Monday, March 21, 2016

Illuminations 3.21.16

Homelessness is Everywhere...Except in Our Thoughts

First, some facts, courtesy of The Coalition of the Homeless. 

New York City Homelessness: The Basic Facts
  • In recent years, homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
  • In January 2016, there were 60,296 homeless people, including 14,670 homeless families with 23,882 homeless children, sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system. Families comprise just over three-quarters of the homeless shelter population.
  • Over the course of the last City fiscal year (FY 2015), more than 109,000 different homeless men, women, and children slept in the New York City municipal shelter system. This includes over 42,000 different homeless New York City children.
  • The number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping each night in municipal shelters is now 91 percent higher than it was ten years ago.
  • Research shows that the primary cause of homelessness, particularly among families, is lack of affordable housing. Surveys of homeless families have identified the following major immediate, triggering causes of homelessness: eviction; doubled-up or severely overcrowded housing; domestic violence; job loss; and hazardous housing conditions.
  • Research shows that, compared to homeless families, homeless single adults have much higher rates of serious mental illness, addiction disorders, and other severe health problems.
  • Each night thousands of unsheltered homeless people sleep on New York City streets, in the subway system, and in other public spaces. There is no accurate measurement of New York City’s unsheltered homeless population, and recent City surveys significantly underestimate the number of unsheltered homeless New Yorkers.
  • Studies show that the large majority of street homeless New Yorkers are people living with mental illness or other severe health problems.
  • As in other American cities, New York City’s unsheltered homeless population is concentrated in the central business district – that is, midtown Manhattan. Surveys show that nearly 60 percent of New York City’s unsheltered homeless population is in Manhattan.
  • African-American and Latino New Yorkers are disproportionately affected by homelessness. Approximately 58 percent of New York City homeless shelter residents are African-American, 31 percent are Latino, 8 percent are white, less than 1 percent are Asian-American, and 3 percent are of unknown race/ethnicity.
Second, a plea to recognize that these facts are mostly just the people accounted for in shelters, not people who legitimately are homeless in the street, living in cars or in our subway system. 

Third, a disclaimer: this is something I have needed a lot of help in recognizing as an issue, despite how relevant it is to my life. In my past, I have taken a blind eye, a hardhearted stand, and an apathetic approach to helping others less fortunate. This is wrong for two reasons. 

One, it is in opposite action to my faith.

Proverbs 14:31 "Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God." 
I believe in a God who made the universe and every person in it. I can look at Him and leave it to Him to help others, or I can consider that he made ME - and maybe I'm a bigger answer for others than I'm willing to admit. As Stephen Colbert once said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.” I refuse to do either, and a few years back, had to humble out and see where I can be doing my part. Jesus was a man of so much compassion and love, and I can't live a life for Him, if I'm not serving like him. 

Two, it is the easy way out.

Millions of people live on this earth, and every day refuse to even try to think about the poor and needy, because of their own life issues. I can get away with being one of those people, but eventually it will come back to the choice. The only one who can make me serve the poor and me. I'm not going to do it just out of guilt or to feel better for occasionally filling a quota - I just want to not from love. I want to serve because people need it. It's not about me, it's about them. 

Fourth, a story. My mother has bipolar disorder. Mental health is something that deserves it's own entire blog, I wouldn't dare to limit it to a sentence or two. I only bring this up because due to various bouts of mania and depression, my mother has never been able to hold on to anything. She left college three times, never to finish, amounting thousands in debt. She continued to quit job after job, finding herself to be a stay at home mom during my early years. She left our church when she was nine, telling my sister and I that she was sick every single Sunday, but really she couldn't handle spirituality or religion, at least in the way she was trying to tackle it. Eventually, se left my father, my sister and I as well on February 20, 2005. It hurt. It hurt to see her get involved in house hopping and staying at shelters. It hurt to see her get addicted to marijuana, cocaine and eventually almost overdose twice on heroin. It hurt to see her institutionalized for months at a time, not being abel to see her, because she was hurting herself and could attack me. It hurt even more when she got involved in abusive relationships - first verbal, then physical, and eventually sexual. I could eloquently try to depict the process of my hurt, using metaphor or symbolism - but that's not gonna cut it. To be honest, it sucked, and that's okay. Other than finding out the sexual abuse her now second ex-husband tormented her with, the hardest part of the last eleven year adventure with my mom was seeing her be homeless. Her and my then step-father slept in a stairwell of a building for 6 months, and spent 8 months living in two cars. Visiting them was always weird, as my mom's biggest concern was proving that it was normal - a pressure I never needed her to have. Every time I visited her, I felt helpless. Every time I sat in that backseat, with the smell of hand rolled cigarettes and old puzzle books, I felt helpless. She bought me an Entenmann's devil food cake and a stuck a candle she found in the car somewhere inside it, and asked me to make a wish. I wished she would let me return the cake so her and Larry could use the money for gas. My mother and I have an estranged relationship. In the past eleven years, she has cursed me out numerous times, disowned me, etc, etc...some is due to her illness, some due to her pride, and I'm not one to try and discern how much was the result of either. But when I see a homeless person on the street, even if there's a needle in their arm or a cell phone in their pocket, I know there can be more to their story. Do I hate that there are many that take advantage of the homeless population by pretending to be a part of it and build mistrust? Sure. Can't do anything about it though. My mom is now living with my grandmother, her mom, and has some form of welfare due to her deteriorating mental health. My little sister recently left the house and decided that she wants to be on her own. She has a two year old daughter though, so my sister and niece are currently living in a shelter, due to my sister's own choice. Story for another time. I bring up the current situations involving the poor and needy in my own life, because the temptation is still to be calloused towards the homeless - to not care, or to feel overwhelmed to the point of inaction. But these situations are real. There are so many out there like them - millions. 

Lastly, some hope. HOPE worldwide is the main organization  I, along with my church, works with. Here is their website.

I have had such an amazing time serving with them and being a part of things like Staten Island rebuilding for Sandy relief, giving out clothes and gift bags to the homeless in Times Square, collecting school supplies and food for people in homeless shelters, and serving food in soup kitchens. It's like the best thing ever. It's been amazing to see the people who are served - they make it all worth it. And through them, I've been able to do other projects like organize blood drives and sing/hang out with residents in nursing homes every month. 

For those who want to join or know more: ASK. There are global brigades along with local events that HOPE world wide does. There's always something going on. 

There is also this organization called Coalition for the Homeless that has so many crazy, cool events. Here is their website. Look em up -

I am learning as I go how to make a difference. But there is so much to do! Let's learn from the famous quote, sometimes attributed to Ghandi - "Be the change you want to see in the world."

Stay golden everybody, 

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