The problems of the dispossessed are so severe that they can dishearten everyone who tries to solve them. Well, almost everyone. Twelve who are making a difference.
Oscar Mockridge, director of the Park Slope Women's Shelter, with clients Kathleen Whalen left (left), Josephine Lugo, and Brenda Jackson, as seen by photographer Mary Ellen Mark.
While most of us dread the approach of winter, no one suffers more during the cold, dark months than the thousands of New York's homeless. Many will abandon park benches and street corners for the relative "comfort" of city shelters, but many more will be turned away for lack of beds. A change in mayors is unlikely to make much difference; for the most part, the problems of the homeless transcend politics. But, in the end-no matter what one's economic condition, race, or even one's ideas about the causes and "cures" for homelessness-it has become impossible to live in New York and ignore the increasing number of people among us who simply don't have appropriate shelter, food, or medical care.
While the debate about homelessness--what can be done? Who should do it? Who should pay for it?--stumbles on around them, the 12 people profiled here have been inventing new ways of reaching out to the homeless to change their lives in ways that matter. These are not the public faces of the fight against homelessness, but rather some of the people who work behind the scenes to circumvent the institutional inertia that can overwhelm all but the most dogged. And so they have won the respect of their peers, who have recommended them as members of the homeless avant-garde.
HOWARD BURCHMAN AND DAVID TERRIO
Money: one can't construct or renovate a building without it-even if the future tenants are today's homeless. Any number of city and state agencies has funds available for such ventures, but finding the right ones-let alone filling out their eligibility forms-is something that many organizations have neither the staff, the knowledge, nor the patience to do.
Enter Burchman Terrio, a consulting firm that links service providers to cash providers. "Someone comes
to us with a plan for housing," explains David Terrio, 33, "and we help them get the funding, find the builder."
Though Terrio and Howard Burchman, 38, have been together for only two years, their firm has recently achieved higher visibility because of one client, Project Samaritan. A "therapeutic community" for HIV-infected homeless substance abusers, Project Samaritan (currently under construction in the Highbridge section of the Bronx) has itself received considerable press-perhaps because the project's co-sponsor, HELP, is headed by Andrew Cuomo. Nobody's knocking friends in high places: all the money for the project, which will house 66 individuals in clusters of rooms, with medical and substance-abuse professionals on site, came scrounge-free from the New York State Medical Care Facilities Finance Agency. "And we mean 100 percent funded," says Burchman, "right down to the furniture." And Samaritan House moved from the idea stage to construction in just over a year; most similar-sized projects take an average of three.
Navigating governmental inconsistencies is a familiar game both for Terrio, previously a tenant organizer and a program planner for community housing agencies, and Burchman, whose first job was as an analyst for HUD. They met up while each was doing private consulting work for housing groups. "We've taken a lot of that antiwar motivation and rechanneled it," says Burchman, showing his age. The younger partner chimes in: "It's exciting to have found a way to fashion your life so you do good and make a living at the same time."
A more typical Burchman Terrio project, which demanded more bullheadedness than political commitment, is the Frederic Fleming home for frail elderly homeless, to be built on West 22nd Street. Intended as permanent housing for 47 men and women over age 55, the project finally received the $3 million it needed from the State Division of Housing and Urban Development. But getting it took four years. "To get money from certain agencies, we had to prove that at least some of the inhabitants will be, technically, mentally ill. Luckily the state accepts you as 'mentally ill' if you've ever spent time in a city shelter, which most of these people have," Terrio says. Although such a definition risks stigmatizing the project and the people who might benefit from it, for Burchman Terrio, the end justifies the means: safe, decent housing.
