This week New York lost a genuinely remarkable woman, Anna Lou Dehavenon, who documented the lives of homeless children and families with passion, sympathy, and a never-failing eye for social injustice.
Anna Lou, who was 85, passed away Tuesday after years of health struggles. But up until the end she was still talking about how she might do more to help homeless New Yorkers. An urban anthropologist and researcher acclaimed for her incisive fieldwork, she spent more than 25 years documenting the lives of poor children and families, primarily at the City of New York's notorious intake centers for homeless families in the Bronx.
Indeed, her detailed reports on conditions at the Emergency Assistance Unit led to her testifying as an expert witness in landmark class-action litigation involving homeless families. Her research and testimony resulted not only in dramatic improvements at the former, unlamented E.A.U. and its successor facilities, but helped secure the legal right to shelter for homeless New Yorkers.
In the best tradition of engaged researchers, Anna Lou's work not only documented and analyzed the problem of family homelessness -- it led to real change, as the New York Times noted in its obituary:
Dr. Dehavenon's influence came from the strength of the statistics and empirical observations she collected as an urban anthropologist doing studies for private social welfare groups. Her reports were read closely by government agencies, judicial officials and the news media, and her research influenced a 1979 landmark ruling that affirmed a right to shelter in New York City.
She was as much an advocate as she was an observer. One organization she started was called the Action Research Project on Hunger.
Dr. Dehavenon focused increasingly on homelessness as the problem surged in the 1980s. Her analyses contributed to the litigation in a class-action suit brought by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of a group of homeless families. It led to the ruling, by a State Supreme Court justice, ordering New York City to provide shelter to all homeless families.
"In the society's court papers, she recounted her weekly observations of case after case of families who had been left without shelter," said Jane Bock, senior staff attorney for the society's Homeless Rights Project. Dr. Dehavenon's expert testimony about families living in filth led to contempt rulings against the city, Ms. Bock said.
In a 2005 New York Times profile, Anna Lou also spoke passionately -- as well as with amazing prescience -- about some of the failed homeless policies of the Bloomberg administration that continue to this day:
Dr. Dehavenon sits primly on a flowery-print couch in an airy living room overlooking Central Park. She is passionate. But she does not let emotions rule her. She is a scientist. On this morning, she loads up a visitor with documents and newspaper articles chronicling the 25 years she has immersed herself in the issue of homelessness and hunger. She produced 18 reports on the Bronx center, most recently in February 2004.
She is outraged at how the Bloomberg administration is dealing with homeless families. She thinks it is immoral and unrealistic. What upsets her most is the city's goal to reduce homelessness by two-thirds over five years by, among other things, turning away families who have repeatedly applied for shelter and have been told they have adequate housing, often with relatives.
"The city assumes the families could go back to Mama, to aunts, to Grandma; they assume the families can go back to apartments like this," she says, sweeping a hand around the sprawling, art-filled residence.
"Although this policy would decrease the official counts of the shelter population before the next election, it would increase real actual homelessness substantially," she says. "In fact, most of these families would be forced to seek shelter in other people's apartments and public spaces."
Homeless New Yorkers, and indeed all New Yorkers, have lost a real hero, someone whose words and actions spoke "truth to power" in the most powerful way, and someone who refused to let the lives of New York City's most overlooked and forgotten children and women go unrecorded and unremembered. Her own words, from her June 1999 study "Homeless Families: Out of Sight, Out of Mind," sum it up best:
"Homelessness is an affront to all New Yorkers and to all citizens of the world's wealthiest nation. We cannot afford to continue to destroy the lives of thousands of children whose parents experience the degradation of homelessness before those lives have barely begun. New, more creative thinking is needed if we are to alleviate poverty and the deplorable conditions that are consuming these young lives."
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