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.