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Jimmy Smits (right) in In the Heights (Handout)

Piraguas in the summer heat

A drop-in at the New York filming of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights

Today’s New York moment is courtesy of WORLD New York summer intern Esther Eaton.

A woman pushed a stroller down the sidewalk. A smiling couple paused at a corner produce stand to buy mangos. A young man inspected the prices at a barbershop.

“Cut! Reset.”

Pedestrians stopped, turned around, and returned to their starting marks as the film crew members reset their cameras.

“Background, action!”

Movie extras filled the street in Washington Heights again while true neighborhood residents watched from their front steps. One commented that this area of the city usually provides a place to find the body in episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. This summer it’s been the place for the dance numbers and duets of the upcoming film In the Heights.

Slated for release in June 2020, In the Heights is based on a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame). It takes place on a block in Washington Heights, a largely Hispanic neighborhood in northern Manhattan, and this summer it’s filming there—complete with dance routines in the streets.

Hundreds of movies and TV shows shoot in New York City each year, but this one feels local. Miranda grew up near Washington Heights, and his musical celebrates the neighborhood. He’ll make a small appearance in the movie as a man selling piraguas, a flavored ice treat available from carts on many corners in Washington Heights.

Miranda has said he hopes the movie encourages more people to appreciate his neighborhood, and perhaps to visit. As the musical’s characters sing, “You simply must take the A train” to where “cool breezes blow” from open fire hydrants on hot summer days, and where children run laughing through the spray. —Esther Eaton

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Sophia Lee

Detroit (Sophia Lee)

Shelter for the soul

Solutions to homelessness fall short when they ignore spiritual brokenness

As she tells it, Detroit was practically dead for two days, passed out on the sidewalk of Skid Row. She remembers ingesting some kind of drug—it could have been crack, powder cocaine, or meth. She wasn’t picky when it came to getting high. 

She doesn’t remember much from the moment she curled up on the hard concrete with a blanket till the moment someone shook her shoulder and said, “Detroit, it’s been storming. Did you know?” That person tried to lift the blanket off her, and Detroit remembers snarling, “Leave me the [obscenity] alone!” Snatching the blanket back over her head, she heard a loud, wet, heavy whoooosh as the rain-soaked blanket fell and hit the ground with a thud.

That’s when she came to her senses. She remembers peering out with dazed eyes and thinking, What have I done? It hit her mentally that she was lying on the streets smelling like a wet, decomposing dog: “I realized then how out of it I was. I was dead. I was spiritually gone.” 

She felt a wetness under her eye, and was surprised to realize she was crying. She almost never cried, at least not for herself. She never prayed for herself either, although she prayed constantly for others. She thought she wasn’t worth praying for, nor did she know what to say to God. But at that moment, for the first time in a long while, she prayed for herself: “God, I just ask for one thing: I need some peace. That’s all I want.” Then she picked herself up from the ground. 

That was 12 years ago. Detroit is now 10 years sober, housed, and carefully groomed with bright-colored fingernails and flat-ironed hair. I met her three months ago while reporting on a story in South Los Angeles, where she lives in a small apartment on a Section 8 voucher. Since then, she and I have met every month for coffee and cake to talk about homelessness and racial issues. As a 56-year-old black woman living on and off Skid Row since 1981, Detroit has a wealth of wisdom and stories from decades of suffering, grief, and grit—but she doesn’t like that I call it “wisdom.” 

“It’s not really wisdom, it’s just experience,” Detroit once told me when I called her wise. In fact, she thinks she earned that “experience” through much foolishness: “It’s like a child who touched the hot stove and learned she should never touch it again.” 

Experience, foolishness, wisdom—whatever you call it, Detroit has a lot to say about homelessness. And each time, she expresses frustration and grief about what’s happening in homelessness. Or rather, what’s not happening. She still has friends who are homeless or are on the verge of becoming homeless again, and she doesn’t think many so-called “experts” in the field actually speak for people like her and them.  

Among activists, nonprofits, and government officials, the dominant narrative about homelessness today is that it’s a housing crisis issue. There’s some truth to that: In LA, soaring rent prices are pushing people out of homes. One apartment complex I know of in west LA recently tripled its monthly rent, which means almost every tenant will be forced to move and test his luck in an already overpriced, overcrowded housing market: Who can afford to pay $3,000 a month for a 750-square-foot unit?

Detroit, for example, has just heard from her landlord that her rent will soon double, and she’s worried that after two years of housing, she’s going to be back out on the streets. The lack of affordable housing didn’t push her into homelessness, but it is making it very hard for formerly homeless people and low-income people to stay housed.

