaign for One New York, apparently sells indulgences to big business interests in exchange for large, unregulated political contributions.