Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Life's too short to be sitting around.

When I ask W if she's been busy, she turns to her computer and gives me sly smile. "Of course... life's too short to be sitting around."

This sentiment certainly seems to be in the air at First Step, a job-training program that "empowers homeless and low-income women to achieve employment and educational goals through computer training, case management, literacy building, internships, job-placement assistance, empathy and hope."

Each Tuesday I get the privilege of spending time here, helping women out with everything from writing a cover letter, to coaxing one of these fussy Dells back into operation. Mainly I just try to soak up the amazing community of personalities that make up this place. These are real faces for the difficult job market... women who are working hard to overcome not just the current economic downturn, but also a systematic pattern of hardship that makes their lot especially difficult. You think it's hard to find a job? Try it when you've been out of the work force for a few years, your disabled, you struggle to type, don't have a college degree (or even a high school degree). How about when you've been homeless?

What strikes me is that these amazingly interesting, funny, capable and valuable ladies show up every day... searching for any chance they can to earn a living for themselves.

But W is special. In her 60's, without a college diploma, her job search is tough. She says herself "Someone 50 and older.... who wants to hire someone like me?" But despair is the last thing I feel in this woman's presence.

Whether it be a free jazz concert, a community theater production or a reading at Barnes and Nobles on 14th St., W has programmed for herself a schedule packed of free cultural events around NYC. When I press her on the source for all these free events, she scoffs. "Life is full of things, you just have to look." Each week she tells me about the latest event she's conquered. W says that even though her prospects for a job are low, it doesn't mean she's going to stop living. "I'm not going to sit around feeling sorry and sad... You have to do it for your soul"

It's this sense of adventure, this refusal to stop demanding the pleasures of life, that I find everywhere with the poor and homeless people I meet. In the push to provide our neighbors with food and shelter, we forget that god made their eyes for movies too, he gave them ears for jazz and brains for exploring every inch of the universe we share. It's nice to meet someone once and a while like W, who may be struggling to find a job, but has refused to stop looking for her soul.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Because we need each other

This week's New Yorker Magazine had an incredible article about the absolute horror of solitary confinement, something which we decry internationally (John McCain please stand up) yet routinely subject our citizens to. I encourage you to read the whole article, but this sums it up nicely:

"This presents us with an awkward question: If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?"

The parallels between solitary confinement in our prisons and the vast loneliness and isolation experience by our homeless neighbors are crystal clear. The very experience of being in a shelter or on the street involves lack of physical, social and emotional connection that has permanent consequences. The reality is many of the ways we've come up with to deal with homelessness actual end up leaving them mentally and emotionally unprepared to life outside the system.

Yet the homeless folks I've met fight incredibly hard against these forces of isolation. In shelters and on the streets, they form their own communities to try to address some of these fundamental needs: to chat, to laugh with, to be touched. Yes, they have inside jokes. They have long running disagreements about Basketball and movies. They take care of each other.

If you listen to some of these conversations, arguments, monologues (and once and a while a pure nugget of poetry/wisdom), you'll hear the desire that each of us holds deeply... to hug someone to our chest, to share the harshness of the day, to be with other humans. Because we need each other.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Spring Saturday with Nazareth Housing

How did you spend your first spring saturday? Brunch? Walk through the park? Did you sleep in?

No matter what, I don't think you could have possibly had more fun than me. I got stickers all over my sweater (one said "I'M SUPER!"), went to the public library, ate pizza and watched The Story Pirates a group that makes plays for kids. But best of all, I made some new friends... the kids of Nazareth Housing.

I was introduced to Nazareth by my friend Stacey who works there. The organization provides a mix of services, including transitional housing, self-sufficiency education and youth programming to homeless families. The kids I met on Saturday are too sassy, smart and beautiful to be described. Upon entering the room I was immediately stickered by an array of bold youngsters. My partner for the day Sharonda, who was at first skeptical pre-teen, turned out to have as much fun as anyone walking through the spring sunshine to the library and helping pickup the pizzas afterward.

The Story Pirates got the kids to make up amazing stories (which are currently being transformed into a stage play). Sharonda's sister Lashonda, told me the protagonist in her story was a little girl snake. When I asked her what the snake wanted she said "Well... she wants a tootsie roll and real home." All I could think about was what two simple requests those were. She got a tootsie roll from the Candy basket.... but is still living in the temporary housing Nazareth provides.

At the end I made paper airplanes for Sharonda and her two sisters. I told them there were two rules.... 1. Don't throw them outside, because they will go into the road and get squashed. 2. To make your plane fly, you have to laugh.

As I walked away from the building I turned to see 3 little girls running down the sidewalk, their little voices bellowing "hahahaha" as they tossed their paper airplanes.

If you need a reason to end homelessness, I have three.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Evening After

Once a month I stay the night at Friend's Homeless Shelter on 15th st. Much more to come about this place and the interesting neighbors who stay there, but I wanted to write about the most moving part of the experience of volunteering; the evening after.