Homelessness is so hard to solve because it’s both an individual and systemic problem. But we can’t forget the individual. The homelessness I see in Los Angeles is incredibly varied—everyone has a different story of how they went from “housed” to “unhoused,” but none talk only about housing when they tell that story. 

One thing Detroit repeatedly tells me: “People fall into homelessness when they lack something in one or two or all of these three things: spiritual, mental, or physical health. People say we’re homeless because we don’t have housing. That’s not true. Homelessness and housing are two separate issues.” That was true for every homeless individual I met on the streets: Typically, there’s a complex combination of trauma, mental illness, substance abuse, poverty, and lack of social support that both push and keep people in chronic homelessness.

“People fall into homelessness when they lack something in one or two or all of these three things: spiritual, mental, or physical health.” —Detroit

For Detroit, homelessness began with a mental and spiritual issue. Since age 15, she had suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts. At age 18, she voluntarily entered a mental hospital, but that hospital closed down after President Ronald Reagan cut funding to state mental health programs, and Detroit was out on the streets with nowhere to go. 

It wasn’t that she had no one to turn to. Throughout her 38 years living on and off the streets, she at times would show up at the doorstep of a family member who reluctantly took her in until she wandered back to Skid Row: “It’s not true that most of us don’t have anywhere to go. It’s just that we don’t know where to go in our mind, where to go that’s safe—safe from ourselves.” 

And so, operating out of a spiritual and mental dysfunction, she stayed stuck in physical impoverishment year after year, until 12 years ago when, finally feeling so deep in a pit that she couldn’t crawl out without supernatural help, she cried out to God. She had tried asking for help from psychiatric hospitals. She had tried every drug she could get on the streets. She had tried getting help from family members. “I had tried everything,” Detroit told me, “but I didn’t try God.”

So that day 12 years ago on the sidewalk of Skid Row, soaked and shivering from a storm, Detroit thought for the first time, “This is something for the spirit. My spirit is dead and my flesh is weak.” 

Spiritual guidance and healing—that’s something no number of supportive housing units or emergency shelters or government programs can give. Though they might address many facets of homelessness, such as mental issues and housing and even community, they really don’t provide much care for the individual’s soul and spirit. 

But think about someone like Detroit, lying half-dead under the storm in a neighborhood built entirely around services for the homeless. Give her a key to a house, and she might have a roof over her head, but in her own words, she would still function out of spiritual and mental deadness: “The spirit is like your heart, and if your heart’s not beating—baby, you dead!” 

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Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Protesters smash glass doors and windows of the Legislative Council Complex in Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

United in protest

Christians in Hong Kong stand in solidarity with pro-democracy demonstrators and condemn violence, even as some activists vandalize government headquarters

As protesters tried to crash through the glass façade of the Legislative Council Complex in Hong Kong on Monday, an expletive caught the attention of 44-year-old Pastor Siu Yung Wong. The young man who uttered the word—a teenage demonstrator—declared he would kill himself as a form of protest. He then began to walk away, alone.

Alarmed, Wong followed him.

Every year for more than two decades, pro-democracy protests have taken place in Hong Kong on July 1, the anniversary of the former British colony’s 1997 handover to China. During Monday’s protest, demonstrators demanded the complete withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill and the resignation of Chinese-appointed Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers marched in peaceful procession from Victoria Park. But at the Admiralty government headquarters, violence broke out as a group of demonstrators stormed the legislative building. 

The Victoria Park march and the Admiralty rally are a continuation of persistent opposition to the local government’s extradition bill, which could send Hong Kong citizens to face unfair trials in China. Though currently suspended, the bill could quickly pass if the government were to resume the legislative process, given the majority of Beijing-friendly legislators. 

The suicides of three extradition protesters in recent weeks have underscored the increasing desperation of residents. Despite a June 16 demonstration that brought 2 million Hong Kongers into the streets, Chief Executive Lam has continued to ignore repeated demands for the bill’s full withdrawal.     

As Wong caught up with the suicidal adolescent, he placed a hand on his shoulder and tried to talk to him. The young protester’s mother had seen his face on a TV news report and urged her son to return home. Otherwise, she threatened to take her own life.

Wong told the young man he understood why he was so upset by his mother’s objection to his protest against a seemingly deaf government. The teenager loosened his clenched fists. Turning around, he finally rejoined the crowd of protesters. 

From morning to midnight, Wong, an organizer of a pastoral care team, remained with the protesters at the government headquarters. Along with other pastors, he chatted with rally participants, informed them of a nearby church open overnight for sanctuary, prayed, and attempted to dissuade demonstrators from breaking into the legislative complex. 

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