Of Many Things

It was barely after 6 a.m. on a Thursday, but already lines had formed at the Greyhound gates on the lower level of the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City. On the longest linefor the 7 a.m. bus to Washingtona baby was crying in its mother’s arms. I was in a nearby line for the bus to Baltimore, where I would attend a conference on the punitive effects of the 1996 immigration law.

Next to me, a heavy-set woman in her 30’s was seated on the floor, her coat spread over her lap and an open bottle of Sprite on top of her suitcase. You ain’t supposed to smoke in here! she called over to another woman standing by a Snapple machine on the opposite wall.

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Poorly dressed and somewhat disheveled, the other woman seemed to pay no attention, but gradually drifted away and disappeared among the travelers.

But all was not movement. Stretched out on the floor by a pillar, a bag that might have held his possessions at his feet, a middle-aged man was sound asleep, with one of his shoes serving as a pillow.

The Port Authority bus terminal covers two city blocks. It has traditionally provided a refuge of sorts to homeless men and women. The sleeping man and the woman who had been smoking may well have been among them. The terminal’s cavernous spaces on several levels, its pillars and stairways, make it possible to remain under its roof relatively unnoticed for many hours.

New York’s mayor, however, Rudolf Giuliani, does not like homeless people, and through his ever-stricter enforcement of so-called quality of life crimes, he has made their already tenuous existence even more precarious. Because of a November incident involving an assault by a drifter, at night police now rout homeless people from doorways where they sleep, even charging those who do not move on with disorderly conduct; over 100 have been jailed.

At that hour, at least, I did not see any police moving through, only a Port Authority maintenance worker in a red mesh vest pushing a broom across the terrazzo floor: He did not seem the type to force homeless men and women out into the wintry, still-dark morning.

My neighbor in the line told me that she was on her way from Maine to Altoona, Pa. Because of a bus delay on her way from Maine to New York, she had missed the connecting bus to Baltimore, her transfer point for Pennsylvania. My family is going to pick me up in Altoona, and then we’ll drive to Colporte, where they live, she said. Something about her manner and way of speaking suggested that she may have been mildly developmentally disabled.

The door leading out to our bus opened just at 7, and we were soon under way. The woman from Maine, now across the aisle from me, fell asleep immediately. Most others followed suit as we barreled out onto the New Jersey Turnpike from the Lincoln Tunnel.

We arrived in Baltimore shortly after 11. Its terminal could easily fit into a corner of the Port Authority’s space, and its small size would have made it impossible for homeless people to remain unnoticed for long. Baltimore friends who work with poor people have told me that the anti-homeless mood there, if not quite so harsh as in New York, is nonetheless very evident. The city council is about to pass an ordinance forbidding urban camping; sleeping on city streets or park benches are to be criminal offenses. Other cities have done the same.

The immigration conference focused on the increased use of mandatory detention and expedited removal by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. On the way back to New York, I could not help but reflect that, unlike the woman whose family had met her in Altoona, immigrants and homeless people share the heavy burden of being unwanted. In different ways, both are now subject to expedited removal and detention, and thus have become two more of America’s criminalized populations.

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