Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Will you help a homeless woman?

Steady rain falling, washing away the snow. Lakes at the street corner crossings and ice covered with water. Seriously treacherous.  People have been standing all day under our scaffolding, waiting for the bus, now that the bus shelter’s gone.  In the cold rain, the protestors are back at Saigon Grill again. In the darkness, wraithlike wisps of mist dance through the streets like ghosts.
One block down the street from the church, a group of  neighborhood clergy gather at Euclid Hall to meet with staff of the city Department of Homeless Services to discuss the new 94th Street shelter. The Euclid is a former  SRO turned into a supportive housing facility by the Westside Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing and also serves as home for its main offices. WSSFSH had its birth as an outreach of West-Park. It’s first and only director, Laura, began WSSFSH while serving as a Parish Associate at West-Park.  
We want to press DHS on several issues:
  • The failure to involve us at the front end of the process.
  • The possibility of reducing the total number of residents from 200
  • The nine year length of the contract to provide shelter.
DHS staff range from open, committed and collaborative to defensive,arrogant and bureaucratic. We’re told that this may be the “crest” of conversion from hotels to shelters. But that they don’t go looking, only respond to proposals. I point out that with so many hotels in the neighborhood, more proposals could be expected. The city is under heavy pressure to create more shelter space beyond its current 9000,( 2500 women)  a night capacity which last night only had three empty beds.
The 200 number is, they say,  a “midrange” number. Contract length a matter of economics. None of the men will be from the mental illness sector of the homeless population. There will be lots of services provided. And this is a “second step” shelter designed to house those on the way to permanent housing. The nuanced explanation does not explain that these are men who have  failed in other settings. 
Another deputy suggests that there’ve been multiple contacts with Community Board 7 and we should work through them. That suggestion is almost cynical since in our experience, much of the Community Board is not only secular, but in the words of former CB 7 Chair Sheldon Fein, from the Orthodox Jewish community,  openly hostile to the faith community. Even though with the Catholic and Jewish community, we represent thousands of voters. Besides, I point out, many of us work directly and personally with DHS personnel all the time. We have personal work relationships. It’s not hard to get us together. 
Pastor Elise points out the impact of the converted hotels on her church. How they’ve had to pick up responsibility for feeding many more people from privately operated facilities. The growing drug problem. But mainly our need to be able to find housing for people who show up late in the day.  Sending someone to Bellevue or Brooklyn is just not realistic. DHS agrees to work on setting aside some beds for people who “sleep on church steps.”
UCC pastor James asks if someone has to literally fall asleep on the church steps to be eligible. This leads to a complicated conversation with George for DHS agreeing to personally work out details with Pastor Elise. This is our one concession, along with an openness to setting up ongoing dialogue on the broader issues. 
George references the George from our steps as an example of their success. He tells me they’ve found him a new home and that he’s happy with it. “He fell out of our system awhile,” George says.
“I know, he was back with us,” I say. “When I called when it was really cold, I found his  case had been closed.” Pastor Elise mentions seeing him during the Crafts Fair.
“Well, he had failed to do what he needed to stay where he was.”
“Yes. He told me he left voluntarily so he wouldn’t get evicted because if he were  evicted, he’d never get another place.”
“He sometimes gets delusional about things.”
“I knew that didn’t sound right, that’s why I called.”
“We found him  a new place. He seems happy.”
“He comes back,” I say.
“Yes, it’s a process he has to go through. But after 30 years on the street, we’ve convinced him to come in.” So much of his work is so frustrating, it’s good that this story seems to have a good resolution. At least for the moment. DHS George is one who gets personally involved to make things work.
And yes, there is a difference between street homelessness and those who’ve experienced an economic disaster who come to our doors. 
On the way back up 86th street, a bundled up older African-American woman approaches me, hand out. ‘Will you help a homeless woman?” she asks. I meet her eyes. Say “sorry.” Years  ago, when I first came here, Marc from the Interfaith Assembly on Housing and Homelessness told me that whether  you give or not is not what is important. It’s acknowledging the humanity of the other. It’s invisibility that truly pushes the homeless person into isolation. (West-Park Pastor Bob Davidson was one of the three original founders of the Assembly along with Rabbi Marshall Meyer and Daniel Berrigan.) I begin to walk on. “What’s your name?” I hear from behind me. I turn and say “Bob,” then look for whatever change I have to give to her. “God bless you,” she says in response, “God bless you.”
Today its only light rain and a feeling of rawness. I take the time to clean up the 86th Street side. The wetness doesn’t help, everything damp and sticky. Up close to the church, I notice more pieces of the building have come down jn the rain. Mainly chips and chunks and telltale red mud, but that’s what started all this is the first place. So many people believe that now that we’re landmarked, the scaffolding should come down. Maybe we need to put out  a sign that explains that it’s for public safety. And with fundraising the way that it is, it’s not coming down anytime soon.
Call Deacon James to see how he is. Haven’t seen him in awhile. Call Holly to take care of a business issue. And think again about Tracy. Layla has called again. His daughter is trying to locate him. Let’s see what I can find out. 

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