Homelessness: Big-City Problem, Right? Well, No

This story in the NY Times is about homelessness in Westchester County. However, it could be about any town or county in New Jersey. Thus, we found this article a very realistic assessment of the homelessness crisis in NJ! Please share your comments.

Homelessness: Big-City Problem, Right? Well, No

The New York Times, April 1, 2007

HOMELESS in Westchester? Can’t be. This is a county of homes, of mellowing Victorians and pleasantly musty Tudors where a night under soft comforters — with or without the snoring spouse — is practically a right.

But more than 300 men and women and about 300 families are homeless in Westchester, and every once in a while, something happens to startle us into awareness that those not in shelters may be sleeping on suburban byways. In early March, jerry-built huts were found along Port Chester’s commuter tracks, one with a TV set powered by borrowed current. Shades of Depression-era Hoovervilles!

More significant has been the mini-fiasco surrounding the relocation of the county’s drop-in center, a euphemism for 43 emergency cots in the basement of an avant-garde Department of Social Services building in White Plains. With the mayor, developers and restaurateurs complaining about unsightly drifters in a downtown where opulent towers are rising, Andrew J. Spano, the county executive, wanted to move the center near police headquarters in Hawthorne.

But local officials protested, and it turned out that an agreement reached when another shelter opened in 2005 forbids new shelters within two miles of the center of the county’s Grasslands campus. Mr. Spano, who claims to have reduced the numbers of homeless families and singles by 54 percent since 1998, had moved the drop-in center to downtown from an airport hangar, where some people thought it worked well. Now he seems stuck with a makeshift shelter across from his office. He is brainstorming with the county’s mayors.

The homeless system is a thing of shreds and patches, a Rube Goldberg contraption that could be conceived only by government bureaucracies. Its absurdities persuade men to choose homelessness. Shelters like the 38-bed Open Arms in White Plains house men in relatively pleasant conditions while seeking to get them rent vouchers and treatment for drug or mental problems. But there are strings attached. Those admitted are required to turn over all but $45 of their monthly $690 Supplemental Security Income checks and to accept 20-hour-a-week jobs. A more basic obstacle is producing identification, not simple for vagabonds.

“If you’ve ever had to replace your Social Security card or driver’s license, you’d find it tough,” said Paul Anderson-Winchell, executive director of Grace Church Community Center, which runs Open Arms. “For people dealing with substance abuse or mental health issues, it’s very tough.”

Then take the drop-in process for those spurning shelters. These incorrigibly homeless must assemble by 10 p.m. on the desolate corner across from the county courthouse, and a Volunteers of America van ferries them two and a half blocks — that’s right — to Social Services’ heartbreak hotel. When the 43 beds fill, the driver shuttles the rest to a dozen shelters scattered around the county. These uninvited guests are roused before dawn to spend the day roaming White Plains’ streets, perhaps taking a shower or playing chess at Open Arms, then snatching lunch at a soup kitchen. Homeless single women, a smaller corps, are taken to Grace Church’s Samaritan House.

There are probably Westchesterites who believe the homeless should get their act together. But the decisions of the homeless have a logic of their own. Talk with David Jackson, a charming 52-year-old ex-convict who sports a blue doo-rag and two ear studs. He grew up in foster care, graduated from Mount Vernon High School and has spent 15 years in shelters. He no longer wants to play the game.

“I’m tired of being on welfare,” he said, adding that he was weary of proving his identity and turning over S.S.I. checks.

He wants a job. But no one is hiring him because of his prison record. He doesn’t want to work as a laborer, as immigrants do, because he has a certificate in building maintenance from a social-service organization.

“I got a little brain in me, so I don’t want to do manual labor,” he said.

In other words, he would rather spend nights sleeping next to men who, as he artfully put it, are not “hygienically aware.”

The homeless problem is complicated because of the kinds of delusions that nurtured the denizens of Harry Hope’s bar in Eugene O’Neill’s “Iceman Cometh.” More than a few of the lucid homeless cling to pipe dreams rather than face the truth about how they may be contributing to their plight. In America, they can, so to speak, make their bed and sleep in it.

The only solution, experts say, is trickle-down — build housing affordable to the working class so rooms become available for the poor and the homeless. The county is providing rental assistance, and Mayor Joseph M. Delfino of White Plains is asking market-rate developers to set aside money they might be obligated to spend on affordable units for rent subsidies.

But most communities don’t want affordable housing either. So like death, taxes and the incomplete Second Avenue subway, the homeless will always be with us.

E-mail: joeberg@nytimes.com