Meet the Pier Kids: The Homeless LGBT Youth of New York City
If you’re gay in New York City, you’ve probably been to Christopher Street in the West Village to get drunk or visit the historic-landmark-turned-gay-tourist-trap known as the Stonewall Inn. Chances are that you’ve also seen what director Elegance Bratton calls the “pier kids”—the homeless LGBT youth who congregate at the Christopher Street Pier, looking for everything from food to drugs to potential johns. According to statistics from the National Coalition for the Homeless, 20 percent of homeless youth are gay or transgender (roughly 320,000 to 400,000 young people according to one conservative estimate).
Filmmaker Elegance Bratton was one of these kids for ten years. To teach his family about his experience, he has spent three years filming the lives of three homeless kids—Krystal, DeSean, and Casper—for a documentary called Pier Kids: The Life. Recently, I went to the pier to sit down and talk to Krystal, one the film’s stars, about the movie, the Christopher Street Pier, and being homeless in New York City.
VICE: How did you end up homeless in New York?
Krystal: It was a choice between going back to Las Vegas or staying in Philadelphia. I went to my brother’s house in Philadelphia after being kicked out of the house at 16 by my mother. After I had spent six months there—he had a family, and I didn’t want to impose my lifestyle on his kids—I just went out on my own after that. After two or three years, I came to New York City and found the pier.
Once you arrived in New York, how did you discover the pier and Christopher Street?
I had heard about some of the history about the riots, but I never really knew what the street was. But when I got here, I went to the food stamp office, and they gave me a pamphlet that told me that there was an LGBT community center that had programs. Some of the kids there said they were going to the pier after some of the support groups, so I went with them. It gave me a sense of being back on the west coast, with the water and people just hanging out, playing Spades and talking to friends, just finding some sense of normalcy in a situation that wasn’t normal.
We Interviewed the Revolutionaries Pouring Concrete on London’s ‘Anti-Homeless’ Spikes
LBR—the group the activists belong to—stands for “London Black Revolutionaries,” or the Black Revs for short. LBR’s direct action approach seems to have worked—Tesco has announced that they’ll remove the spikes, claiming they were never meant to deter the homeless anyway.
Gentrification Comes to LA’s Skid Row, and the Homeless Get the Shaft
One of the worst things about being rich is sometimes you’re forced to interact with the poor. When not in a sitting in orthopedic chairs in skyscrapers or on Italian leather sofas in luxury condos, the wealthy are often forced to walk on their own two legs—at street level—as if they were proletarian slobs. And this is upsetting, for on a sidewalk, anyone, even the hideously unprivileged, can look you in the eye.
Developer Geoffrey H. Palmer thinks this is wrong. In 2009, the real estate mogul sued the city of Los Angeles and successfully overturned its requirement that he provide some affordable housing in his massive faux-Italian apartment complexes. But while that kept poor people out, it didn’t do anything to address the problem of the poor people Palmer’s wealthy future tenants would have to deal with in the still-gentrifying downtown area.
So when Palmer started construction on two new buildings, complete with a pool and indoor basketball court, he proposed a pedestrian bridge connecting them to minimize “potential incidents that could occur during the evening hours, when the homeless population is more active in the surrounding area.” In other words, the rich will be able to literally walk over the less fortunate.
A Town in Florida Has Made It Illegal for Homeless People to Cover Themselves with Blankets
There’s a new Tumblr blog making the rounds called Selfies with Homeless People. Apart from the rare picture in which the homeless person is complicit in the act, the majority of the photos are posed next to a sleeping or comatose human. Cue snap after snap of the worst sort of millennial douchery, as fresh-faced youngsters exploit the impoverished, dispossessed members of society for Instagram likes and hashtag LOLs.
Although their young souls may be dog shit, they aren’t actually physically harming homeless people. But don’t worry, because Florida, the internet’s favorite affront to human decency and legal reason, is picking up the slack. Thanks to a “camping” ordinancepassed by the Pensacola City Council last summer, homeless people in the city will becriminalized for, among other things, sleeping outdoors while “adjacent to or inside a tent or sleeping bag, or atop and/or covered by materials such as a bedroll, cardboard, newspapers, or inside some form of temporary shelter.”
That’s right. For the grievous offense of trying to shelter yourself from freezing conditions while homeless, you are considered to be breaking the law. For a state so obsessed with the right to defend oneself, it’s shocking that Floridians wouldn’t extend this right to those confronted by the elements. But why is it illegal to use a blanket during those tricky periods when you don’t live in a house? Are blankets harbingers of infection and death? Possibly. The city council argues that “camping” has a detrimental effect on Pensacola’s “aesthetics, sanitation, public health, and safety of its citizens.”
Los Angeles Police Killed a Homeless Man for Waving a Stick
People are always divided on solutions for homelessness in Los Angeles. You’ll meet some “get a job” kinds of folks just like you’ll meet “take this hand-out” kinds of folks. You’ll also come across “homeless… what? Ew!” types. There’s also the “shoot them in the chest several times” camp, which is how two deputies from the LA County Sheriff’s Department see things.
Last Sunday around 3:30 PM, two deputies from the Sheriff’s Transit Services Bureau pulled over under the 10 freeway and shot a homeless man named Donald five times in the chest. Donald had reportedly approached them waving a wooden stick over his head.
