As more Western governments ease their drug laws, gulf between reformers and hardliners widens.
New York, United States – Glistening skyscrapers tell one story about the financial heart of the world’s biggest economy; the homeless bodies sleeping in their doorways tell another.
Not every New Yorker is enjoying a rebound from the 2007-2008 financial crash. Rents, already high, are rising even further. Some 60,000 people are without shelter in New York City today – more than any other time since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
This week, mercury sank below zero for the first time this winter, triggering a row among politicians about how to stop the homeless from freezing to death. Raymie Farmer, who was at one time homeless, says the weather reminds him of the icy nights he’d spent on the streets.
“Sleeping on the subway is cold – chilling,” the 51-year-old told Al Jazeera.
“You don’t know what to do. Your mind just is wondering what you’re going to do the next day – what you’re going to eat, who’s going to buy you a coffee. You couldn’t make plans. Tomorrow always brought new problems. You had to go steal.”
Farmer’s story is all too common. One of 10 siblings, he left home at 14, selling drugs to earn money. Soon, he was using heroin, an addiction that left him dealing, robbing and stealing to satiate his cravings.
He spent 28 years hooked on drugs, living in a “circle from hospital to prison to sleeping on the subway”, he said. He was shot four times in gang fights; one bullet earned him a colostomy bag for 18 months, while drugs and muggings landed him behind bars three times.
Attending his mother’s funeral in shackles was a sobering moment for Farmer. He describes it as a wake-up call, a choice between drying out and an early grave. “You have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he said.
The Doe Fund, a homeless charity, helped him with finding a job and housing. He still works for them, drug testing the next generation of homeless addicts. Now, “out the gutter”, he is sporting a tie and carrying his business cards. His kids are doing well.
Homeless beggars and their cardboard signs are seen across the city streets today, within eyeshot of such landmarks as Times Square and the Empire State Building. As many as 4,000 people live on New York City’s streets, many of whom are addicts, mentally ill or on parole.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 35 people freeze to death each year in the city of 8.5 million people, a world centre of technology, arts, finance and culture.
But they are just the tip of the iceberg: Some 58,000 more sleep in the city’s shelters – a figure that has grown by 88 percent over the past decade. The Coalition for the Homeless, a charity, blames rising rents, a lack of affordable housing and job cuts for the increase.
George McDonald, the president and founder of the Doe Fund, says that many of these people had lost jobs in the 2007-2008 economic crisis and have struggled to get back on their feet in a sluggish rebound.
“Bad economic conditions, disparities in wealth and housing shortages caused more folks to wind up in shelters,” McDonald told Al Jazeera. “It takes longer to get out of the family shelter system than it used to.
“What once took a year can now take two, causing a backlog in the system.”
According to Christy Parque, the director of Homeless Services United, a charity, families make up 80 percent of shelter occupants, including some 23,000 children. About 30 percent of shelter users have jobs, but still cannot afford rent.
“It’s absolutely unfair that people can work full-time yet not afford an apartment,” Parque told Al Jazeera. “In New York, rents are so high that somebody would have to work a minimum-wage job for about 150 hours a week to pay them.”
Race plays a part, too. Blacks make up 57 percent of the sheltered homeless, Latinos another 31 percent.
Life inside the city’s 500 shelters is no cakewalk. They are known for vermin, broken smoke detectors, peeling lead paint and violence against shelter staff and occupants, according to last month’s audit by a city official.
As temperatures drop, government mechanisms are clicking into gear. A repair team has tackled rats and roaches among 12,000 health and safety violations in the city’s sprawling shelter system since May.
Bill de Blasio, New York City’s mayor, has embarked on a $2.6bn plan to create 15,000 “supportive housing” apartments over 15 years, where drug addicts, domestic abuse victims, veterans and others can get help rebuilding their lives.
The city is deploying teams to fan out across a 13km stretch of Manhattan and persuade the homeless people on the streets – some who have lived without a roof over their heads for years – to move into a shelter.
De Blasio aims to double the number of outreach workers to more than 300 by March and to “crack the code” of a chronic problem. They scour train stations, under bridges and pavements, offering shelter, medical care and hot showers.
Such efforts are praised, but campaigners say that they are only a step in the right direction. Many shelters remain prey to drugs and violence, scaring off the vulnerable and destitute.
Police have also been accused of roughing up vagrants to clear the streets. Jesus Morales, who has slept rough for 16 years, filed a lawsuit last month after police threw his identity documents and family photos into a dustbin lorry.
Meanwhile, helping the homeless raises a moral dilemma. State officials want to force them from the streets in sub-zero temperatures for their own safety; city officials say they have to choose to move.
Norman Siegel, a New York-based civil rights lawyer, said outreach teams lack the skills for handling long-term street dwellers. Also, they are only focused on parts of Manhattan where rich voters live, he added.
“They should patrol the whole city. Instead of city workers, they should hire people who were once homeless, who understand their needs and could better help these people,” Siegel told Al Jazeera.
“The truth is that we lack the political will. If homeless people were white, it would have been solved long ago. By creating viable options for the homeless, we could halve their numbers in a year.”
Yet, there is hope. Craig Trotta, 55, spent years living as a junkie and small-time crook, sleeping in Brooklyn’s doorways. “I never had a job in my life; the only thing I knew was how to steal, rob and use drugs,” he told Al Jazeera.
Thanks to the Doe Fund, he entered a residential, counselling and training scheme that kits newcomers with blue overalls and a street-sweeping job for about $9 an hour, as well as three square meals a day.
It is a costly method for a nation that distrusts a nanny state, but supporters say that the city recoups its outlay with lower crime rates.
“Today, I’m employed. I have my son. I’m married. I have my car. I have an apartment,” Trotta said. “I know when I leave today where I’m going to rest my head tonight. You know, I’m living for a purpose now.”
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl