(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
It was early evening on a street corner on the Upper West Side. A young woman rushed up to me and asked for money so she could buy some dinner. She was flushed, out of breath, and pregnant. Stories like this are a frequent occurrence for any New Yorker who walks the streets and takes the subways.
This young woman said she’d had a fight with her boyfriend and he’d kicked her out of their apartment. She had just been placed in a shelter and didn’t have supplies or food. Despite my desire, knowledge and connections, I couldn’t solve the complexities in her life that had brought us together. All I could do in that moment was give her enough money to buy a decent meal in the neighborhood. I did, and walked on, deeply troubled both by her situation and by my inability to make a real difference.
As New Yorkers, we have an obligation to do something to help our neighbors who experience homelessness. The question is, how can we make a difference?
Many people on the streets suffer from mental illness and substance use disorders and have histories of criminal justice involvement. Many had childhoods filled with domestic violence, child abuse, family instability, overcrowding, inadequate nutrition, inconsistent education, and poverty. The effects of structural racism make these problems even worse for people of color. Whether or not we give money to people asking for it, we must acknowledge the essential humanity of the person in front of us and support ways to make our society more compassionate, and effectively so.
It’s important to understand how homelessness has become so widespread, despite the dramatic increases in spending that have occurred under successive city administrations. It must be baffling that despite these increases, there seem to be so many people on the streets asking for help.
Some context matters. The number of single adults in shelters has increased by 65 percent in just the past six years. Sadly, this should be no surprise. The number of psychiatric hospital beds in the city has been significantly reduced from 2014 through 2018, and we are laudably moving to reduce incarceration rates (including the closing of Rikers Island, where 40 percent of the inmates have severe mental illness). The shelter system was never intended to be the housing solution for people suffering from serious mental illness – but where else, other than the streets, can they go?
In order to truly make a difference for New Yorkers who are homeless, we should concentrate our energy to make the city’s large shelter and support system fully realize its potential to help homeless people achieve maximum independence. This is in keeping with Jewish teaching, which urges us to ensure that poor people have what they lack in order to attain self-sufficiency.
We need to stop thinking of shelter as a band-aid or emergency. Shelters should be purpose-built with in-house services the clients need most. They should be small enough to be manageable, especially for clients that are severely challenged; and they should be operated by reputable nonprofit providers like mine, that are open 24/7/365, delivering social services, medical care for both physical and mental health, good nutrition, job training, and support to find permanent housing, all with good governance and oversight.
Shelters like these should also be in every community—including yours! Many people are afraid of shelter and supportive housing opening in their neighborhoods. The prophet Isaiah urged that we should take the poor into our homes; this teaching was deemed so central that it is read every year on Yom Kippur. In our day, we can enact this mandate by committing to be vibrant communities that care for all members.
You can become involved by getting to know the nonprofits that operate in your community, and the people that run them. You can participate in Community Advisory Boards that meet regularly with nonprofit operators. You can volunteer, join a board of directors, and if you don’t feel comfortable giving handouts on the street, commit to providing ongoing financial support to the nonprofits that provide services.
I invite you to join me on Sunday, January 26, for Reconstructing Judaism’s New York Day of Learning: Jewish Response to Homelessness in the New York Area. We’ll discuss how Jewish texts and values can guide both individual response and public policy, and explore how we can accomplish systematic change.
I often think of that pregnant woman I’d met and hope that she and her child are now in better circumstances. What I know is that if we invest in shelters and affordable housing, and consider them communal responsibilities just like local hospitals and schools, we can make that crucial difference for people like her. No, we won’t eliminate homelessness, but we can help each and every person who is homeless find the right path forward for them. As we read in Pirkei Avot, a collection of rabbinic wisdom dating to the third century, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Eric Rosenbaum is President and CEO of Project Renewal, a leading New York City homeless services agency, and is also a board member of Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist Movement. On Twitter @reconjudaism.