Magazine Features

A place to lay his head

Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

—Matthew 8:20

Johnny Minor grew up in a house with strict rules. When he didn’t follow them, the consequences were harsh.

“I was kicked out of the house to try to teach me a lesson, but instead of me coming back when I learned my lesson, I stayed in the streets,” Minor says. “It’s been that way since 2011.”

Minor, a Harlem native, spent time in several men’s shelters. But when he suffered a mental breakdown, he entered the Kingsboro Men’s Shelter in Brooklyn run by The Salvation Army.

“When I came here, I was welcomed like family,” Minor says. “It changed my perspective on being homeless. I found comfort with people. Growing up, I really wasn’t a ‘people person.’ But here, I’m learning how to deal with different people and situations.

“I’ve learned how to take on rules, so when I get out of here, I don’t have to start back where I was seven or eight years ago.”

Minor said he also loves the Kingsboro’s staff who compassionately help him get treatment for his mental health issues.

“I’m the first person there every morning to take my meds,” he said. “Because I’m around people who welcomed me, I’ve become welcoming myself. My mental health is an issue, but not like when I first became homeless. Dealing with people in the streets and not being able to wash up played a whole role in my mental health too. I have to be comfortable in my surroundings in order for my mental health to improve.”

Kingsboro is one of three homeless shelters operated by The Salvation Army in New York, a city that continues to struggle with the problem of homelessness. The other shelters are the Briarwood Family Residence and Springfield Family Residence, both in the Jamaica section of Queens.

In New York City, homelessness has reached its highest levels since the Great Depression. The Coalition for the Homeless reported that in June, 60,849 homeless people—including 14,589 families and 21,295 children—were sleeping in New York City shelters each night. The city’s homeless population is 67 percent higher than a decade ago, while the number of homeless single adults is 142 percent higher, the coalition said.

Karen Cotugno, director of social services for The Salvation Army’s Greater New York Division, said Briarwood can accommodate 91 families and Springfield 82. Kingsboro is a temporary home for 143 men.

Cotugno said a “lack of affordable housing” is driving the homeless crisis, but there are also other issues at play.

“Many of the people on the streets are mentally ill,” she said. “The rents in New York City are high. If you have someone who is in some kind of chaotic crisis with mental health, it’s maybe difficult for them to get a job. Even if they can get a job, can they maintain it? What’s their education level? Are they going to be able to get a job that pays enough money to afford New York City rents, even with a subsidy?

“A lot of times people will say, ‘The shelters aren’t safe.’ Some of them aren’t, but I think for the most part they are. There also are rules to follow and I think a lot of times people don’t want to follow the rules and they prefer to stay out on the street. We have a lot of people who come into the system and fewer people who leave and that’s why we’re kind of bursting at the seams.”

Coming up short

Charisse Palmer, the program director at the Springfield Family Residence, agreed that the “high cost of living” is the main culprit.

“I feel like the rents in New York City are at an all–time high,” Palmer says. “A lot of the housing subsidies that we are currently receiving to give to these families is not equaling the amount of what a normal New Yorker would pay for rent.”

For example, a rent assistance voucher for a one–bedroom apartment is $1,268. That figure increases to $1,515 for a two–bedroom and $1,956 for a three–bedroom apartment, but those figures fall short of what the housing market is demanding.

“Even though we’re being given these vouchers by the New York City Department of Homeless Services, we’re still having problems moving these families back out into the community,” Palmer said. “We’re trying to persuade these landlords and brokers to rent to these families, but it’s really not realistic and the price of rents just keeps going up and up and up.”

Michelle Robinson, the program director at Briarwood Family Residence, said some landlords fail to make repairs and turn off the heat to get tenants to leave so they can hike the rent even higher. She agreed that dealing with landlords is difficult.

“We have families that have active vouchers, but landlords that are not accepting the voucher amounts,” she said.

Robinson said homelessness has changed over the last 20 years.

