Chinatown tenants today began a hunger strike in an ongoing fight for their homes.
It’s the latest development in a two-year battle between the tenants of 85 Bowery and their landlord, Joseph Betesh.
Two weeks ago, the Department of Housing and Preservation issued a vacate order for the 75 people living at 85 Bowery.
City officials deemed the building uninhabitable because of an unsafe central staircase. They required Betesh to make repairs before the tenants would be allowed back in.
Meanwhile, tenants have been living in nearby hotels and shelters because Betesh missed the city’s deadline to complete the repairs.
Tenants say that Betesh is using the lack of repairs as a tactic to force them out and raise the rent with new tenants.
E-Joo Young was at home with her grandchildren, a four-year-old and a newborn baby, when she was forced out of her apartment.
“I’ve lived in the building for twenty-some years, but they kicked us out in two hours,” she said.
Joe Betesh, the owner of 85 Bowery, said in a statement, “Our team is working diligently each day to repair and replace the severely damaged infrastructure of 85 Bowery and make the building safe for habitation.”
The strike began on the eve of the Chinese New Year, which starts on February 16.
Sarah Ahn, an organizer with the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, said the holiday focuses on the importance of family and people’s homes.
“The new year for the tenants is very symbolic,” she said. “It has a lot to do with home.”
Without access to their apartments, the tenants can’t use their ancestral shrines to properly celebrate the new year.
“We are supposed to be celebrating the lunar new year,” said E-Joo Young. “Instead we are out on the street.”
Six tenants say they will continue the hunger strike until the city pressures Betesh to make the required repairs and allows the tenants back in their homes.
Volunteers were split into groups of three to five individuals. They received training on how to approach individuals they encountered in their survey area before heading out for the night. Photo by Kristen Torres.
More than 4,000 volunteers took to the streets last night to tally up the city’s homeless population.
They were taking part in a yearly count dubbed the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE), which is made mandatory by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Volunteers gathered at over 20 sites across the city’s five boroughs last night to receive training before canvassing their assigned blocks. Around 100 of them crammed into the cafeteria of a public school in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood at 10 p.m.
“You have come out of your homes to help people who don’t have a home to go to tonight,” said Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Heminia Palacio. “You’ve come out to give all of us New Yorkers the hope that we can help our neighbors — and that we can continue to bring people in off the streets.”
Volunteers milled in and out of the cafeteria, eating donuts and filling out paperwork. Sitting at plastic tables in their groups for the night, team captains led discussions on how the night would go.
In groups of three to five people, HOPE volunteers are assigned a certain amount of blocks to canvass in one of the city’s five boroughs. They spend roughly four hours — from midnight to 4 a.m. — asking everyone they encounter if they have a place to sleep that night.
Jesse Shiffman-Ackerman volunteered for this year’s count. It was his seventh year participating.
“We live in New York City, and, I mean, I’ve been here my whole life and seen homeless people all around me,” Shiffman-Ackerman said. “They need real help. That’s why I keep coming back.”
Shiffman-Ackerman said he’s typically assigned to canvass Penn Station, which also includes monitoring the trains.
“There’s always plenty of people to talk to,” he said. “And with a cup a coffee and enough people around to question, it’s pretty easy to keep up the motivation over the course of four hours.”
As a result of last year’s count, 1,500 New Yorkers were taken off the streets and remain off the streets, according to Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks.
“In the past, the surveys focus was on bringing someone out of the cold for a night,” Banks said. “But we’ve shifted our goals and now we’re looking for long-term solutions for these people to keep them off the street permanently.”
There are currently 2,000 known unsheltered individuals on the city’s by-name list, which keeps track of homeless individuals as they transition off the streets, according to Banks.
“The survey enables us to know where people are and that helps us engage them and bring them off the streets,” Banks said. “It can take anywhere from one to five months to find someone permanent housing, and this survey helps us make sure we’re not missing anyone.”
Banks said the nationwide survey also gives insight into the forces driving homelessness in the city.
“In this city, rents went up almost 19 percent last year, while income went up less than 5 percent,” Banks said. “That’s obviously driving homelessness in our city. We have to pay attention to those indicators.”
Ricardo Aca, on the left in blue, before he speaks to the crowd outside the Federal Building in downtown New York City. Photo by Farnoush Amiri
Ricardo Aca swayed nervously behind a cluster of microphones before he disclosed to the group of protesters, counter-protesters and press that he was a DREAMer, a status that he could lose in 10 months if congressional action isn’t taken. Aca was speaking at a rally in downtown New York City today in support of a clean DREAM Act, as the third and ultimately final day of the government shutdown began.
Six years ago, Aca was an undocumented immigrant working as a busboy at the Trump SoHo Hotel. Today, he has legal status and an associates degree in commercial photography. He is working towards a bachelors in international affairs at Baruch College. But with less than a year of certainty left and with Congress using DACA recipients as a leverage between party lines, Aca has decided to use his voice as his defense.
“We are here today because we condemn Donald Trump and congressional Republican leaders who have forced a government shutdown by insisting on Trump’s racist border wall and other anti-immigration policies,” Aca said.
