A Decent Place to Live
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little”.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
There is a housing program in New York City called New York/New York. It is a partnership between New York City and New York State that provides funding to non-profit organizations to acquire apartment units that are used to house individuals who are suffering from the dual effects of homelessness and mental illness. A key feature of this “supportive housing” is support from non-profit staff members (such as social workers, doctors, nurses, case managers, residence counselors etc.) to help individuals maintain their housing, obtain needed treatment, and stay off the streets. Participants typically pay 30% of whatever income they have toward the cost of housing and services, with the balance of funding coming from the City and the State. There have been reports that while social service organizations have been lobbying for the creation of 30,000 more New York/New York units over the next 10 years, both Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo propose developing far fewer units.
From 2006 to 2009 I worked for a non-profit agency that provided supportive housing under New York/New York and other similar programs. (I still write funding proposals for non-profits, sometimes for supportive housing, but I am now an independent consultant). My function at the agency was administrative (hey, somebody has to do the paperwork), and so for the most part I had limited contact with the clients. But one contact that I did have with a client of another agency has stuck with me through the years, and I want to share the story of that meeting. The agency that I worked for participated in a consortium of government agencies, non-profits, and consumers that administered a block grant from the Federal government to provide housing and services to the homeless. The consortium established teams of three to provide technical assistance to programs that were having trouble meeting government goals and objectives. I was on one of these teams, and we visited a supportive housing program in Brooklyn. We carried with us a checklist of services that the program was supposed to be providing, and we asked residents if they were receiving these required services. We met with residents individually and started by asking them “what do they do for you here?” Most replied along the lines of “they helped me find a job”; “they helped me to open a bank account”; “they taught me how to shop for healthy food” etc., and we would dutifully check these items on our services checklist.
Then we met with our final client of the day. When we asked him “what do they do for you here?” he looked at us like we were the ones suffering from serious mental illness, and in retrospect I can understand why. He then shook his head, looked straight at us and said “You know what they do for me here? They give me a decent place to live, with a real bed and a real bathroom, and they’re helping me to live a real life”. I haven’t forgotten this man and what he said, and I doubt I ever will. And none of us should forget the words of President Roosevelt cited above. The richest nation on earth can well afford to provide a decent life for our fellow Americans who through a combination of illness and bad luck need a helping hand. What would it cost us to do this? Collect a few extra tax dollars from people who have more money than they know what to do with. What would it cost us to not do this? Our humanity.