Protests Against Homeless Shelters Should Not Be Personal Attacks

A man claiming to be homeless begs for money on a street corner in central Sydney, Australia July 2, 2016. Picture taken July
A man claiming to be homeless begs for money on a street corner in central Sydney, Australia July 2, 2016. Picture taken July 2, 2016. REUTERS/David Gray

I wholeheartedly support the right to peacefully protest. But when did protests become personal attacks on vulnerable people in need of essential services, or the people who deliver services?

A few weeks ago, nearly 200 protesters took buses across Queens to the doorsteps of a hotel where homeless children were staying. This weekend, many of the same people are traveling down to Brooklyn for the same purpose. They've stood outside for hours yelling and blowing whistles, screaming that these buildings should be shut down if they don't stop housing homeless people. These protests came after another in which they stood outside of Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks' home and outside of the home of an individual who proposed contracting with a nonprofit homeless services provider.

Commissioner Banks' has received calls threatening his safety and the safety of his family. By taking protests that used to be at City Hall to the homes of government officials, homeless families and others, these groups are sidestepping policy discussions at community forums and using intimidation to try to strong arm policy change that would put homeless families and children out into the streets.

There is a time and place for protest demonstrations, and voicing concerns and disapproval with public policy. We have Community Board and City Council hearings for this purpose. We can demonstrate in front of public buildings, write letters, and tweet at officials. But making the discourse personal, by attacking organizational leaders, public officials, and staff who are doing their jobs, carrying out services that are supported by law-- whether they are working in shelters or reproductive health centers-- is morally wrong. It is also wrong to attack the consumers of these services who are exercising their legal right to access shelter and health care.

I have worked in the public arena on social and homeless policy as well as reproductive health care for many years. As a public official working on homeless services in the late 80 and 90s, I helped to site many shelters and supportive housing. We were rarely embraced by communities, but by working with the communities, we heard their concerns and worked with elected officials to ensure fewer burdens on the surrounding areas. In our worst disagreements, there were never personal attacks. Many of these projects even went on to become integrated into the community, serving people much in need and creating little if any harm in the neighborhoods. In fact, today, homeless services exist across the board in New York City's wealthy and working-class communities alike.

As one of NYC's leading providers of sexual and reproductive healthcare at Planned Parenthood of New York City I have witnessed many similar tactics from those opposed to abortion care, including abusive language and threats directed at staff and patients. I regularly witness protestors dehumanizing people who utilize our services, and attempting to physically block patients from entering our buildings. I have watched protesters follow patients to and from the subway, often shouting unspeakable things. This is wrong. We have protesters every day, and I respect their right to demonstrate. I do not condone denying access, verbally attacking individuals, or creating an unsafe environment in any way. Staff and patients must always feel safe. And the people who depend on vital health care services or housing must be treated with respect-- the same respect as you or me.

I believe we, as New Yorkers, are better than this. We are an incredibly diverse city with many points of view demanding to be heard, and that is a good thing! But we must recognize and object when debate crosses the line into harassment or worse. We have many places for constructive voices to be heard and we need to hear each other and be respectful in our dialogue, if we are to be the democracy and civil community we envision.

Joan Malin is the President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of New York City and NYC's former commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services.