Public-Private Governance of Homelessness in the 1980s

Friday, January 4, 2019: 3:30 PM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Benjamin Holtzman, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
The rapid growth in homelessness in the 1980s posed one of the greatest social and political challenges for metropolitan America. This paper traces the plight of the homeless who resided in New York City’s public spaces – especially in its subways and major transportation centers – through two major developments of the 1980s. The first was the rising value of these spaces, which finally began to receive infusions of public and private capital after years of neglect. To many among the city’s political and economic elite, homeless bodies represented literal physical barriers to the resurgent economic revitalization of these spaces. The second was the growing influence of the private sector in the governance of these spaces and their surrounding streets, particularly through public-private partnerships and Business Improvement Districts (which allowed property owners to enact and control funds from a mandatory tax imposed within a designated area).

This paper argues that private sector actors used their increasingly prominent role in shaping these spaces and coordinated their efforts with the quasi-public officials that controlled transportation systems to implement the kinds of policies municipal officials had seemed unable to, given the constraints of the law and public opinion. Private sector groups especially emphasized the need for and enactment of increasingly punitive measures to address public homelessness. This included the first major implementation of a “broken windows”-style policing campaign in the city, which took aim at the homeless on the subways. The “success” of these tactics – I argue – not only served as a model for the enactment of similarly aggressive measures against the homeless throughout the rest of the city in the late 1980s and 1990s, but also helped further establish the perceived efficacy of private sector influence in the governance of public spaces.

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