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Humbling Experience

By David C Rogers - Posted on 29 May 2009

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I am lucky to have never had the misfortune of being homeless. On Wednesday May 20th, Dawn Ravella, Lisa Kunstader, Bill Hertline, Nell McDonald, and I attended the 25th Annual Interfaith Convocation and Overnight Vigil for Housing Justice.

We were able to see first hand what it is like to be homeless if only for a night. We all went to Foley Square Park following the Convocation at Trinity’s St. Paul’s Chapel to spend the night, and bear witness to the plight of the homeless.

This experience was quite humbling, and it was at the same time very enlightening. It offered such an incredible perspective on life, and it can make one see all of the things that one takes for granted on a daily basis. Two things in particular are having a roof over one’s head and a warm bed to sleep in at night. The temperature only went down to the high 50’s, but I can tell you that the benches are not comfortable and even with a blanket I felt quite cold. We were advised by those who knew, that we should not sleep on the grass, or we take the risk of being bitten by rats. This night, which wasn’t even particularly cold, makes me realize how incredible it is that homeless people can survive a harsh winter on the streets of New York City.

The Convocation at St. Paul’s was quite moving. It brought to light the many problems inherent in the system that is supposed to help fulfill every New Yorker’s right to shelter. Many politicians want to take that right away. The most interesting and awe inspiring testimony came from Charles William’s, and his story of recovering from homelessness was incredible. Charles grew up in Washington Heights on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He got good grades all through High School, and continued through 3 years at Hunter College. Then like many young men, he decided he wanted to get a job so he could move out on his own. It is a decision he regrets, and he hopes to be able to go back and finish earning his degree in the future.

Charles had a good job, and everything was going well for him. He got married and had a daughter, and he was living a typical good life. Then his job became a problem for his family, as his wife felt that he wasn’t spending enough time at home. Shortly thereafter he and his wife decided to separate, which meant that he was renting his own apartment, while he also paid to take care of his wife and daughter. Then not long after that, his mother passed away. It was a huge blow and a very traumatic experience for him. He turned to alcohol and drug abuse, and before he knew it he found himself evicted with no place to live.

He found out right away that it is not hard to find a hot meal, and he pointed to that fact that you hardly see a homeless person that looks like he is going without food. The real problem he discovered was finding a place to sleep. Part of the problem was that he kept up his appearance and personal hygiene, and the people who work with the homeless would say, “You don’t look homeless.” One thing I found amazing was the fact that many homeless people do keep up their appearances, and many of them still hold down jobs. They just can’t afford to pay the exorbitant rents in Manhattan. He also mentioned that many homeless people would rather stay on the street than in a shelter because of the dangerous people in those shelters who prey on those that are weak.

Charles got himself into a rehab clinic, and he cleaned himself up. Back on his feet, he moved back in with his father in the home he grew up in. His father’s health was ailing, and Charles was ashamed that he hadn’t been there for him during those past years spent on the street. Then Charles’ father passed away in 2000. His father had been there since 1952, and had rent control that allowed him to pay only $191 for a six room apartment. The landlord promptly raised the rent by 3%, and then the following year jacked up the rent to $1,000. Charles could not afford this rent, and soon found himself without a home for the second time in his life, and by no fault of his own.

Charles got himself into a Life-Skills program, and he now has a full time job, and he is saving 60% of his paycheck to be able to move out of the shelter and in to his own place. He is an inspiration.

This story shed much light on the problem of affordable housing in New York City. The Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing also brought to light the many cuts in homeless services and homelessness prevention proposed on the City, State, and Federal levels brought on by the recent recession.

This whole experience was incredibly eye opening and thought provoking. It is truly sad that in the greatest country in the world, we still have this huge problem of homelessness. Perhaps if every political figure just spent one night in the park with these people, they would see the changes that need to be made. And perhaps if the political leaders were more concerned with the problems at home, rather than spending billions of dollars overseas we could see some real change. Only a fraction of that money could really help the situation. A few bright spots were highlighted at the Convocation, and the most important is the Obama administration’s proposed $1 billion capitalization of the National Housing Trust Fund. It shows that steps are being taken, but clearly much more needs to be done.

I am very grateful to The Reformed Church of Bronxville for affording me this opportunity to learn more about what is going on in Manhattan, not far from home. I encourage anyone who is interested to attend this function next year.


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