In Soundview Rising, July 18, 2013
A neatly dressed,well spoken man was sitting in McDonalds. It was a shock to learn he was homeless. But there were other homeless people who hung out in this McDonalds, especially in the evening. One sympathetic man said he drove a rather deranged looking homeless man from McDonalds to the city's shelter on many evenings. So when Jim Reagan who (is a full-time live-in volunteer at The Catholic Worker which has a soup kitchen, houses formerly homeless people and offers clothes and other assistance, as well as serving as an Associate Editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper) spoke at a club meeting about the homeless asking him questions about this subject seemed appropriate.
1. You stated homelessness is at an all time high. This is a statistic that is hard to quantify. What is your estimate of this number based upon?
You are correct in mentioning that the number of homeless people is difficult, and actually in my opinion, impossible to quantify. However, the city of New York reports that the number of people in the shelter system has now exceeded 50,000, and that the largest number of newly homeless people are women and children, due in part to foreclosures. Given the fact that few of the men that we feed on our soupline are willing to stay in City Shelters because they are noisy, loud and sometimes dangerous, I must assume that the actual figure is much higher.
2. Why are so many homeless so mentally upset? Are many of them mentally ill? Does this state of mind happen after thy have been homeless for a period of time? One statistic in the report to Congress by the United States Department of Urban Development's Annual Homeless Assessment Report claimed 80% of homeless people are only in this condition for three weeks and l0% are chronic exhibiting mental illness and substance abuse. Is that your experience?
Since so much of my experience is interpersonal, it is hard for me to discern whether a homeless person's mental illness is episodic or chronic, however, we have many regular guests who have been mentally ill, with some variation in behavior due to administration of medication or external factors, for the nearly fifteen years I've known them. The NYC Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 70% of people on the street suffer from some form of mental illness. I do believe that since the deregulation of mental health institutions in the 1980s, many relatively severely impaired folks have little recourse or alternatives to living on the street, so I think many were ill before being homeless. But also, I find it almost incredible that many people don't understand that just the fear, uncertainty, poverty and violence of living on the street causes or exacerbates mental illness, or at least makes a person diagnosable. I feel that I am relatively "street smart," but can't imagine being homeless for thirty days without suffering from some anxiety disorder or using some substance to try to cope with my circumstances.
3. How do you define homelessness and why do you think so many are homeless now?
Perhaps oversimplifying, I define homelessness as being without a home. Some homeless people may be able to "couch surf" with relatives or friends for a time, and though the city may not deem them homeless, I certainly do. Mental illness, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, chronic homelessness (when someone has been homeless so long that they can only be housed with great difficulty due to a lack of basic living skills, i.e. paying bills, handling money, etc.) all contribute. But a more honest answer would be that the primary and underlying cause lay in, paraphrasing Dorothy Day, our unwillingness to question this dirty, rotten system; a system in which many people can be very wealthy and feel no sense of responsibility for the least of our brothers and sisters. Our Church and the Gospels teach us that housing is a basic right.
4. One source attributed the movement of the l950's to remove people from state mental health institutions, and more recently apartment evictions and failure to pay mortgages on homes as reasons for homelessness. It seems underlying these reasons is a lack of jobs and high unemployment rates. Do you agree with any or all of these assumptions?
All and more, as I hope I explained above. In a community where the foundational philosophy was love of neighbor, all of those reasons would cease to exist. I know that sounds idealistic b ut it is what I believe we must strive for.
I agree with all of the above, and would also cite deceptive and predatory home loans as a more recent cause of foreclosures and consequent homelessness. I alluded to other factors in my answers above.
5. In March 2013 the New York City Department of Homeless Services reported there were over 48,000 people there who were in shelters, an all time high. What can the average person do to help stem this gnawing problem?
House them! I know that sounds trite but it is really that simple and it is what we do. St. Jerome advocated for every Christian home to have a Christ room for when we encounter Christ in the homeless person. Impractical? Perhaps but it takes great courage to attempt to live a Christian life, as Jesus often reminded us saying, "Do not be afraid."
6. There have been reports that shelters are not clean (e.g. have bed bugs), are unsafe or unpleasant because of mentally unstable people in them. Do you think this is a fair assessment, particularly of publicly provided shelters.
I do as I mentioned above. Many men we speak and live with report horrid theft, drug use, violence, lack of sufficient heat or ventilation, and very poor supervision.
7. In your work at The Catholic Worker what has this organization done to lessen the devastating effects of homelessness on people?
We house the people we can in our two city houses and at our farm in Marlboro, we advocate for greater compassion in our speaking and newspaper, and we pray that our small witness will be multiplied like God multiplied the loaves and fishes.
The Catholic Worker has fed, clothed, housed and befriended homeless people since 1933, and we continue to do so today. For some, much as most people would do for their friends, we accompany them to clinic appointments, help them to obtain mental health services or offer first aid ourselves. As we've gotten to know people, either through our soupline, lunch meal for women at Maryhouse, or in giving donated clothing at both houses, we have not been able to ignore the question, "why, in such a wealthy city and nation, are there so many homeless people?" And so, quite naturally, we've become advocates, through articles printed in our newspaper and through demonstrations and protests. And they have taught us much as well.