Tag Archives: homelessness

Their Way Home: Abraham’s Tent

28 Feb

Fifteen minutes away from my dorm room, the lights are about to go out in a parish house. In the Sunday School Room around the corner, Paul pores over his workbook, highlighter in hand. He is studying to be an EMT, and he highlights almost every line in his effort to commit it to memory. “So far the first five chapters have only been about airways. Airways, airways, airways,” he says to the girl next to him. “Who knew breathing was so difficult?”

Phil couldn’t care less about airways. His concerns are more immediate: vanilla, cinnamon, bacon grease, eggs, milk, challah bread, and the one frying pan that he meticulously washes and dries in between uses. He has been trained as a chef and is applying for grants to open a restaurant of his own one day. In the meantime, he keeps his skills strong by making us French toast. “You are all my grandchildren now,” he says. “Which means you’d better find me a job by Christmas, because I’m going to have a lot of presents to buy!” We laugh together, both of our hands dripping with egg yolks as we swirl the bread around to coat it, and I tell him that this is, indeed, the ritual I have with my grampa-by-blood. Maybe full bellies and kitchen conversation carry across family trees.

Cots lined up across the parish house floor

From his cot (cot, in this situation, means one thin, long band of green fabric — think of a stretcher, and add a sleeping man to the top, his bare feet angling out from beneath a fleece blanket that can’t quite cover his long frame), Carlos pays no attention to the bacon’s sizzle. Instead, he is buried in “The Hotel New Hampshire,” a book that gives me a perfect excuse to interrupt his reading and introduce myself. “I’m from New Hampshire!” I offer, to start the conversation. He nods, looks at me, and looks back down at the book, the teardrop tattoos on the side of his face making every gesture look gruffer, and somehow more vulnerable. I keep pressing gently around the edges of the conversation, probing for favorite types of books (fiction) and getting only a handful of words in response until I, on a hunch, ask him if he writes. His sentences tumble out. Fiction. Two book-length manuscripts already, and he would share them with me if only his wife weren’t so mad at him that she wouldn’t send him anything left in the house, not even his boots; he’s spent his winter in tennis shoes. Stories based on his own life, on the people he met on a bus going back and forth to work every morning for years. “No one’s ever looked at them,” he says. “Not Simon & Schuster or anything like that. I think you have to have an ‘in’ or know somebody to be looked at like that.” I walk away a few minutes later and in place of his book, he has a legal pad on his lap, and his pen is moving in quick lines across the pages.

*

Carlos, Phil, and Paul, whose stories are real but whose names have been changed or switched to protect their privacy, are three of the eleven men with whom I had the honor of spending dinners and an all-nighter over the past week. They are welcoming, funny, and homeless. And while I spend my days giving tours, adding whipped cream to my sundaes in the dining hall, casually complaining about my lack of sleep, and weighing one summer travel option against another, they spend theirs trying not to get kicked out of Starbucks, applying for jobs with their case managers, and, above all, “staying on the right track.”

Their commitment to the right track is what brought us together to begin with. The eleven men (who were originally twelve, but one is currently in the hospital, from what I could gather) were hand-selected to participate in a program called Abraham’s Tent. It is an amazing initiative. AT started one year ago when the head of Columbus House, a large New Haven shelter, talked with the head of a local interfaith group about the overwhelming need for shelter beds during the winter months. Even with the overflow shelter, which fits an extra 125+ men, accommodations are scarce during the months when temperatures are lowest. The two leaders wondered how they could share the burden of housing these men, and Abraham’s Tent was born.

AT takes twelve of the men in Columbus House who are most committed to pulling themselves out of the situation and puts them in a sort of moving shelter. They are sober, cooperative with caseworkers, and hopeful. These twelve men spend every week of the winter with a different congregation — sleeping in churches, temples, and mosques. Columbus House buses the men to and from their destinations every day, while volunteers from the congregations arrange dinners and breakfasts and staff the shelter itself. Even now, after knowing about the program for two years, I am still blown away. Why? It works. It works to free up twelve extra beds in the shelter. It works to give these men the individual friendships, conversation, respect, and relaxation that they could never find in a traditional homeless shelter. It introduces surrounding towns and people who otherwise encounter homeless men as statistics or line items to be crossed off of a town budget to these twelve staggeringly human representatives to contradict their stereotypes. And it helps to get these men on their feet — according to our training session, ten of the twelve men from last year’s Abraham’s Tent are now housed. That is a huge success story.

