Our focus on the city's homeless population is part of an ongoing conversation engaging politicians and citizens alike. We discuss the count, cause, interventions and solutions, while griping or sympathizing or just feeling numb about the acute suffering at our doorstep. For the most part, we watch from the sidelines as a multitude of professionals and volunteers work daily to house, feed, heal and address our roughly 60,000 neighbors without homes.
A month ago, I wrote about the ad hoc network of soup kitchens and feeding programs, which provide thousands of meals daily in a multitude of formats and locations. But what of the meals within the system of 271 shelters themselves?
It has been frustrating -- the attempt to find out what the men, women and children in the shelter system of New York City are fed is obscured to the point of evoking my intense curiosity and borderline suspicion. On the surface, one might imagine that the struggle to find shelter, a bed, a safe haven for a family or mentally ill individual to spend the night eclipses the mundane conversation of "What's for dinner." That is until you realize that for any of us, skipping one or two meals is cause for alarm.
My search yielded limited information that requires further exploration. While I ate a meal served in a shelter, I wanted to experience several -- a goal I will pursue.
What I didn't expect was how deeply I fell into trying to understand more about homelessness as well as the theories of causation, the history of the city's responses, the contentious political landscape over funding solutions and the array of strategies to alleviate, or more accurately, solve the problem for individuals and for families.
I spent several hours with Muzzy Rosenblatt, executive director of the Bowery Residents' Committee, a remarkable professional who has led the 43-year old organization with the most sensitive and respectful ideology. Touring the West 25th Street facility in Chelsea brought people and problems into clear view, which no one would associate with this trendy neighborhood. BRC has outreach teams in the city's transit system offering the persistently homeless an opportunity to get off the street when they are ready to come in. The operating philosophy was completely unexpected: "What matters more than what we do is how we do it. We don't see problems or illnesses -- we see people and opportunities. We don't simply repair ... we help each individual to understand and overcome the challenges they've faced."
The kitchen at BRC was as unexpected as its mission. A lot of scratch cooking of simple dishes by a staff engaged in their daily tasks of chopping, slicing and watching simmering pots or rotating pans in the oven. Some cooks had worked their way up, off the streets to stability and a culinary job. The inventory included frozen and canned items in the walk-ins and pantry as well as fresh ingredients; meals served at other BRC sites were prepared here. Lunch was satisfying and simple. This population has serious health challenges and meals that are easily digestible, with low sodium and sugar and not expensive to produce is critical. Over 75 percent of individuals in BRC programs have addiction and/or mental illness issues.
Eating lunch was the easy part. Walking through the dormitories was not. The sights and smells will stay with me. What's more, this is a good shelter.
For 10 years, Karen Cotugno of The Salvation Army worked with homeless families including at one of the city's largest family shelters, Carlton House (a former Best Western Hotel near JFK Airport) and eight years with the Department of Homeless Services as a program analyst. In 2013, she returned to The Salvation Army, at the Franklin Avenue Armory Women's shelter, an intake and assessment shelter. She's now deputy director of Social Services Administration with the organization. She shared her perspective, derived from an obvious dedication to helping people along with an informed view of the political, economic and social threads of the current crisis. The hardcore homeless population with mental illness and substance abuse travels the route between jail, hospitals, streets and, at times, shelters. The surge in homelessness has been met with increased oversight and guidelines despite insufficient resources to address the growing needs. I learned about performance targets at shelters and the work done to move families out of the system. A good staff actively involves residents in programs, has relationships with brokers to assist in finding suitable apartments, and push clients to get services and support.
Asking her about food made me feel silly, but then again, eating is an essential human function, never mind the intangible significance of meals. The Salvation Army contracts with Whitson's Culinary Group, a Long Island based food service company, which counts schools, healthcare, corporations and emergency dining among its clients. While it doesn't list shelters on its website, their menus follow Health Department guidelines regarding analysis of calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, fiber and protein (as were the menus at BRC).
If given a magic wand, Karen would make supportive housing available and affordable (read, subsidized). Here is where the economics of the situation started to overwhelm me: the cost of renting rooms/property for shelter at premium pricing; the cost of emergency services and the cost of the overall exorbitant and unaffordable system. What are the different scenarios that might mitigate homelessness, what are those costs? The city shoulders 73 percent of the cost for single adults while the federal government foots 58 percent of the cost for sheltering families.
The Coalition for the Homeless is an incredible resource for information; advocacy; direct support to the homeless while providing a measure of transparency on the subject we wish would go away. Their website reports the monthly count of the homeless population, broken down by families and single adults. They championed the landmark Legal Aid case that established the right to shelter for homeless adult men (Callahan v. Carey, settled in 1981), which is unique to New York City. The coalition's program director, Tim Campbell, talked easily about food in the shelter system. "It is important for everyone," he said, to highlight its connection to the ability to respond to immense challenges when you are homeless. "How much sleep, how much food. Diet makes you feel. Tastier food feels good." He outlined the hierarchy of needs starting with shelter and stability but connected the general outlook directly to what you eat. This population has enormous health issues -- from diet-related disease to obesity and chronic physical illness. Processed and carb heavy food is poison -- and there is great variation in what shelters serve despite DOH guidelines.
Not all shelters provide food and the expanded (and growing) use of hotels means no on-site meals. These residents need to access food stamp allowances to shop, which sounds OK but for the fact that families in crisis are not shoppers or cooks like you and me.
We talked for a long time and I am deeply grateful for the education and insight. Tim would use his magic wand exactly like Karen -- to provide affordable housing with support services.
In the end, this story does not have a conclusion. Homelessness is not new and is perhaps unavoidable. But how we address it and what role each of us plays in finding solutions is a test of who we are. And -- what is on a plate is in a very small way a measurement of our humanity.
This piece was originally published in Our Town.