“Am I passionate about ending homelessness?” That question was raised at the UN Commission for Social Development 58 this past February. It resonated with me since it was followed up by a speaker saying: “If we were passionate about ending homelessness, homelessness would end.” It was a WOW moment! What might happen if I, if the collective we, had the passion to end homelessness? So, when asked to write an article for Famvin website, I wanted it to be on homelessness. But what to say? So much has been said! Chris Herlinger, from National Catholic Reporter, wrote several great articles in Global Sisters Report about what happened at CSocD58. Two recent books offer insights: Sacred Shelter: 13 Journeys of Homelessness and Healing, edited by Susan Celia Greenfield, and Street Homelessness and Catholic Theological Ethics, edited by James F. Keenan and Mark McGreevy.
So, I decided to raise up the voice, the wisdom and the passion of three colleagues and the groups with whom they are involved. They are daily committed and passionate about ending homelessness – each person, each group in a very different way.
One colleague, Marc Greenberg, Executive Director of Interfaith Assembly of Homelessness and Housing (https://www.iahh.org/) in New York City shared. “Yes indeed, I’m very passionate about ending homelessness. Why? Two major reasons: 1) because those who are homeless are my brothers and sisters and members of the same human family as I am; and 2) because I believe that working together, as a city, as a society, we have the capacity to virtually end long term homelessness.” Marc, through IAHH, empowers faith communities such as the Sisters of Charity of New York to collaborate with other groups committed to ending homelessness and securing safe affordable housing. Later in this article you will read about some of the remarkable steps that are happening to achieve this goal.
James Addison, team member at Life Experience Faith Sharing Associates (LEFSA), sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of New York, stated: “Yes I am very passionate about ending homelessness. I was homeless myself for quite a few years and know the hardships and trauma that are associated with being homeless. Because of the help that was given to me through God and people who care about ending homelessness, I now dedicate my life to helping those who are still homeless.” A visit to the LEFSA website offers a glimpse of the program’s uniqueness, (https://scny-lefsa.org/). I am privileged to know James Addison since the early days of LEFSA. Over the years, James and other team leaders have witnessed the power of faith, hope and love and have empowered people, once homeless, not only to help themselves and others, but to work for systemic change to end homelessness. Their monthly leadership days and other group meetings are powerful and transformational, even for the occasional participant, like me.
Matthew Janeczko, Executive Director of Sisters of Charity Housing Development Corporation, sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of New York, oversees a very complex multifaceted organization that offers permanent housing for specific groups of people who might otherwise be homeless. Matt explains, “A person experiencing homelessness is not simply a person who lives on the street. Specific designations are given, unsheltered, sheltered, etc. Second, people are homeless because they are paying other bills (cell phone, education, food). Many are hungry and cold because they need to pay rent! Keeping someone from being homeless is just as valuable as lifting someone out of homelessness – and, in a sense, is easier (or it should be!). The Vincentian model of ending homelessness marries the practical with the structural – in an area such as housing, this is especially important.” Visit https://sistersofcharityhousing.org/ to see the breath, depth and Setonian-Vincentian response of Charity Rising Today. We are grateful to the Boards, staff, Administrators and volunteers who demonstrate respect, integrity, compassion and excellence as they accompany people formerly homeless or vulnerable. We commend them for the perseverance, patience and endurance they need to master the complexity of procedures, policies and laws that often change or need to be changed to address new needs, programs and structures.
I asked Marc Greenberg what he would like to say to the Vincentian Family who are committed to ending homelessness. Here are Marc’s words:
At this moment in our history, making great progress towards ending long term homelessness is actually possible. In our city (New York City). In our society, we have the resources and expertise to end long term homelessness. I say “long term homelessness” because homelessness should only be a short-term phenomenon. Homelessness should only occur in the case of a natural emergency – such as a flood, fire, etc. – or in the case of a personal emergency such as domestic violence, eviction, a job loss, a physical injury or medical issue, or an emotional or psychological challenge that temporarily renders one incapable of maintaining own’s own housing. There is a current momentum in NYC and New York State that, in my 35 years of this work, I have never seen before. Over the past 5 years, we have experienced advances in public policy that have done the following:
- provided free lawyers (“Right to Counsel” and other assistance in housing court resulting thus far in a 41% reduction in evictions;
- had a 2 year ” rent freeze” on one-year leases for the first time since the inception of rent regulations over 40 years ago,
- achieved a collective commitment from the mayor and governor to produce 35,000 supportive housing units statewide over a 15-year period,
- passed a renewal of rent laws stronger than at any time since the establishment of rent protections in NYC law that requires a 15% set-aside for homeless households in virtually every city funded housing project- projected to result in an additional 1,000 units of homeless housing per year into the future.
In this context, the New York State Legislature is now considering a bill (Home Stability Support) that would dedicate significant funding (I believe $500,000) to pay for rent subsidies to help people move out of shelters or pay their rents where they currently live but can barely afford to do so. Redirecting some of the 3 billion dollars of expenses now being spent on homeless shelters will allow this to happen. NYC Council is now considering a bill that would expand the current “Right to Counsel” bill to cover more than just the extremely low-income people and reduce evictions even further.
GIVEN THIS CONTEXT, the opportunity for even greater progress is only dependent on the level of visibility of these issues and opportunities and the commitment of the public and, in particular, people of faith, can bring to this moment.
Marc’s last sentence emphasizes the stance that people of faith are called to take! Marc challenges people of faith, US, to work together in groups, coalitions and movements to make homelessness more VISIBLE and to change the laws, policies and structures that create the problem.
James Addison reminds us, “being homeless is not being helpless. People who are homeless want the same thing anyone else wants – a safe, affordable, and decent place to live. These are the issues we must fight for to end homelessness. Why, in the richest country in the world, are our children the biggest homeless population in NYC?” The people of LEFSA are leading the way for us. They advocate for just policies and laws. Many of them join with IAHH and other Coalitions, standing in front of Governor Cuomo’s Manhattan office, visiting a politician, or at City Hall to demand justice.
So…where do I stand? Where do you stand on ending homelessness? I invite all of us to ask ourselves this question! In fact, you might find the following exercise helpful. Look to your right and pick a spot on the floor that would represent the number “0” (not passionate at all) and to your left a spot on the floor that would represent the number “10” (very passionate). Take a moment to ask, “Where do I choose to stand along the continuum?” and move to that place. Allow yourself time to notice where you choose to stand and the feelings, emotions and reactions that surface. This is a very powerful exercise, especially when done in a group. It allows us to experience and notice our own and others’ underlying values and mental models that go into the choices we make. It also challenges us to think and decide anew since the exercise continues by asking, “With what I’ve heard and insights I’ve received, do I want to move to another position?” I know that I also stand in different places when I consider where my mind stands, where my heart stands, where my body stands.
As we ask, “Where do I stand on my commitment to end homelessness?”, I leave you with James Addison’s words, “How can we say we love each other if we don’t know each other’s pain? People are in pain. We all must heal together. Everyone has a story.” May we remember each person’s story is as unique and special as the person. Underlying most, if not all, of the stories are pain, separation, grieving, loss …of a loved one, of sense of self, of work, of hope, of relationships and supportive structures. Perhaps, the greatest loss is the failure of society to address the systemic issues that cause homelessness. May we take time to listen to the stories, to share each other’s pain, to heal together – as individuals, as society, and in our systems.