Home base at the parish house

So this year, YHHAP officially became a part of it. Last year, we sent volunteers out to the surrounding towns to help them with staffing. This time around, we “borrowed” a parish house and ran an entirely student-staffed week of our own. Yale student groups bought the food for dinner and stayed to cook their favorite home recipes. Some enormously dedicated YHHAP Board members spent dozens of hours taking care of all of the logistics. Others, myself included, came to converse at dinner, play card games, and stay up for all or portions of a night to be on-duty as the men slept. At 615pm every night, the men arrived. 1030pm, the lights went out for them. 445am, we made breakfast (with the help of Phil’s French toast). 6am, we handed them packed lunch bags and waved to them as they pulled away in their van.

Tomorrow morning, we will watch them leave for good, on their way to their next destinations. Jim, who has a young son with grades good enough that Jim can’t stop bragging, will continue to study for his GED at night and work full time moving boxes for Schick during the day — he, and several of the other men, repeatedly talk about how much they regret not being able to get more education when they were younger. His dream job is landscaping. He likes how dirt smells and needs to be outside; even in the coldest blizzard of the winter, he left the shelter during the day to get some real air in his lungs. Buzz, on the other hand, would clean toilets all day if it allowed him to be self-employed instead of beholden to a big company. Bob, who plays a mean game of rummy, said over a three-hour game of checkers that his perfect day would be spent choreographing martial art scenes in Hollywood movies. He reads about stage combat techniques every time he goes to the library. And Chris, who says that he is thankful every time he wakes up for being able to get out of bed in the morning, can’t stop talking about the apartments that have been reserved for these men at the end of the program, provided they follow all of the rules. The units will be prepaid for three to six months to give the men a chance to get on their feet, and it’s an opportunity that Chris plans to seize with everything he has.

Tomorrow, these men will wake up together. They are a small group among many, but to dozens of Yale students, they are the faces – our faces – of what is often brushed aside as a chronic, anonymous societal ill. We don’t have the answers to any of this. Heck, we don’t even have long enough blankets to cover the feet of these sleeping men. But in a world where we say thank you for waking up safely every morning, we have beds, and volunteers, and some mighty good French toast — and that’s enough —  that’s what we can do — for right now.

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Quotes of the (Loosely Defined) Week

28 Oct

This week is a whirlwind of midterm papers, meetings, kicking about in piles of autumn leaves (yes, of course this merits as much time as my academics), and, as you may have noticed, an overabundance of Tweeting. But in the midst of my late night article-writing, I thought I would share a few quotes from the past week or so that made me stop and think.

It’s all the “who’s getting in the life raft?” kind of stuff.

–Ed Mattison, major advocate about homelessness issues in New Haven from the South Central Behavioral Health Network, referring to a phenomenon in which a lot of social service organizations in the city, many of whom have worked closely with one another in the past, are now having to compete for an extremely limited pool of available funding to run their programs and/or shelters this year. Overall, programs in New Haven have lost 8% of their normal budgets as well as laid off two caseworkers.

Compassion fatigue: You feel like you’re working harder than they are to turn their lives around.

–Pete, a street outreach worker for the homeless in New Haven. Pete was formerly homeless, too, and has since recovered, and he spoke about his struggles to continue trying to help some of his clients even as they fell once, twice, five times off of the recovery bandwagon.

I drive around wanting to know that I do everything that I can do [to help the people on the streets] before pulling into my driveway [at night].

–Pete, of why he stays out late at nights working even though his wife would like him home safe.

For some of them, it’s better to live on the street than in that situation.

–Ed, of the reasons for the sharp rise of women who are homeless over the past few years. Many of the women run away from home and into the streets to escape abuse.

We give ourselves the impression that cynicism is more widespread than it really is.

–Hakan Ayat, the Executive Director of Turkey’s Open Society Foundation and a former World Fellow at Yale. I had dinner with Hakan as part of a Pierson College Master’s Tea last week and he led our table through a workshop about global civics.

This armchair is very comfortable, but we won’t be able to do the rest of it from this armchair.

–Hakan, talking about the sacrifices necessary of the world in order to cooperate well enough to deal with climate change, resource constraints, and overpopulation.

Future generations are subsidizing us, and it’s hard to give up subsidies.

