More than 50 community members gathered at Park Slope’s Monday night for a discussion about homelessness in the city. The attendees came from different congregations and organizations around South Brooklyn to learn more about the problem and to discuss what can be done to combat it.
Councilmember Brad Lander, one of the organizers of the event, said before solutions can be discussed, what causes homelessness must be understood.
"We need to be engaged in the root causes of the problems we’re looking at and try to think about ways to engage in action with others to change those things," he said.
Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst of the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy and direct services organization, gave the group a picture of what homelessness in New York City looks like. As of December 2010, he said, the number of homeless people in the city is 38,400. Of those, 9,700 are homeless families that sleep in shelters every night.
And this is not even the full number of homeless people in the city, he said. The number excludes the people who sleep out in the streets.
“Nobody really knows how many people that is but it’s in the thousands,” he said. “It doesn’t tell the whole story because you can look at homeless as in how many people are homeless tonight and you can also look at it as how many people experience homelessness over the course of a year and that number is enormously large.”
The number of men, women and children that slept in the city shelter system was 113,553 during the last fiscal year (October 1, 2009 - September 30, 2010).
“That number is the highest in the city’s history and it’s nearly 40 percent more than eight years ago,” Markee said.
In Brooklyn, the number of homeless counted on the streets last year was 428, according to the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE). This was a significant increase from the 200 counted in 2009.
The main problem that isn’t being addressed is housing affordability, Markee said. Many single parent families have one full-time income that doesn’t stretch far enough, even in the cheaper rental areas.
“If your income doesn’t cover your rent you can’t afford to pay for food and clothing and all the other necessities you like," he said. "That’s where homelessness comes from."
Other services are also needed. Often, the street homeless population that spend a night sleeping in the street or in a shelter have health problems or addictions that can’t be solved by just providing adequate housing.
“That’s sort of the picture of the folks who are homeless on the street...they’re also going to need some type of support services as well,” Markee said.
Elizabeth Stephens, program manager of CAMBA, a non-profit agency that provides services and programs for the city’s homeless mostly based in Brooklyn, also said that they are seeing more people using their services this year than last year.
One CAMBA center is the Eviction Prevention Unit Linden at 45 Hoyt St. in Boerum Hill, which provides help to families at risk of losing their housing. Linden is one of two centers that offers this type of service.
CAMBA also provides shelters and a drop-in center, The Gathering Place, that offers clothing, meals, phones and full social services. Stephens said the services are widely used.
“Our center’s capacity is 100 people a day and we’re pretty much at capacity,” she said.
One problem that CAMBA is facing is finding enough places for the homeless clients of the Gathering Place to sleep, because the center doesn’t provide beds. Currently there are 20 sites provided by churches and synagogues that participate in CAMBA’s Respite Bed Program but only three of them are year-long.
Marc Greenberg, executive director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, an advocacy group for homeless, said the way we view homeless people is important and helping them share their stories is equally significant.
“People can relate to what they’ve been through and talk about things they are ashamed of,” he said. “They realized that they were respected, received and acknowledged” and this helped them on the path to being okay with who they are, Greenberg said.
By the end of the discussion the group seemed to be in favor of having more meetings and discussions about long-term projects that can help prevent and fight homelessness in the city.
“I think it’s amazing to see some folks who really care about issues that may not be affecting them directly but issues that may affect their neighbors in the community," said Markee. "Anything we can do to help this growing network, we’re happy to do."
“I think we have some people who are very driven,” she said, adding that Reverend Daniel Meeter of the Old First Reformed Church was thinking of using the church as a potential Respite Bed Program space.
“I think it’s something communities will have to do more and more of because we are going to see this problem not go away. It’s going to get worse,” she said. “It’s going to be in our face and we’re going to have to deal with it.”
Jeremy Schwartz, another attendee, said he came to the event because he knew homelessness was a huge problem in the city.
“Very little is being done about it when you consider the scope of the problem," he said. "It’s really an epidemic that we can solve if there is the will politically.”
The same night, across Brooklyn, community members helped out in the HOPE count, an annual event in New York City.
Sam Dodge was one of the 3,600 registered volunteers that evening. He works with street outreach teams and has been a volunteer for HOPE for three years. On Monday, he volunteered at the site on Pacific Street.
“It’s a way to have one metric to measure how effective the street outreach programs are," he said. "When you’re looking at the dead of winter and you see who’s still rejecting shelter in very dangerous conditions it’s kind of a bottom line measurement of how we’re doing,” Dodge said.
21 teams left from P.S. 261 to count the homeless, an increase from last year.
Dodge said he hopes the new volunteers will get the sense that what they’re doing could lead to great things like ending chronic street homelessness.
“Some of the work isn’t so sexy. It’s walking the streets in the middle of the night and maybe not running into anyone but it’s so important,” he said. “We’re trying to really not just put bandaids on the problems."