Nearly a year ago I was asked a poignant question for which I had no answer. A man whose homelessness was not evident approached a group of “villagers” with great courtesy and sincerity. Our sidewalk conversation must have given him confidence that he could expect to be included in its atmosphere of respect. He reported that he had secured an interview and wondered if any of us might suggest a place where he could have a shower in advance of that appointment. None of us had a definitive answer. Several had some plausible suggestions ranging from a local “Y” to a Parks Department Recreation Center. As we dispersed I was left with a vague sense that I should search for a better answer.
Fortunately, my neighbors and fellow parishioners of the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer (CSVF) Social Concerns Committee don’t stop with vague good will. Their commitment, dedication and consistent hard work were trained on finding solutions. Two weeks ago they marked a weekend of laser focus on the problem of homelessness by providing a spoken summary and printed information that illustrated the results months-long research and outreach to like-minded advocates had yielded. Taken together, their original report; a pocket sized reference card from the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter;(NCS) and a quick guide to contact with the Coalition for the Homeless Crisis Intervention Program.
What I heard and saw that weekend told me that I now had my answer for the question that had haunted me for months. It told me that we can and should be inspired by the neighbors in our various urban villages to join in a spoken or unspoken agreement not to close our eyes or our minds and hearts to the reality of homelessness. This information and consciousness-raising exercise make it undeniable that there are things we all can do to address this issue.
The CSVF Committee summarized research drawn from a broad cross section of print and online media detailing the dimensions of the problem, and the efforts to address it. It also included original research showing that the surprisingly long history of homelessness in New York was evident as long ago as 1710 “when the arrival of destitute Palatine German immigrants in Manhattan created the city’s first homeless crisis, but the first almshouse was not opened until 1736.”
The Report, Entitled “Our Neighbors Living on the Street and Those We Don’t See Living in Shelters” follows the historical survey with a lexicon of terms to help de-mystify the kinds and types of needs and ways of addressing them used in the discussions of what the CSVF Committee calls “the inconceivable and unacceptable reality of homelessness in New York City.” Months of study and lifetimes of commitment are summarized in less than a dozen pages to stimulate an enlightened response to the challenge posed to all dwellers in our urban villages who aspire to being fully engaged human beings.
The problem is not one-dimensional and the presentation called attention to the enormous variety of shelters: dozens, from ones for families to others focused on exiles created by domestic violence and some for runaway children under 21 years of age. Eviction and domestic violence are major causes of homelessness. The variety of facilities is wide. But as the numbers and age-range of the homeless population are increasing there can be no sugarcoating of the deplorable conditions in all too many facilities in the city’s shelter system. The CSVF Committee encourages people to familiarize themselves with alternatives to the current system. They also suggest using the reference cards from the Coalition for the Homeless to provide help to people needing immediate assistance.
One of the members who found in this New York neighborhood an outlet to continue the work she did to assist Vietnamese refugees when living in Hong Kong and Singapore suggested that a fine way to maximize the benefits of the information folders from the NCS and Coalition for the Homeless would be to acquire and distribute a small supply of Metro Cards loaded with at least a round trip fare to enable a person in need to travel to the place where help may be available.
The connection that kept resurfacing as I studied the information was to the amazing “Flying Eye Hospital” ORBIS whose mission is summarized as the assault on preventable blindness in places where that may be of epidemic proportions. Taking a cue from these dedicated volunteers in our urban village I now have at least the beginning of an answer to the one question one man asked me long months ago. And I have renewed hope that at least some of the problems of homelessness are “preventable.” It all begins by refusing to close one’s eyes.
Annette Cunningham’s Street Seens appears every Sunday.