Executive Director, Legal Action Center for the Homeless
In a tiny, airless room in an East 4th Street building that also houses the avant-garde RAPP arts center, Doug Lasdon, 34, is feeling about as close to jubilant as a lawyer for the homeless can get. Last July, he won a preliminary injunction against the seven major New York City grocery chains that had been refusing to obey the so-called bottle law. Originally passed to promote recycling, the Returnable Container Act of New York State of 1983 decreed that stores must accept up to 240 reusable bottles and cans per day from any one bottle collector, who then gets a nickel per container from the store; its rather unexpected side effect is that it has the potential to change the lives of thousands of homeless people in New York City.
Collecting bottles is the closest thing to a job that many homeless have. They are able, Lasdon says, to amass as many as 500 bottles and cans a day each. But virtually all of Manhattan's grocery store chains-D'Agostino, Food Emporium, A&P, Red Apple, Gristede's, Shopwell, and Sloan's-had been refusing to accept anywhere near 240 containers.
"To investigate," Lasdon says, "we sent six homeless people with volunteers from NYU Law School out to 28 stores. Ten stores wouldn't take any cans. Seventeen took between 10 and 40. Only one store took as many as 60." And so a class-action suit on behalf of the homeless was born.
What really infuriated Lasdon was the stores' flagrant disobeying of the law. "Most stores had been flaunting their refusal to comply by posting signs specifying their limits," he says. "Until now, the stores have been able to get away with this because the main people they hurt are the homeless, who are a low priority." With injunction in hand, however, he can now sue violators for contempt of court.
According to Michael Rourke, VP for communications and corporate affairs for A&P, the stores plan to "live with the letter of the law." But they have also drafted a bill, now in committee in the New York State Senate, that would allow redemption centers to pay 6 cents per container, while supermarkets would continue to pay 5 cents. The stores are hoping that these centers will take the bur den of redemption off them; the bottle distributors, who stand to lose 1 cent per can at the centers, are fighting the bill.
Lasdon is content to watch the stores and distributors duke it out; his satisfaction comes from knowing that the bottle-law case has solidified the legal rights of the homeless. "I do this for all the usual reasons," he says. "Because it's interesting and meaningful. But it's also fun to sue the city. Fun to finally give homeless people their day in court."
SISTER GEORGETTE LAWTON
Director, Project Domicile/Partnership for the Homeless
When Sister Georgette Lawton consents to an interview, she does so reluctantly. "Bring a short pencil," she warns, sounding like the parochial-school teacher she once was. "I don't like to waste time."
The state of her office explains why: the desk is piled high with applications from homeless people seeking housing, the phone doesn't stop ringing, and associates constantly interrupt. Since founding Project Domicile, the Partnership for the Homeless' housing program, in 1983, Sister Georgette-who is a member of the Community of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary-has placed more than 2,000 homeless individuals and families in apartments in city-owned buildings.
But the number of homeless increases every year, while the number of available apartments barely changes. And so Sister Georgette has developed her own system: clients are shown apartments on a first-sign-up, first-serve basis, unless there are special considerations-such as a stated preference for one borough or another, or a feeling among the staff that a certain neighborhood may just not be suitable for a client. "Sometimes," the sister says, "we have to play God."
What makes Sister Georgette's program different from other scatter-site housing projects for the homeless is that she treats each case individually. "I think it's degrading to do what some organizations do-stick a bunch of homeless people in a van and drive around to apartments saying, 'Okay, this one's yours, the next one's yours,' and so on. You rob people of their dignity that way." Project Domicile's method is that clients meet Sister Georgette or one of her staff outside the available apartment-usually in such neighborhoods as Central Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, or Highbridge-and she walks them through it, much like any real estate agent. If the client chooses to move in, Project Domicile's staff prepares the necessary paperwork, makes arrangements for the rent to be paid, and gives advice on where to get supplies and donated furniture.
"We're not in the real estate business here," Sister Georgette explains. And so Project Domicile sees to it that clients are visited at least once a week, both by a representative of the church or synagogue that initially recommended them to the Project, and by their new neighbors. "We don't just leave them at the door and say 'Good luck, now. Bye,'" Sister Georgette says. "We establish relationships with people."
