Pope Francis visited New York City bearing a dramatic and poignant message: The need for a collective response to addressing income inequality and finding compassion for the poor, the needy and the homeless.
Eloquently, his Holiness spread that message across New York City. He shared it with world leaders at the United Nations, with families of loved ones lost at the Sept. 11 Memorial, with children and teachers at a Catholic school in East Harlem and with people of all walks of life at a soul-stirring Mass at Madison Square Garden. At the Mass, he spoke of thousands of faces that "pass by unnoticed... the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance (and) the homeless."
These men, women and children, he added, "stand at the edges of our great avenues, on our streets, in deafening anonymity. They (have) become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts."
His message was inspiring, uplifting and a critical call to action.
These were beautiful words and sentiments we were all touched by - but now what?
It is not enough to feel inspired and then just go on our way. We must put those words into action, and in many ways the de Blasio administration has begun to do just that, helping our city's most vulnerable get back on the path to what we call the "long journey home."
The city has committed nearly $1 billion to support our fellow New Yorkers in need and help combat homelessness, a complex problem rooted in poverty, wage stagnation, and lack of affordable housing. It also has doubled its investments in prevention programs such as HomeBase - program dedicated to keep people in their homes - and Living in Communities (LINC) - a program offering rental subsidies as a path to permanent housing. Many of these programs have led to the exit of more than 15,000 individuals into permanent housing since last fall - a substantial portion of our more than 38,000 exits system-wide.
Additionally, the administration has taken an even further step, investing $22 million in a mental health initiative aimed at helping many homeless men and women suffering from these devastating conditions.
And in the last few weeks, Mayor de Blasio and Timothy Cardinal Dolan - both of whom recently wrote op-ed columns calling for compassion and actions on behalf of the homeless -- announced "Opening Doors" -- a collaboration between churches and religious organizations to provide 500 beds for our street homeless population this coming winter. This is a far cry from previous plans to cut funding, running people off the street and into jail instead of providing shelter and solutions to this age old issue.
We are seeing progress, however, real challenges remain. This is a complex issue and much more remains to be done, work we must face collectively. We cannot continue to sensationalize the problem and allow for public shaming. Instead, we need positive action.
As Pastor Michael Walrond, Jr. of First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, wrote in the Amsterdam News: "Those living on our streets are not neighborhood clutter, nuisances or eyesores." Homelessness, he said, "is not a sign of decay and degradation, (but)... a sign of rampant inequality, lack of resources," and inadequate affordable housing. "Averting our eyes and placing blame will not make the problems go away."
We are leaders and we need to create change - from Albany to City Hall to religious organizations, dedicated non-profits and the public at large. We are in this together and need to take collective action.
Real change will not happen overnight. We will tackle this challenge head on and through collaboration, consideration and compassion, we can help our fellow New Yorkers in need.