The LA Times
the Department’s press release in their Monday reportage, despite the dozens of witnesses available. The official version of the story goes like this:
“Deputies with the Transit Services Bureau came into contact with the man when he suddenly armed himself with a wooden stick. He then advanced toward the deputies with the wooden stick overhead, prompting them to open fire. Officials said the man, who has not been identified, was taken to a hospital, where he died.”
That’s all the information the Department would provide, citing the investigation as “ongoing,” when I contaced them. They refused to answer my questions about the caliber of the stick or the identities of the deputies involved. They gave me no explanation as to why the deputies eschewed non-lethal means to subdue the allegedly maniacal and stick-wielding homeless man.
Please Don’t #FitchTheHomeless
I’m sure by now you’ve seen that video that Los Angeles-based writer Greg Karber made where he hands out a buch of Abercrombie gear to homeless people. It’s embedded above if you haven’t.
Karber made the video in response to that stuff that Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries said about their “no women’s clothing above a size 10” policy. Essentially, Jefferies only wants “thin and beautiful people” shopping at his stores, because he doesn’t want the “cool kids” to have to endure the horror of seeing a fat person wearing the same outfit as them. I think we can all agree that the most shocking part of Mike’s statements is that they reveal there’s a person out there who thinks that the cool kids are wearing Abercrombie.
Karber handed out A&F clothing to, as far as I can tell from the video, a fairly bewildered homeless population on Los Angeles’s Skid Row. His goal was to “rebrand” Abercrombie & Fitch by putting their clothing not on the cool kids that Mike Jeffries so loves, but on the homeless, who, I guess, are the opposite of cool.
Now, if you only think about it for a few seconds, it would appear that this is a great campaign. Karber wanted to make a point about Abercrombie & Fitch and to “clothe the homeless,” in his words, while doing it. Unfortunately, “Fitch the Homeless,” as Karber dubbed his campaign, is fucking stupid. For one thing, Karber doesn’t appear to ask these people if they want Abercrombie & Fitch clothing, or if he did ask them, he cut those parts from the video for some reason. He just sort of dumps polo shirts and A&F brand tees onto the residents of Skid Row, as if they were pack mules and he were a sherpa venturing into the mountains to deliver striped rugby shirts to a monastery.
A Free Show on Skid Row - Sun Araw Hangs Out with the Homeless and We All Get Happy
Above: Skid Row resident musicians Gary Brown and Marlon Polk join Cameron Stallones, Alex Gray, and Rob Magill for an improvised Sun Araw set with no “Careless Whisper” cover.
Skid Row is not just a hack 80s hair band, or a fabled place of destitution. It’s an actual neighborhood in Los Angeles where real people live. Not that most of LA would know. The Skid Row community is defined by places like Lamp Community Center, an organization that provides services for mentally ill homeless people, but the community is rarely embraced or acknowledged by the city at large except for the occasional human-interest piece in the local papers. It’s because of this lack of visibility that I arranged a meeting with Lamp’s art-project coordinator, Hayk Makhmuryan, in an attempt to help organize a free show on Skid Row featuring the experimental band Sun Araw. My goal was to cheer up some of LA’s forgotten residents, at least for a day.
When I walked up to Lamp on November 6, the day of the show, two men with blues guitars sat cross-legged on the cement, tuning by ear. More than 50 people were hanging around and chatting with friends, relaxing, or staring at the sky as they waited outside. The Lamp is next door to the sole laundromat on Skid Row—the only place for thousands of residents to get their clothes cleaned that doesn’t involve a bathroom sink and a tree branch—and many of those outside were waiting for their laundry to dry.
When I arrived, Hayk told me that it had already been an especially difficult day—fights broke out, cops had been on the scene, Mercury was in retrograde, and everyone had come to the startling realization that there are actually people in this world who voted for Mitt Romney. After I dropped my bag off in a secure location, Marlon, a Lamp Fine Arts participant who opened the show, led me to his electric-piano setup, kissing ladies’ hands as he worked his way through the crowd. His music stand was holding a printout of the lyrics to 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.”
When the members of Sun Araw showed up, Marlon was circling the coffeemaker like a shark. He wanted to get things started; normally, when he performs at other events, he’ll just sit down and play until someone tells him to stop. And that’s just what he did. His band did a sound check, and within minutes Marlon was banging on the keys and we were in the middle of an afternoon jazz freak fest. Women holding bunches of ratty plastic grocery bags peered into the windows, while about ten residents wandered in to take a seat and a young woman picked up a tambourine. She had impeccable rhythm.
I tapped the shoulder of an older guy in front of me, who told me his name was Kenneth Severan. I asked him if this was his first time at Lamp. He said that he got here four days ago—he was transferred from a hospital, where he began to miss playing piano and guitar like he used to. He went on to say that he’d worked as a roadie for a short time, and when Hayk interrupted Marlon for a second to announce that Sun Araw would go on next, Kenneth’s eyes lit up as he reached for my arm: “Oh my God! They named their band after the guy I used to work for!” That’s right, Sun Ra’s roadie was in the audience to watch Sun Araw perform on Skid Row. I don’t think you can confidently say the situation was anything other than supremely weird.
Sun Araw soon took the stage alongside Lamp resident Gary, a painter and percussionist. Frontman Cameron Stallones waited for Gary to bang on a bongo before he turned some synthesizer knobs and the two saxophonists followed his lead. As they played, a woman in the front row with a collapsible shopping cart caught my eye. We both smiled, and she mouthed the words, “Soooo good.”