Approximately nine hours after the rally, President Trump signed a bill that would reopen the government, funding it for the next three weeks and simultaneously putting a delay on legislative action for the DREAMers. This uncertainty has created a limbo for most recipients of the program and also puts those who are close to their renewal period ending at risk for deportation, which is why many of them have laid low in recent months. But not Aca, who interns at Make the Road New York, a public advocacy group for immigrant communities.
“Because if I don’t fight for myself then nobody is going to do it for me. I need to fight not only for myself but also for my parents who have fought for me my entire life,” Aca said. “They deserve dignity and justice and so do those 11 million undocumented immigrants, and if I don’t do that nobody else is going to do it for me.”
Aca is one of the nearly 800,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that was devised by the Obama administration in 2012 to allow for undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to defer deportation.
Under the current administration, the program has been used as leverage against the Democrats in exchange for reinforcing stricter immigration laws, ultimately leading to the government shutting down on Jan. 19.
“This is where I consider my home. I pay taxes over here,” Aca said. “This is where I go to school. This is where my family and my friends are and so for congress not to be able to come up with a fix that is more permanent is very upsetting.”
The 27-year-old came to the U.S. from Puebla, Mexico, when he was 14 years old. Aca’s mom had pursued legal routes to come to the country but when those failed she found a job as a seamstress in a factory in New York and later arranged for Aca and his younger sister to cross the border through Arizona.
“(Congress) doesn’t care about people of color or immigrants who come to this country to work hard,” said LaShonda Lawson, a speaker at the rally who works as a security guard at the Statue of Liberty. “America should stand for freedom and inclusiveness. That is what I think about every day when I go to work. I see hundreds of people come to the Statue of Liberty because she is a symbol of freedom.”
Most DACA recipients file for their renewal every two years in pursuit of that freedom. And at Monday’s rally, Aca shared what he and his fellow DREAMers have been doing since President Trump rescinded the program in September 2017.
“Instead of enjoying my life I have been constantly in the streets having to have my voice be heard because I know I deserve to be here,” Aca said. “This (amendment in the Senate) is only a temporary fix on a larger issue.”
Currently, the state of New York contains the third largest population of DREAMers, which has created a need for public officials and advocates to hold rallies, hearings and conferences in light of the recent attacks to the program. One of those officials leading the fight for young people like Aca is Carlos Menchaca, who serves as the city’s Chair of the Committee on Immigration.
“We are in front of Federal Plaza in New York City where New Yorkers from every corner of this city, like Ricardo, are saying one thing clearly: we want a DREAM Act now,” Menchaca said.
A group of NYC council members knelt on the steps of City Hall yesterday. The action was a show of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who are protesting police brutality and racial injustice in America. Photo by Farnoush Amiri
Donning a black “IAmWithKap” t-shirt under a striped fitted blazer while holding up a red San Francisco 49ers jersey with Colin Kaepernick’s name and number inscribed on the back, Councilman Jumaane D. Williams (D-Brooklyn) led a group of council members in a “Kneel In” on the steps of City Hall yesterday morning, just days after President Trump called out demonstrations in the NFL.
The group of about 15 city officials joined together to display unity against the president’s tweets, which called the action of kneeling during the presentation of the National Anthem a “disrespect of our country,” and suggested that the NFL owners should get any “son of a bitch,” who doesn’t stand off the field.
“This here today was a protest,” council member Inez Barron (D-Brooklyn) said. “It was perhaps silent but it speaks volume in the action we are taking.”
This form of protest began back in 2016, when Kaepernick chose to kneel during the National Anthem in protest of the recent rise of police brutality against African-Americans in the US. The now free agent became the league’s unofficial symbol for the cause for police reform and civil rights for minorities.
“Protesting is probably the most American thing that one can do,” Williams said. “It is in fact the only thing that has ever propelled this country to move forward. Everything we have enjoyed from this country has come from protesting.”
The city officials demonstrating the right to protest also brought light to the lack of attention the president is directing toward Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. They said his focus on NFL players’ right to protest is a distraction from more pressing concerns. One council member even alluded to racism being the reason for the president’s hesitation to devote more attention to the Caribbean island.
“The struggle for racial justice, which we are honoring by taking a knee today, is not narrowing about policing because obviously we have systematic racism in our housing, segregation in schooling and now even in our hurricane relief response,” Councilman Brett Lander (D-Brooklyn) said.
Lander, along with Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Queens,) were just a few of the leaders who showed support for their minority colleagues whose cause they said they are able to empathize with.
“I stand as an ally. Obviously I am not a person of color, but I feel that white people, myself included, need to stand up for this cause and need to remember how it all started, which is an action against police brutality and the experience that people of color experience, oftentimes at the hands of police,” Dromm said to the crowd outside City Hall.
Andy King (D-Bronx,) also believes that the president and others who are not directly affected have an obligation to the ones who are.
“I will ask Donald Trump, live a day in a black man’s shoes, live a day in a Hispanic’s shoes, you’ll have different perspective of the world because you were born with a spoon in your mouth,” King said.
For African American councilmembers, this cause is a personal one, but they know that not unlike the dozens of other civil rights marches and causes that have occurred in this country, this one will also begin and end with the act of nonviolent protest.
“When this started months ago, many of us made it clear that this was not about the flag, this is not about patriotism,” Williams said. “This is about a system of supremacy, a system of oppressive policy that has been around a long time, and many people have tried to use patriotism to stop people from protesting and we’ve said that that will not last.”