–Hakan, on why we refuse to plan for the crises ahead by planning and rationing what we have now. He also stated that one of the difficulties of preparing anyone for climate change (and/or convincing him or her that it exists in the first place) is that the fallout from our actions won’t be observable for another three decades. Our sense of cause and effect is separated by 30 years.

We need to be perfectly clear that the answer will not always be yes to the customer. Our job is to say, let me show you how to get to yes.

–Lynn Smith, Vice President of Business Development at Start Community Bank in New Haven, about the kind of culture that she wants to foster in her coworkers. I interviewed Smith and Start’s CEO, Bill Placke, today in preparation for an article that I am writing for one of my classes…more details to come.

This is what makes me get up in the morning. This is an entry from our Start art contest and…this young lady who is thirteen years old says, “This is a picture of a few garbage cans on the corner of Howe and Kimberly that represent what most upper class people think of us in New Haven. They think of us as garbage.”

–Lynn, same interview as above, talking about why she is so driven about her work at Start Community Development Bank. The bank is trying to engage the poorest sections of New Haven (primarily those who earn $20,000 or less a year) to help them learn how to use the banking industry to pull themselves up into a life of more wealth, whether that means receiving an extra $500 or $5,000 a year.

As our premise, let’s say that a cube is larger than a tet.

–My First Order Logic professor. Oh, wait, no. As much as I appreciate this class for my professor’s excellent teaching and wit and for the exercise of my mathematical muscles, the distance between this quote and the rest should be evidence enough in my personal case to be excused from my final Quantitative Reasoning requirement. Sorry, everyone in my family who is good at math. Shoulda shared the genetic jackpot.

Love and quotes,

J

Where Do You Sleep?

17 Oct

I sleep at home, on my bed. I sleep in my dorm room. I sleep (only on rare occasions, parents, I promise) with my chin propped up by my hand during lecture. What kind of a question is that? It’s something even a toddler could answer.

Except for these toddlers. 42% of homeless children nationwide are under the age of six. 700 children were served by the non-profit New Haven Home Recovery just in New Haven last year. For these toddlers and their mothers, the answer to that question is not simple at all.

I learned these statistics and more at an event called the Sleep Out that the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project (YHHAP), a non-profit that I am on the board of at Yale, hosted last night. For the third year in a row, members of the group joined with other students on campus to raise money and awareness on behalf of the homeless community in New Haven, members of which are in danger of freezing to death on the streets this winter without the help of the shelter system. We put tents up on Old Campus (in the center of Yale’s freshmen dorms) during the day on Saturday; hosted a speaker, a singing group, contra dancing, s’more making, and community sing that evening; and then slept out in those same tents overnight. We raised over $1,300 this year, a record number. But why?

 

A few of the tents as dusk fell

 

Here are the facts. On any given day in New Haven, 700 people are homeless. And even this number is probably a low estimate – as someone who has walked the streets at the end of January to help with the CT Point-in-Time Homeless Count in 2009, I completely agree with my friend Matt, who says of the government-sponsored count, “It is guesswork done by smart, caring people…but it is certainly not a science.” Some of the homeless come from the greater New Haven area to concentrate in the city, which is the only place around with a variety of social services. Some of them are veterans, some mentally ill, some battered. Some have records and, despite having served their time, can’t find employers willing to take them. Others are homeless as a form of escape – many of the people who fit in this group grew up with some form of abuse. (For more stats and info, check out YHHAP’s website here.) But the vast majority of the homeless population – those who are not “chronically” homeless, or homeless for more than a year – are people who have had some success in life, but lately their luck has been a little too little and a little too late. They are neither all male nor all older; in fact, the reality is much the opposite – the NYTimes reported that there has been a rise in the number of families in New York shelters in this article (linked) just a month ago.

The difference between the perception of homeless people and the reality is one that Pat Mellion knows all too well. Mellion is the treasurer of New Haven Home Recovery, a non-profit serving homeless women and their children (check out their website here), and she came to speak to attendees of the Sleep Out last night.

NHHR has always served a large number of people in New Haven. They run a long-term shelter for women and children (meaning that instead of staying for only one night and then having to leave in the morning, which is how overnight shelters work, these families can actually have a home base and stay steady — soooo important for kids who need to be in one place so that they can attend school!) and manage 130 units of supportive housing in the city, with two more buildings slated to be added this year. The average stay at their shelter is 151 days (91 for those who are part of a government-sponsored rapid-rehousing program), with the end result being a housing unit that NHHR has found for that mother and child. They get referrals from 30-40 different agencies in New Haven and, between July and September of 2010, had already served 93 children. Because they focus on rehousing families and finding them supportive housing, they are our nation’s best chance at finding a long-term solution for homelessness. Yet even they are overwhelmed by the recent spike in need.