A night at the shelter usually means poor sleep and a day without a shower (or if you forget your toothbrush....). When I arrive to my apartment at night, I lock the door and am suddenly safe. I make some food... whatever I want. I take a shower. It feels so nice to be clean and warm.... it makes me cringe at how nice it feels. I might watch some tv or read a book or use the computer. I might talk to Erin or maybe just go to sleep early.

In those moments, I look at each of these seemingly standard activities in a new light. I realize what a miracle a home is. It's a mix of guilt and gratitude, the fact that I have refuge and the reality that I've just witnessed a world in which people don't. How very seldom do I think about the luxury of the worst party, or the blessing of a mediocre restaurant.

The evening after the shelter, I can't stop thinking about these things. My clothes smell of the standard issue DHS sheets and my back still feels the bent frames of the cot. Of course, my clothes will be washed, my backache will subside, the strength of this feeling will fade. But to me this means we must continue see, touch and taste the realities of how other people live in order to realize what we truly have. Or maybe just to keep our hearts outraged and open, still longing for a new neighborhood.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

2009 HOPE Survey

Every year the Department of Homeless services gathers thousand of volunteers on a freezing January night to conduct a census of the cities homeless population. Like last year, I was one of this year's volunteers. (now joined by Erin Moore!) We spent from 11:30pm-3am walking around Bryant park administering a survey to everyone we saw.

The theory is that on the coldest night, only the most chronic homeless are found on the street. Targeting areas where most homeless people sleep/congregate, teams of volunteers go about counting each person who identifies themselves as homeless. This is probably the best possible way to go about the difficult task of counting people outdoors, but the city used this years results to claim that street homelessness was down by almost 30%. Critics like the Coalition say "The numbers released by the City today defy credibility and run counter to what New Yorkers observe every day on New York’s streets." I agree. Moreover, this census is simply a snapshot of what the population looks like on one day, not a blank check to claim progress unearned.

Still, being part of the survey is a very interesting experience.... a glimpse both into the bureaucracy of a large public operation and the loneliness of the cold New York night time. It was our brief look into the unfathomable notion of sleeping in a door way or waiting out the night on a park bench.

On some level I felt empowered. I was able to do something logical, statistical, procedural to ostensibly help my homeless neighbors. But I felt like the donuts and coffee and glossy instruction book (oh what beautiful instructions!) soothed my deeper sense that seeing people sleeping in the cold is truly a nightmare. There are so many ways to steel yourself for the reality of suffering, but nothing can prevent those momentary lapses... layers of dirty blankets... someone lonely, stumbling the street in the freezing morning.

One such moment came at the end of our night. After finding only 2 homeless people (sadly, you almost feel disappointed the fewer people you find) we ran into a man wandering with a pillow on a side street. We stopped to talk to him and he drunkenly/skeptically ask "what the fuck are you gonna do for me?" As instructed by the survey we were supposed to offer transportation to a city drop-in center. He snorted "They ain't gonna do shit.... Where they gonna take me?" He continued on to angrily recount his experience on the streets (since the age of 16). He obviously didn't trust anyone, didn't have any hope. But he did have some place to be in the morning... a job. Finally he asked "Can I bring my pillow?"
We called him a van and waited. He continued to insist that nothing would help. Then he looked at me and said "Why are you doing this?" I made a feeble reply, but wondered. Why am I doing this?

The van arrived. We wanted to get him to a drop-in center close to where he had to work the next day, but the driver didn't know where the drop-in center was..... How could the driver not know where he was taking people?? Under the cities new plan, drivers like this are the ONLY people helping the street homeless at night. Luckily Erin and I figured it out and gave him directions (well... mainly she did). We rode in the van while the driver took a wrong turns and our homeless friend insisted nobody would help him. He said "I know you guys are trying to help, but they ain't gonna do shit. Nobody does." I reassured him, but wasn't so sure myself.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Homeless 101

Homelessness is a vastly complicated phenomenon, the intersection of almost every single one of our social problems. But before we get into that, let's cover the basics about NYC.

Here are the homeless statistics as of 2008 from the Coalition for the Homeless website:

"In November 2008 more than 36,600 homeless men, women, and children were sleeping each night in New York City municipal shelters, including 15,800 children, 14,100 adult family members, and 6,700 single adults. Thousands more sleep rough on city streets, in public parks, in the subway system, and in other public spaces."

Note that almost HALF of the homeless population are children.

More basics facts from the Coalition:
  • During the current decade homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

  • Over the past decade the New York City homeless shelter population has increased by nearly two-thirds.

  • Over the past decade, the number of homeless families sleeping in New York City shelters and welfare hotels has nearly doubled. The average stay for homeless families in the municipal shelter system is currently ten months.

  • Permanent housing for homeless families and individuals costs less than shelter and other emergency care. The cost of sheltering a homeless family in the New York City Shelter system is $36,000 per year, awhile the cost of shelter for a homeless individual is $23,000 per year.
Visit the Coalition's website for more basic info.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Our Shelter

Friends 15th St. Shelter is a gym. You may have played kickball in a gym like this in elementary school. It has a scuffed wood floor, padded walls and red lines that don't seem to mean much of anything. But each night, 12 people sleep here.