Acting Director, Homeward Bound Community Services
One of the more vocal groups helping the homeless in New York City is run by the homeless themselves-Homeward Bound Community Services, which was founded in June of 1988 by Larry Locke, a homeless housepainter. That month, Locke organized the first vigil in City Hall Park, designed to embarrass Mayor Koch into actions for the homeless. Nelson Prime, the current acting director, met Locke at that vigil. "As soon as I got to the park," says Prime, who recently found an apartment in the Bronx after being homeless for six years, "I felt a sense of pride, of ownership."
Less concerned with providing services to the homeless than with identifying their needs, Homeward Boundwhose 200 members Mayor Koch dubbed "rag-tag lobbyists"-has so far been quite successful in making a lot of noise on behalf of its constituents. Over the past 18 months, members have often camped out in City Hall Park; they have met with Jesse Jackson; they have testified at City Hall hearings on homelessness and housing. "Our goal is to make clear to the city that it has not begun to meet our needs; that its shelters are uninhabitable and that we, too, have rights," Locke has said. Their current order of business: to get David Dinkins, "a more sympathetic mayor," elected this year. To that end, Homeward Bound has participated in a voter-registration drive in the parks and shelters-adding at least 2,500 new voters to the roster.
Prime knows the New York City shelters all too well. A Harlem native, Prime was living in the Bronx, working as a security guard, and going to school until a 1983 fire damaged his home and destroyed his possessions. Still, with some savings, he managed to set himself up again, only to be the victim of a burglary in which he lost everything.
"So I went to the Victims Services Agency and they told me to go to a shelter," he says. "I said, 'No way, I'm not catching fleas.' "He moved in with his sister, but eventually did have to spend months bouncing around the dreaded shelter system. "No one should have to live in the shelters for long," Prime says.
Meeting up with Homeward Bound was a godsend: "Our whole idea is to get people homes," says Prime. "We're still working on it. I'm on the phone with Manhattan Borough President Dinkins' office practically every day."
Director, Park Slope Women's Shelter
While director of the Lexington Avenue Armory Shelter for Women, Oscar Mockridge discovered that at least half the women there were battered, either as children or as adults. Since the typical shelter did nothing to address the special needs of homeless abused women, Mockridge, a 52-year-old Episcopalian priest turned city employee, developed the only program in the city that did not simply "superimpose programs from men's shelters on women."
Mockridge's proposal had four parts, which he hoped to implement sequentially. First, he wanted to make environmental changes in the shelter, to put up partitions that would allow women some privacy and "enhance self-worth." Second, he suggested that the shelter teach stress-management techniques for dealing with the anger and frustration of shelter life. Third, he proposed counseling on violence and substance abuse. And fourth, he wanted to provide "bridge services" employment advice, for example-that would support women after they left the shelters. "It's hard enough for those of us with closets full of clothes, refrigerators full of food, and resumes full of experience to get jobs," he says. "How can we expect these women-who live out of a tiny locker, with no privacy, no money, and no family-to go out and win over an employer?"
It took Mockridge a year and a half of aggressive lobbying to get money from the McKinney funds; a few months after the grant was made, the city "routinely" transferred him to the Park Slope Women's Shelter, while promising to continue his program at Lexington. "But we'll see," he says skeptically.
Mockridge vows to begin another, similar project at the 70-bed facility in Brooklyn. "People get all upset about pornography," he says, ever the preacher. "But to me, homelessness is the obscenity."
President, Banana Kelly
So named because it was originally located on Bronx's Kelly Street, which curves around in the shape of the yellow fruit, Banana Kelly is dedicated to creating a self-sufficient community in the South Bronx. "To create housing for those who have been homeless," says Getz Obstfeld, Banana Kelly's director, "is a first step toward establishing that community."