 

"It's overwhelming," Pat Mellion, Treasurer of the Board of Directors of New Haven Home Recovery (nhhr.org), said of the situation for homeless women and children that the organization doesn't have space for.

 

NHHR has had to turn 535 people away from its shelters just since July of this year. This number is up 25% from prior years, and only refers to those whom the agency has officially had to turn away. As Mellion put it, “If somebody knocks on the door at night, we will not turn them away…even if we put them in a sleeping bag on the office floor.”

So, in response to this crisis, what do we do? What can we do?

In my mind, the two questions are different. What do we do? Well, we try our best to fill in the gaps. The shelters are in immediate need of funding (in order to keep the overflow shelter open this year, New Haven’s government took money out of the budgets of every other shelter in the city instead of adding anything new, so NHHR alone is down $62,000 this year in its shelter operating budget.) The $1,300 from last night is a start, and the two incredible fundraising coordinators for YHHAP have raised several thousands of dollars from local businesses to add to that. Next up is the YHHAP Fast, the project that I, personally, am responsible for with my co-coordinator. We organize Yale students to give up their meal swipes for one day each semester (this term, it will be this coming Thursday, October 21!), and the money that isn’t spent on food is instead donated to local organizations. (Yalies, if you haven’t signed up yet, yale.edu/sis -> Dining -> Hunger and Homelessness -> YES.) Last spring, almost a third of the undergraduate student body donated their swipes and we raised close to $12,000. It’s not enough, but it helps.

 

Joe and I looking super stylish at the Sleep Out. If we look sleep-deprived, it's definitely not because we were actually, y'know, sleep-deprived or anything. Go team.

 

But besides what we feel compelled to do, there is another answer here. What can we do? For some people, the answer is “nothing.” Homelessness is someone’s “own” problem. I can understand that point of view. After all, I don’t believe that housing is an inalienable right in the way that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness happen to be. But I think that there is something to be said for the preservation of all of our human dignity by supporting a society in which even when someone hits “rock bottom,” that bottom still treats them like a human.

For most of us, the first time that we encounter homelessness is during childhood. We look at someone on the sidewalk and are confused, upset, scared, and full of questions. We’ve long-since lost that feeling. Now, we walk by with our hands on our wallets and continue our conversations. And we do nothing wrong by walking by.

But in an ideal world, I think we would still be filled with those childlike questions, because in America today, homelessness still doesn’t make sense. We would see this person as one story out of many (and a story, indeed – how often do you wonder what this man or woman or child originally wanted to be like when he or she grew up? Not a panhandler, with almost complete certainty), and even if we don’t give physical change, we would push for change of some other kind. This doesn’t have to come from the government – I don’t mean for this to be a politicized message. These things we can reach for on our own. A change in respect, whereby we say “hello” while walking by. A change in understanding and assumptions, whereby we recognize that the faces of homelessness are varied – and, often, are women and children, too. And a change in the solutions that we are content to give as a society – not just a short-term fix to get someone off the street, but a longer-term set of checkpoints between “here” and “there.”

 

Insert big metaphor about looking out into the future here. Effective, no?

 

Mi Casa, Su Casa, What Casa?

20 Jun

I don’t understand homelessness here, and I hate it.

Whoa! You are saying. Whoa, Jess! I was expecting another cute post about flowery villas! What’s the deal with homelessness?

I agree with you. I was expecting another post about villas, too. And then I saw a man outside, sleeping in the rain, and now I am writing about homelessness.

First of all, it exists here. This is an obvious statement. But I realize that in my (well-deserved) hyperbolic raptures about fresh olive oil and charismatic guest professors, I have yet to mention this. This is, in part, because it impacts my own life very little. I have a beautiful apartment and enough money to cook a nightly feast. It is also because my last international trip was to India, and seeing a single beggar on the street every three or four hours does not smack me across the heart the same way the slums full of children with no shoes and sand-caked hair did – that is to say, the difference on the scale of poverty between the two trips is immense, and without being conscious of it, it has dulled my shock. But, more than anything else, it is because of the specific way that I am approaching this city.

