Today’s Read: A Compassionate Response to Homelessness

Although permanent housing is the solution to homelessness, shelters are a necessary immediate resource for men, women, and children who find themselves in urgent need of a safe place to sleep. Thanks to landmark litigation brought by the Coalition for the Homeless and other advocates, New York City has a legal right to shelter for anyone who is homeless. This is why we don’t have massive tent encampments like those visible in many other large cities – and why 24,000 NYC children won’t face the grim fate of sleeping on city streets tonight. However, as rents skyrocket citywide and more individuals and families are pushed out of the housing market and into homelessness, the City has often met resistance in opening shelters needed to meet unprecedented demand.

During the contentious debates surrounding the establishment of shelters, it’s far too easy to lose sight of the very New Yorkers who would be sleeping in proposed shelters. Most are families, and about a third are employed – hardworking men and women who simply can’t make ends meet in the city’s high-priced rental market. Many are fleeing domestic violence. Nearly 24,000 are children, who need to be placed in shelters close to their schools and social supports so the trauma of homelessness isn’t compounded by hours-long commutes to class or the stress of switching schools entirely. Others are single adults struggling with health problems or disabilities, who need support rather than scorn.

Notably, several communities and elected leaders have recognized that homeless New Yorkers should be treated with kindness. The Coalition presented Kensington/Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, with our inaugural Compassionate Communities Award this winter for their warm welcome of and ongoing partnership with a new family shelter in their neighborhood.

Similarly, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams recently shared his thoughts on the opening of more shelters in an insightful blog post, in which he recalled his own housing instability as a child and, in acknowledgement of his mother’s wise counsel, encouraged Brooklynites to come together and support their homeless neighbors:

As a former police officer, I have long advocated that it is not only the job of the NYPD to make our communities safe. I have also stated that it is not solely the role of ACS to fight child abuse. The community “at large” must do their share with these important initiatives.

This also is true for the homeless issue. City Hall has their part to play but we, the community, are also charged with a critical role. We must come up with a supportive plan, and throwing a “rock” of disagreement is not a plan.

The elder who was forced out of her home due to increased rents, and in some cases bad-acting landlords, was the woman that used to babysit our children. The unemployed male who stands on the corner at Bedford and Atlantic Avenues was the same child that once played Little League Baseball alongside us. The woman with three children who can’t find a landlord to take her Section 8 voucher was once the cute little girl with ribbons in her hair who attended our church service. These are not strangers in our midst; these are our brothers and sisters who have fallen on hard times.

I want to use this as a moment to change the conversation on homelessness. Instead of saying “we don’t want them here,” I want to move towards “adopting” shelters. My call is for people of faith to invite homeless families to our houses of worship. High school and college students can show shelter residents how to fill out the forms to get their Social Security cards, driver’s licenses and other documents needed for education and employment. Block associations and civic groups can embrace these sites and help integrate them into the activities of an inviting community. Those of us who have professional skills can assist and instruct. For our way-too-large population of homeless children, we can provide tutoring services so they can be ready for college. Our neighbors who have fallen on hard times can use basic sanitary items such as soap, socks and undergarments; when we go shopping for ourselves, how about adding an extra item for someone in need?