Foundry United Methodist Church

Rosanne Haggerty, Guest Preacher

 

 

 

 “When One Suffers, All Suffer”

Sunday, April 27, 2008

 

 

1 Corinthians 12: 12-26


Haggerty

Rosanne Haggerty

 

Today’s reading is a familiar one.  Paul offers the body as a vivid way to illustrate the depth of our interdependence. On some level, I imagine most of us believe that.  We know what it is to feel the hurts of our children, our parents, or others close to us as if they were our own. We feel deep concern and empathy for those we know or merely hear about who are suffering. In recent years, though, I’ve come to suspect that there’s more going on in this reading, and that it is profoundly unsettling.  What if we are being told that we are not simply to feel sympathy, and act mercifully, as though we could choose to or not.  What if this reading is not trying to encourage us to care for each other, but is actually revealing something to us, and that our lives depend on our hearing it? What if it is telling us that our health – the functioning of each of our bodies, families, institutions and neighborhoods – is connected to, is dependent on, the health and functioning of all, and that working for the health of others is not an option,  but necessary and essential for our own health and survival?

 

In recent years, this reading, and its meaning, has become a kind of stake in the ground for me and my organization, Common Ground, in our work to end homelessness. It has pushed us beyond merely providing homes for homeless people: it has gradually restored our sense of urgency about homelessness, and has caused us to question, and ultimately to change, our whole response to those living on the street.  It moved us from being an organization that helped homeless people to one that works to end homelessness.

 

I am honored to be here at Foundry to talk about ending homelessness, and about the work you’re doing and the work we’re doing at Common Ground.

 

About 18 years ago, I stopped in to see the old Times Square Hotel on 43rd Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan.  I had been developing affordable housing for homeless and low income people at a not for profit development group in Brooklyn and Queens.  We were doing good work. From time to time, though, I would find myself taking stock of all our activity.  Homelessness was growing and was more visible.  Shelters were expanding.

 

So, when an old hotel in Times Square was going to be auctioned in bankruptcy court, it captured my imagination.  I saw a chance to create many permanent homes for homeless people in a mainstream environment as an alternative to what appeared to be the never-ending expansion of shelters and people living on the streets of New York.

 

Common Ground thus began, and our first project, the Times Square Hotel, produced 652 studio apartments. We had a mix of tenants: lower income working people had an opportunity to live there as well as formerly homeless individuals.  It turned out to be a terrific win-win for the community and the homeless.  For a fraction of the cost of operating a 24 hour shelter, Common Ground could offer individuals their own home. And the neighboring businesses and property owners were thrilled to have a well run apartment building in a restored landmark building instead of a disruptive eyesore.  By having the support services tenants needed, such as health and mental health care, budgeting and job links right in the building, tenants could get back on their feet and leave homelessness behind.  In addition to making sense morally, we demonstrated that providing housing and support in rebuilding lives makes economic sense.  Supportive housing costs a fraction of what is spent on hospitals, shelters and jails-the places that homeless people rely on in the absence of housing.

 

The Times Square was completed in 1994, and was considered a tremendous success. It was featured on news shows; people began visiting from all over the world.

 

Yet for all the project’s success, the numbers of homeless in New York City continued to increase.  So, Common Ground kept building. We created three other large, successful supportive housing residences, providing life changing help to thousands.  Yet, still, the numbers of the homeless grew.

 

For a time, we debated whether that was our problem. After all, we were doing our part, we’d say.

 

But it was impossible to escape the fact we were not even impacting what was happening on streets right around us in Manhattan.  The same poor souls remained on our neighborhood streets, even as we added more and more housing.  As Paul would say, we regularly encountered the suffering part of our body when we walked past individuals sleeping in doorways and on church steps.

 

Ultimately, we concluded we needed to radically change our practices.

 

Historically, we had taken applications from shelters, from people about to lose their housing, from those in great need.  But because we had so many applications for our housing we had prioritized those who were the most motivated: those who got their paper work in first, followed up on appointments for interviews, were working hardest to stay off drugs or alcohol or getting treatment for their mental illness or health problems. Practically, that seemed to make sense but it was not achieving the greater goal of ending homelessness.

 

We decided to do the opposite: to directly seek out and house that small percentage of the homeless, about 15%, who remained in shelters for years, not days.

 

Research had revealed differential patterns of shelter use.  Most people who experience homelessness do so for a brief period. Yet others became trapped in homelessness, and are unable to escape the situation on their own. They enter a state of chronic homelessness – and account for the vast predominance of shelter use and visible street homelessness. They also tend to suffer from a combination of mental health, drug addiction and medical problems – and thus are the most costly to municipal, state and federal governments.

 

We started going into shelters looking specifically for these individuals.  And we also began looking for those who had been on the street the longest, doing our best to persuade them to let us help them find housing

 

As we did this, we shifted our focus to those who were trapped in homelessness the longest and who had lived years on the streets, their suffering visible to us all. They also often had been the most resistant and unattractive. As we did this, something profound began to happen: homelessness began to decline.  In the 20 blocks around our Times Square building, the most concentrated area of street homelessness in New York City, we reduced street homelessness by 87% by focusing on the most vulnerable, those trapped in homelessness the longest. Others followed our lead in New York, beginning to help the most vulnerable homeless move directly from the street into housing in one community after another. In the shelters, those who had been trapped the longest were moved to the head of the list for housing. Homelessness has now decreased 19% in shelters and 25% on the street in the past two years.

 

It’s not magic at work, it’s a strategy.

 

We are now showing communities how they can end homelessness, not merely help homeless people. We have moved beyond our work in New York City to assist colleagues in other cities who are equally committed to ending homelessness. We are part of a national movement that is working to end homelessness in the United States within a decade. Over 300 cities, including Washington DC, have created local plans to accomplish this. We are honored to now be a partner of Foundry through the Washington Interfaith Network, and to be working with you to end homelessness in this City. In particular, we look forward to creating 2,500 units of supportive housing for those homeless in greatest need in Washington

 

In closing, let me return to Paul’s challenge and reflect that in working with those who seem the most difficult, most ill, most needy- with the least desirable parts of our communal body – and in succeeding in helping them to transform their lives, my colleagues and I – our whole organization – has been transformed. We have had our own health restored.

 

Thank you for the work you do for the homeless. We are delighted to now be working with you to end homelessness.  Thank you.

       

 

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