There are many groups that renovate and provide housing; Banana Kelly was among the first to institute life-skills programs to teach shelter residents the basics of managing a household. "We begin the programs in the shelters," Obstfeld explains, "and we give those who complete 8 of the 12 workshops a certificate. When they then apply -for permanent housing, the certificate becomes an asset."
Because its mandate is to create a workable community, Banana Kelly has landed, as Obstfeld says, "on all sides of the homelessness issue." This past year, for example, the Housing Preservation and Development Department announced that it would fill 3,452 city-owned units in the South Bronx strictly with homeless families. Banana Kelly joined the fight and helped win the battle to make it 50 percent homeless, 50 percent non-homeless.
"If you have a building where everyone has been in the shelter, where no one goes to work, you perpetuate a culture of poverty. There are no positive role models," Obstfeld says. "Integrating the homeless into the community means integrating the buildings as well."
EDSEL AND EILEEN O'CONNOR
Montefiore Medical Team, Health Care for the Homeless
Nurses Eileen O'Connor and Edsel O'Connor are, in Eileen's words, only "sisters under the skin," but the stress of their work unites them more intimately than many siblings. Two members of a team from Montefiore Medical Center that is funded by Health Care for the Homeless, the treat homeless patients for TB and HIV-related infections; they immunize children; they see terrible skin and circulatory problems-all in shelters and kitchens, away from emergency rooms and public hospitals.
"Sometimes we have to convince someone to come back to the clinic with us for further tests," says Edsel. "Sometimes we have to literally take them to a drugstore that will cooperate in filling their prescriptions," says Eileen. And, Edsel says, "sometimes, we just make them sit down and soak their feet."
Attorney, National Coalition for the Homeless
Robert Hayes' and the Coalition for the Homeless' 1981 victory in Callahan v. Carey provided the first step toward providing government housing for the homeless. Once the city was required to provide safe and decent housing for single homeless men, lawyers moved on to win the same rights for single women and families. But now there's a new and growing group of homeless-people -with AIDS and people who have tested HIV-positive-for whom Callahan is not enough.
"HIV-infected people cannot live safely in the existing shelters, where drug use and illness are rampant," says Virginia Shubert, the coalition lawyer who is responsible for the test-case Mixon v. Grinker on behalf of three homeless PWAs against William Grinker, the outgoing commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration. Victory, according to Shubert, "would ensure that HIV-infected people get 'medically appropriate' housing, which would, at minimum, provide private sleeping areas and sanitary facilities."
According to the 34-year-old Shubert, who directs the coalition's AIDS Project, Mixon is only the first in a series of actions that must be taken on behalf of homeless PWAs. Homeless people who are HIV infected are the last to be selected for trials of new drugs such as aerosolized pentamidine, she points out. And the city still demands a diagnosis of full-blown AIDS for a patient to qualify for the Rental Assistance Program; such programs are not available to people with AIDS-related complex-a Centers for Disease Control semantic distinction, which, says Shubert, "the city admits has nothing to do with it. It's just a way to limit the amount of support paid out."
Although she has worked for the coalition full-time only since June of 1988, Ginny Shubert is well-known as an advocate for the homeless. "She does more for homeless PWAs than just about anybody in the city," says a lawyer who has worked with her. And not all of her work is done in court. She's perfectly willing to make a few angry calls to a city agency that, for reasons of red tape, is refusing to send an expected check to a homeless client. "[Our client] was just lucky," she drawls in an Alabaman accent, "to have such a bitch as his advocate."
"Hey, Geneva," yells a man from a Bowery park bench to the woman walking toward him. "How're you doing?"
"Good, J.C. How're you?" she replies. Then, pointing to a doorway across the street, she tells an observer. "J.C.'s been living there the last couple of years. C'mon, let's go give him a sandwich."To the homeless who live on the streets and in the subways around the Bowery, Geneva Simonds, 45, is a familiar presence, having worked for various social service groups there over the past 12 years. She has covered these parks and these streets, hoping to bring the homeless back to centers that provide food, showers, a change of clothes, and perhaps some counseling. But Simonds' current employer, the Bowery Residents' Committee, has expanded that outreach into the subways. "It seemed a natural outgrowth of our work on the streets," says Hal Onserud, 40, who originated the subway program at BRC. "We saw that people were living on the subway platforms."