I arrived at Friend's after a surprisingly difficult search to get involved with the homeless. To the average citizen these places seem mysterious compared to the well documented (on TV anyways) public venues of prison, hospital and police station. Well, welcome to Friends.

In the 1980's, the faith based community demanded to know what Mayor Koch was going to do to address the drastic homelessness problem in New York. The Mayor turned the question back on the religious community, asking them to do something about it. So they did.

Since the 1980's, a separate "faith-based" shelter system has been serving some of the most vulnerable and hard to service of our homeless neighbors. This network of drop-in centers, safe haven beds and faith shelters are a low threshold (easier to access if you've got a mental problem or drug problem) options for homeless new yorkers. Faith based beds are tucked away in church basements and meeting rooms of synagogues all over the city.

At Friends Meeting House, the Quaker community runs a shelter which sleeps and feeds 12 people every night. This is a small, safe space, which provides a light meal (of course including dessert) every night. It's relatively clean and has an excellent record of safety. Most guests here talk about the city shelters as if they were prison.Through the efforts of the volunteers, (who each pick one night a month to sleep over at the shelter) we are able to be open every day of the week (and for a few years, 365 days a year!)

Coming here was the beginning of my journey into the world of my homeless neighbors. This is a place to eat, to sleep, to talk, to be angry in, to laugh in, to feel part of a community and to feel utterly lost.... this place is so many things. But when all the guests leave in the morning, you realize it's just a gym. Our neighbor's live in a gym.

Friends Shelter ALWAYS needs volunteers. If you're interested, please go here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Offically: Not so good Neighbors

How do us New Yorkers think and act towards our neighbors without homes?

Officially we're not looking like good Neighbors.

Our City
Homelessness is treated by the Bloomberg administration, much like every other major American executive branch, as both a legit social ill and a detriment to the quality of life in the city. In 2004 Mayor Bloomberg made a bold pledge to "eliminate chronic homelessness and cut temporary homelessness by two-thirds." Advocates were excited about the plan, which seemed to be a genuinely progressive step in the right direction.

By end of 2008, the city had seen record numbers of homeless families and street homelessness back on the rise.

More distressingly, the administration, spearheaded by DHS Commissioner Hess, has reversed course on the 2004 plan, instead enacting policy that makes it harder for street homeless people to enter system. The implication here is that the City thinks "some of these people aren't really homeless and without shelter, they'll find a place to go." The changes slated to be made in 2009 have disastrous implications on the most vulnerable of our homeless neighbors. We will surely see more of them sleeping on the street.

This attitude, of treating homelessness as a "choice" goes deeper. According to this NY Daily News Article "the NYPD summoned a dozen precinct commanders to Headquarters Friday to help focus efforts against aggressive beggars, squeegee men, hookers and illegal peddlers." This aggressive criminalization of homelessness reminds us of the dark days of Giuliani. Apparently it remains the official policy today.

What strikes me the most is that we have a government that acknowledges the virtues of finding homes of everyone, but then turns around and implies that some homeless people don't deserve shelter or even spots to panhandle and sleep (aka survive). The effect I've seen in most reporting is that the public is lead to believe there is a real commitment to change, while public policy grantees things will get worse.

Friday, February 13, 2009

My Neighbors

From my window, I see my Neighborhood inside out. I see the backs of houses and brief tracts of land littered with lawn furniture and laundry lines. I see the local church steeple, the tallest thing on the horizon until the recent condo buildings began springing up on all sides. And at the foot of my view I see a Neighbor.

Senor DeMarco is doing something which he does often, which is nothing. I'm in awe of his senior citzen ability to do this... to sit calmly for hours, until at some mysterious moment he decides he's had enough. Today, I find Senor in his wife's garden, the family laundry flapping above. He's owned the house I live in for almost 40 years and at this moment I can't imagine what more a once Merchant Marine from a small Italian island could want. All that space!

When I turn away from my window I'm back in my room. This 10x10 cube, which at times I can't believe I fit all my junk into. I look at the walls and the old ailing door. How can I pay so much to live on the third floor of this old Italian couple's house?

But this room is mine. I can turn the lights off. I can open the window. I can eat a bagel in my bed. I can never clean it or I can clean it everyday. It's my room. I'm safe here.

When I think of Senor and all the people who've sweated to have a small garden or a stoop to sit on, my room seems like a fortress, obligatory and solid. But it's not. As I've begun to realize, so many of my neighbors never get to choose when to turn out the lights. They'll never eat a midnight snack or sleep late on Sunday. So many of my neighbors have no home.

This blog is about one thing. Meeting the Neighbors. It's about understand why 36,000 New Yorkers lack a home to call their own. The New York State constitution guarantees the right to shelter, it demands that we find homes for those who are homeless. But today, looking out my window, it just feels like the only true way to be a good neighbor.