I do not come as a citizen, and as a scholar, I come only to study the past. I am here as a guest — a guest who, out of politeness, should not go rummaging around in the medicine cabinets of my host the first chance I get to see what ails her. Complexity is for class discussion. (Tiramisu is for dessert.) And Italy is, for me, an academic vacation.

Which doesn’t mean that I’ve been avoiding tough issues entirely. I have had four-hour-long discussions sitting on the steps outside of Santa Maria Maggiore about the role of the Church as a political entity as opposed to a religious institution. I watched a military parade and thought hard about the proper values for a state to celebrate. I’ve heard from experts about preservation, demolition, and the ethics of displaying restored or commandeered pieces in museums. As a student in the course “The City of Rome,” I can even tell you about why there was a public housing crisis after Rome became Italy’s capital in 1871 (in fact, that’s part of my final project…details to come.) So it’s not the fault of the course – one that specifically looks at the history of the city and ends right after the fall of Mussolini – that I don’t know about homelessness.

It’s the fault of me. I use the term “fault” loosely here, and not in an accusatory sense. “It’s my own doing,” might be a better way of phrasing it. I decided before coming here that I would treat Italy, as mentioned above, much like a fascinating, school-filled vacation. I was not moving somewhere for five weeks; in my mind, I was just residing there. Unlike India, where we paired with a non-profit and worked for them for half of our total stay, my time here would be very much a one-way absorption of culture. Unlike New Haven, where from day one I tried to memorize the names of elected officials, here I delight in picking up phrases in Italian for a few minutes and then letting them slip out of my mind that night while sleeping. And unlike my time in New Hampshire, where I pull over to ask workers why they are out in front of a grocery store striking and then phone in a tip to the local paper, I pay more attention to the scores of World Cup games in Italy than to national headlines.

This is probably not an awful thing. Even if I am not learning the location of every government meeting, I am doing a different kind of learning. I am using all my energy to study more abstract things (have you ever been able to figure out the history of a church just by deciphering papal insignias and the placement of statues, and then used that history to extrapolate more details about the state of Rome at that point in time? or stood in front of a building and unwrapped its epochs by knowing which windows must be medieval and which carvings would only have been added in the late Renaissance? these are learning experiences that i will probably never have again), and to learn how to take care of myself within a new city. I know how to get around, I know the neighborhoods, I know the rules about how to weigh vegetables properly in the grocery store so I don’t get frustrated looks at the register.

But it does teach me something about myself, and the way that I would like to approach cities in the future. I need a point of modern entry; some portal to make me feel a bit more as if I am straddling two worlds instead of just looking into one from the outside. I’ve tried that, briefly, here; during our long walk down Via Appia Antica, I caught the professors while they were alone and asked them what the state of social services is in Rome. I mentioned that my first afternoon in Piazza Santa Maria di Trastevere, I had seen a half dozen men sleeping outside of the church in the square. And I wondered out loud about the interaction between Church and state in caring for them.

I was right in my hunch and observations, they told me. The Church has historically had a huge role in caring for the destitute, which is one of the main reasons that it grew so fast, and that church in particular offered a regular soup kitchen. But as for more specifics, they told me they didn’t really know, and that, as with everything in the Italian government, the whole situation is complicated.

Well, I guess I want complications. More than that, I want knowledge. This is, of course, a controversial statement in itself; the mere fact of knowing where the shelters are does not mean that I am helping society any more than before. And I do believe that information can be a false comfort, one that makes me, as an individual, feel like a better citizen without having had to get off my butt and actually do something. Because, of course, I can’t understand homelessness to its full extent, no more than I can fully understand any other aspect of the human experience without living through it myself. But it’s a start, and from now on, when possible, I want to connect more with the daily complexities of anywhere that I go for longer than a month.  I think it’s enormously important to have a hometown that I understand, and to stop ignoring inner questions just because I’m not a local. After all, these women with the thousand years of lines on their faces and outstretched palms are vagabonds, too; both types of us, tourists and beggars, without proper roots here, both of us coexisting in a world where we are constantly bumping into strangers.

After I wrote this post, I spent some time researching services for those without a home in Rome. This is a very surface-level list, but if you, too, are curious, here are a few links to check out:

A NYTimes article on the homeless in Rome in 2000, after the government renovated the city’s train station

The Pope’s visit this year to a homeless shelter

Contact information for many social services in the city

An old news blurb with some statistics

Men sleeping outside of my local church the morning that I arrived in Rome.