But as Simonds arid Onserud soon discovered, the situation extended far beyond the platforms. In several subway stations, the homeless have moved behind the tracks into filthy makeshift rooms accessible only by a foot-wide strip of ground between the platform and the tracks.
Since May of 1989, Simonds-along with her colleague, program coordinator Michael Kelly-has walked that catwalk regularly. ("You can see why so many homeless die down here," says Kelly, as he guides his group into the bowels of the subway. They are only one false step away from the third rail, only a second's miscalculation from an oncoming train.) Once inside, Simonds says, you learn the rules very quickly: never rouse a sleeping person (he may become violent); first time out, offer sandwiches and coffee, but don't force conversation; be patient. "They always think there's some kind of catch," she says.
Simonds, a recovering alcoholic herself, spent several years living on the streets. She has one son, now 26, whom she hasn't seen for 25 years. She eventually wound up in prison on attempted-murder and robbery charges. Upon release, she went back to the streets and eventually into a detox program. Now she's a New York State Credentialed Alcoholism Counselor.
To the homeless of the East Village, she's more like a mother confessor. “Oh, I don't want to see Geneva," one man says when hearing that she's on her way over. "She'll be mad at me because I didn't go to the detox center she told me about."
"I have an advantage out there," Simonds says. "I really know what these people are going through-particularly the women. They're the hardest to get to because they have, or they think they have, guys protecting them. They think, 'I don't need any help. I'm okay.'
"It took them two years to convince me I wasn't okay."
Director, University Community Soup Kitchen
Albert-heavyset, nearly blind-is pulling apart bunches of bananas. All around him, volunteers are spreading red-and white-checked tablecloths on card tables, setting out plastic forks and knives, mixing tuna fish and mayo into a huge vat of cut-up greens, checking the giant pans of meat loaf cooking in industrial-size ovens. "I've been to other soup kitchens," says Albert, who, though homeless, is one of the volunteers on duty today, "and this one is about the nicest."
The University Community Soup Kitchen at the Church of the Nativity on the Lower East Side is different largely because Lorry Wynne, 44, an administrator and adjunct professor at NYU before leaving to work with the homeless full-time, decided to make it different. When she founded the program in 1982, she knew that a typical breadline setup felt wrong. Instead, she opted to run University Community Soup Kitchen "like a restaurant without a cashier," with volunteer maitre d's seating the men, women, and children and volunteer waiters serving them an unchanging menu-meat loaf, vegetables, salad, bread, fruit, coffee.
Just as important, Wynne made a decision not to create any staff jobs, which meant that all money raised-from the New York University Community Fund, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program of New York State, various churches, and private donors-could be spent on food. She also agreed to let volunteers just show up on those Saturday mornings they wanted to work. The looseness suits volunteers, many of whom had, at other kitchens, become disenchanted by "the number of staff people hanging around, getting paid to do nothing," says one. On any given Saturday, some 15 to 25 people show up to work. "Covering the door can sometimes be a tough job," says Charlie Crespo, a regular volunteer. "If there's ever going to be a fight, that's where it will happen."
The same mind that thought up the routinized menu and that figures out how to feed 650 people a week for $1,000 has also worked out a way of keeping altercations to a minimum. Wynne has single women, women with children, handicapped people, and the elderly wait separately from men ages 20 to 40, who make up more than 90 percent of the clientele. "The reason this place works so well," says Crespo, "is because of Lorry. She's completely committed. In all these years, she's only missed about two Saturdays. The people who come here can feel her dedication. They're not just coming for food. They're coming for her love."