Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Teun Voeten on "Tunnel People"

I rushed from work to Pat's house to Sticky Fingers where I gulped down a salad with mock pepper steak and ginger miso dressing. No friend was working there last night. Then, Pat and I jumped in my car and scrambled to the lecture by Teun Voeten at La Casa.

Teun Voeten is a journalist and photographer from the Netherlands who wrote a book called "Tunnel People." I've started, but not finished, reading it. In the mid-1990s, he spent five months living in the Amtrak railroad tunnels below New York City with the "tunnel dwellers." He said that he originally intended to do an objective, anthropological study, but ended up connecting and befriending the people he met in the dark, rat-infested underground. Voeten spoke with almost a nostalgic pride about his acceptance by the "tunnel community."

Ultimately, New York relocated the tunnel people. Project Renewal offered rehab, as well as vocational and educational programs. And New York stepped in with Section 8 housing. Voeten returned to subterranean Manhattan recently with some of his friends from the tunnel and found the place "eerily empty." So, his book may fall into the category of history, but gives a face to people who cannot afford housing.

Voeten said that he'd spoken to some college students in Virginia earlier in the day and that he was unsettled that none of them had heard of Spike Lee. He feels like young people in America are harder on people who are poor and addicted to cocaine or crack. He insists that business people on Wall Street use tons of cocaine, but the general public in America excuses them because of their wealth. He said that addiction is more understandable for the mentally ill or people without love or professional goals. He realizes crack may consume those in poverty and prevent them from rebuilding their lives, but he is angry that people judge them so harshly while the Wall Street tycoons retain respect.

While conceding that some of the tunnel people had mental health issues, Voeten focused on the ingenuity and independence of the dwellers. Bernard, a middle-aged veteran of the tunnels, kept spices and food sealed in metal boxes to prevent the rats from contaminating them. Every day, he rigorously collected cans for recycling money. Voeten still labels Bernard a "close friend." Voeten offhandedly added that Bernard sometimes fed cats, which frustrated several tunnel dwellers who wanted their cats to eat only tunnel rats. According to Voeten, many of the dwellers kept cats.

Voeten explained that the tunnel people regarded the tunnels as their homes. He said that many of them did not consider themselves homeless, because they had a place to go. How could they be vagrants if they slept in the same spot every night? They followed routines in the same neighborhoods, among the same people. Voeten said that some of the tunnel dwellers looked down their noses at the more nomadic and traditional homeless. The Tunnel dwellers considered themselves, according to Voeten, "the creme-de-la-creme of the displaced."

The lecture lasted for about an hour and a half. During the question-and-answer period, a disheveled, white man with a long, unkempt beard who was probably in his 50s stood up. He shouted at Voeten, asking him how how he felt about the room being filled with white people. The man flung his hands around, pointed at Mark Anderson from Positive Force who was leaning against a wall, and yelled: "And him. And him." Voeten responded that the lecture was open to the public and that he was just happy that some people showed up to listen to him. The man muttered about over-educated, white people and, then, added with a toothless smile that he liked listening because it was free, but was hoping for a movie instead. Then, he left. A woman complimented Voeten on his photography. Voeten seemed genuine and flattered that anyone was listening to him.

I'm still working through how I feel about Voeten's take on the tunnel people. As a public defender, I interact with so many clients with mental health issues. I often act partially as a social worker and try to help my homeless clients. I, of course, see them as real people with backstories. I worry, though, because living on the streets can jeopardize their safety, health, and sanity. A few years ago, I found a group home willing to take in my schizophrenic, homeless client. He refused to go, because he felt like I was sending him to a cult. He preferred to stay in the jail. It's important to feel like you have some control over your life. I recognize that moving into a group home or shelter may make an individual feel like s/he is giving up control and losing independence. Maybe even losing autonomy... But the insecurity of homelessness...

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