The Challenge of Homelessness

Jim MelchiorreJim Melchiorre, one of three co-chairs of the Women’s Shelter that is operated jointly by Congregation B’nai Jeshurun and SPSA, spoke recently at a panel on  The Challenge of Homelessness: Strategies to Provide Support and Restore Hope” at the Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Retreat for Social Justice.

Here is an excerpt from his talk:

We are able to operate five nights a week, fifty-two weeks a year only because we have more than a hundred volunteers who display an astounding and inspiring dedication to the gift of hospitality to the women who are our guests. Those volunteers are members of BJ and SPSA, members of another small congregation, West Park Presbyterian, and dozens of other volunteers, many of whom have no religious affiliation but who believe in supporting the work we do together.

Our shelter operation began in the mid-1980s when former New York City Mayor Ed Koch challenged houses of worship and religious congregations to step up and assist with the crisis of homelessness. The idea of synagogues, mosques, churches, other communities of faith providing shelter for the vulnerable of our community is not a new idea. In fact, it’s a really old idea.

And that brings us to the issue of a faith-based shelter or, in our case, an interfaith-based shelter. Everybody who volunteers to join our work, or even simply inquires about the possibility of becoming a volunteer, receives a resource guide that includes these words on the first page:

Being a shelter volunteer is an act of great devotion and generosity, one that grows out of imperatives that our religious traditions consider a mitzvah and a sacred duty. As we read in Deuteronomy 15:11: For there will never cease to be needy ones in the land; therefore I command you, saying, “You shall surely open your hand to the poor in your land.”

We don’t preach to our guests, we never proselytize. However, the paragraph we just heard, with the verse from the Torah, is the foundational premise on which our faith-based shelter rests.

Formally, as far as the city is concerned, we are a Respite Bed shelter, which means that we receive between ten and fifteen guests who are already enrolled in a program at the Antonio Olivieri Drop-In Center. Some of our guests have part-time jobs, others are in job-training, one in recent months was enrolled at Hunter College. Our guests generally remain with us for eight to twelve months before they find housing. In the past year, six or seven of our guests have moved out and into their own apartments. When that happens, they rejoice, the other guests rejoice, and so do our volunteers because we have all become part of the same community.

Logistically, our shelter is operated each night by two set-up volunteers, who work from 7 to 9 p.m., and two different volunteers who come in at 9 p.m. and sleep over until the following morning. We also have a food coordinator who recruits and schedules meal donors for each night.

A word about advocacy. In the Christian tradition, we often talk about the need to balance charity with justice. Perhaps the most succinct and dramatic quote on the subject comes from the late Dom Hélder Câmara, a Roman Catholic Archbishop in Recife, Brazil: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

That’s why doing advocacy is harder than simply providing services in a shelter. Done correctly, with true commitment, it forces us to look deeply at our society, and deeply at ourselves. Those of us at the BJ-SPSA shelter believe in advocacy work, we have done such work although I will confess that we have certainly not done enough. Back in 2004 and 2006, we organized voter registration at our shelter locations so that our guests could play at least that small role in the political process that affects them. In 2009, a new policy at the city’s Department of Homeless Services called for the elimination of about two-thirds of the 24-7 drop-in centers and sought to transform all the synagogue and church beds into a model that would have almost certainly meant the end of our work as we currently do it. Three of us from the BJ-SPSA shelter testified before a committee of the City Council, advising against the change because of its effect on our guests. The change did not occur.

Finally I think we should be cautious about the idea that, through advocacy, we speak for those who have no voice. That’s elitist and presumptuous and false, because people who are currently without a home are certainly quite able to speak for themselves. Picture the Homeless is the most obvious example of that. So I am coming around to the position of Bishop Julio Murray of the Episcopal Diocese of Panama who says: I do not need to become the voice of someone else. I need to make sure that that someone else, that person who’s excluded, can speak for themselves…. I don’t have to speak on their behalf. I have to make sure that they were at the table where the decision would be made, and the church does that, because that’s part of our prophetic call.” For those of us who represent the synagogue, the church, the mosque, or any faith community, I would offer that vision for your consideration as the best model for advocacy. Thank you.

Anyone interested in volunteering to help with our shelter or learning more should contact us.



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About Tom Hart

Web Developer, photographer, paddler. Lives on Jersey's Hackensack River and supports SPSA's mission of inclusiveness, social responsibility and living the good life in NYC.