Book Review: Tunnel People

Don’t call them homeless, or worse mole people. In the 1990s the mole people were residents of the subway tunnels, deep below Grand Central. The tunnel people were a relatively better-off and closer-knit community in the Amtrak tunnel beneath Riverside Park, on the Upper West Side of New York City. Journalist Teun Voeten spent five months living in that tunnel, interviewing the residents, their adversaries in the police, their allies in the nonprofit and HUD agencies, and so on while writing Tunnel People.
I read most of the book while riding BART between Oakland and San Francisco.

In this new edition, Tunnel People cautions that its stories don’t always apply directly the present day. Yet the stories are real and many of the problems remain. During Voeten’s time more people were going into homeless shelters and into the tunnels due to crack cocaine, AIDS, missing documentation, and changes in government services. He found himself feeling more comfortable in the tunnel community than in his neighborhood “up top” and across the city in Brooklyn.

The AP has old video of the tunnel — mostly silent with a few interviews.

Voeten does his research to avoid romanticizing or pitying his neighbors. He collects cans. He backs up a friend’s fibs to a social worker. And yes, he smokes crack.
The thing that I understand better now is can recycling. Can and bottle deposits were a fairly new concept — New York started in the mid-1980s. Collecting cans is profitable, when done right. Voeten’s closest contact in the tunnel, Bernard, shows him the ropes. Aimlessly walking across the city yields too few viable, uncrushed cans. In the early morning on trash day, Bernard meets with building supers and carries their recycling to the curb. The cans are already separated out for him, and the super gives him a tip for the work. Bottles are too heavy. Paper recycling is a profit center for the city, so they crack down on the vans who collect paper on the side.

After supermarkets added more restrictions on homeless recyclers, a nonprofit called WeCan opened a center which could make its own recycling deals and accommodate the collectors. They struggled to get canneries and bottlers to keep up with the deposits as required by law. Warehouses filled up and lawyers got involved, just to keep cans moving along.
As best as I can tell, WeCan exists today as SureWeCan in Brooklyn.

A man rolled a bin full of cans next to me on BART, a thick gray plastic container on wheels. I wondered about canning in present-day San Francisco. Next time I see a can-collector, I will have to ask. I quickly decided that this guy is a BART employee, and said nothing as he got out at Embarcadero.
It turns out that recycling is an ongoing controversy between Safeway and the state —big supermarkets are required to provide recycling services unless they are within a half-mile of a recycling center. Only four are left in San Francisco:

During weekend and twilight hours when recycling centers aren’t open, people known as “two-for-oners” will accept a bag of cans at half their worth. It’s the payday loan of the canning world — you get cash now, and the banker makes a hefty profit. Saving enough money to become a two-for-oner was a way out of the poverty, much more profitable than selling artwork and doing odd jobs. For others it was a quick way to get cash, and that money was often spent on gambling. Or crack.

Crack cocaine is a major part of this story. Whether to give money to homeless people or not, whether shelters and housing programs could work, whether jobs and reforms like Workfare could ever be effective —in the early 1990s, all of these questions were part of the War on Drugs. Even in the tunnel, there’s discussion about who’s addicted, who had a habit, what to tell nosy reporters. Bernard talks openly about smoking and avoiding turning it into an addiction, in a narrative designed to intrigue the media. Others in the tunnel denied that they used drugs of any kind, fearing that they would be paid less for interviews.

My mom calls me while I’m crossing a supermarket parking lot. An older woman catches my attention and asks $2 for the bus. She’s adding more and more details about losing her job at a preschool.
I interrupt with, “sorry, I can’t help you.”
“Yes you can.” She says, “You could give me money.”

As journalist and author, Voeten is aware of his role and the role of the media in general. It’s obvious that visiting camera crews focus on the novelty of the tunnel and underground life. The media does good by shaming HUD, by making the government do more to resettle the tunnel people. Other books such as Mole People, published before Voeten’s account, are riddled with sensational stories and geographic impossibilities, stories of thousands of people born and dying miles under New York.
In accurate publications, the media still must decide who to interview. In Voeten’s experience, most homeless that he encountered were men struggling with drugs, mental illness, and social exclusion. The media could easily find one of these men, and they could easily find a family who’d been evicted their home. Both were in crisis, both were real and too common in the city. But it was in the interest of the social workers and the media to find people whose stories seemed more relatable and fixable. From this narrative came a disturbing-if-true statistic: the average American was two missed paychecks away from homelessness.

I think about it sometimes; maybe we all do. What if something happened with my credit card and my phone at the same time? What if I traveled somewhere unfamiliar and I couldn’t easily get back home?
One time I was in Santa Clara for Startup School. My mind was somewhere else, caught up in thoughts about a girl and starting a new job in Chicago. So I ended up on the right street but outside the wrong address, miles from where I had meant to be, at 1:30 or 2am. I wasn’t sure if I would have cash for the bus.
The 22 bus came and was packed with sleepers. When we stopped, the man next to me hit his head on the seat, then went back to sleep. I closed my eyes, too.
The New York Times has a video about the bus:

The tunnel community grew organically. The first people were there for decades. Then there was a kid running away from home, a fugitive from the law, a man who got into a fistfight at work and quickly lost everything. They were freezing on benches in Riverside Park, until someone invited them down below. This was the most fearful part for me — the draw of the tunnel to fully separate from and reject an unfair society.

A few holdouts were in the tunnel when Voeten returned in the 2000s, undeterred by Amtrak police patrolling the tunnel. But everyone he’d known had left, many with government assistance. It turned out that homeland security was a compelling case to give the tunnel people some housing.

The tech community doesn’t do enough about homelessness. It doesn’t do anything. That guy who offered to teach a homeless guy to code is a hero. Or is that guy an idiot? The money from that is in a bank account and Leo, the student, will never get it.
The tech community is causing the housing crisis. I am causing the crisis by using Airbnb short-term instead of leasing. I might be part of something that the book calls “couch people.” Or something that the whole world calls “afraid of commitment.”

Asking businessmen or celebrities or politicians to solve the housing crisis is going to fail, because bigshots with big ideas will call for sweeping visions of fusion centers or container houses or public works programs. It’ll be similar to the shiny circle going up as the new Apple headquarters. Will anyone put a billion dollars into years surveying homeless people for mental health needs, or helping people at needle exchanges find an accepting landlord, or training first-time offenders and placing them in good jobs, or redesigning shelters and warming centers? Consistently only about half of homeless people are covered by the shelter system, and many of Voeten’s interviewees complained about lost belongings and poor food. But how do you redesign and upgrade your resources when everyone’s already stretched thin?

A little learning is a dangerous thing. If someone says, let’s do this or that to fix San Francisco, I’d be inclined to believe them before me.
For now I put my copy of Tunnel People on the bookshelf at Code for America and resolve to spend more time with my eyes open.