“The demographics of homelessness has changed tremendously, mostly due to poor mental health and substance abuse,” Robinson said. “Those are the two main challenges we see among individuals and families leading to homelessness.”

Tracy Appia, the program director at Kingsboro, agrees that poor mental health is a contributing factor. Clients must suffer a mental health issue to stay at Kingsboro. However, Appia also mentioned the high cost of housing.

“At this point, there’s a lot of turnover in housing,” she said. “There’s a lot of inventory that is being sold and being redeveloped at rents that the average person just cannot pay.”

Families with children apply for shelter at a Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) intake center operated by the city’s Department of Homeless Services. Single men, women, and adult families apply at shelters. New York has a right–to–shelter law requiring that any homeless person be housed.

Cotugno said the shelters run by The Salvation Army provide comprehensive case management and clinical social workers. Residents have access to medical care, mental health services, employment and housing specialists, and childcare at the family shelters. Local corps officers provide spiritual care.

At Briarwood and Springfield, families live in small studio apartments with refrigerators and stoves, allowing residents to cook. Briarwood and Springfield also offer a food pantry, playground, and libraries. Kingsboro features a recreation room to watch videos or play board games.

Corps connection

Robinson said residents are matched up with a housing specialist and “then we try our very best and pray hard.”

“It’s very difficult,” she said. “Many landlords and brokers have had really negative experiences with renting out their homes. They’ve had legal issues and they’ve had their property damaged. It takes a lot of encouragement to get some landlords to open up their homes to families in a shelter. There’s a stigma.”

Once someone leaves a shelter, Cotugno said she asks the program directors to point them toward the various Salvation Army corps for childcare, after–school programs, and worship.

“No matter where they’re going, there’s always a Salvation Army corps nearby,” she said. “Since I’ve become the director of social services, one of the things I’m pushing for is an integration between the corps and social services.”

The average stay in the shelters is about nine months, but Robinson said that can vary.

“We try to work with families right away by identifying the barriers,” she said. “We know every family’s challenges are different. There are some families that can actually get out in a nine–month period because there are few barriers other than finances.

“If they start working and saving, sometimes all they need is to be matched with the right apartment. There are some families, however, where there are several needs, such as mental health. Being able to find the right referral, the right therapist, those can all take time. For the most part, we meet our target, but it takes a lot of day–to–day effort.”

Palmer said the residents are reminded that a shelter is supposed to be temporary.

“There is a slew of services we offer here on–site,” she said. “However, what we also like to do is refer families outside. We don’t want them to get comfortable with the services we provide here on the inside. If they do, it’s almost like they’re lost when they go back out into the community.”

For Appia, who deals with the mental health population, it can be more challenging.

“There are people who are chronically homeless who will be here for a long duration,” she said. “There are others who are very focused and will do what they have to do and get out, but we like to average about nine months.”

When it comes to solutions, Cotugno said the city needs more affordable housing and higher housing subsidies. She also likes the idea pushed by Mayor Bill DeBlasio for more supportive housing, which features on–site services for those who have substance abuse and mental health issues.

Robinson said while the homeless issue is a “cash cow” for some, she sees many abandoned buildings in the tri–state area that could be turned into affordable housing if officials had the political will.

Cotugno and the three shelter program directors in the Greater New York Division are all Christians and said their faith is a motivating factor in why they chose to work in the field of social services.

Living by faith

Cotugno, who has worked in homeless services for both The Salvation Army and New York City since 1994, said the stories of success “keep me going.”

“I think every time I think I’ve heard it all, there’s always another story that I haven’t heard that kind of touches my heart in some way,” she said. “That still happens to me after 25 years.”

Palmer said she enjoys helping clients get the services they need for their children, while securing employment and getting into permanent housing.

“I enjoy helping people to succeed,” she said. “If I’m able to help a family break that cycle, to me, that’s a big deal.”

Appia begins her day with Bible reading and the following prayer: “May I bless someone as You have richly blessed me.”

“I seek out those opportunities to do that for people,” Appia said. “Sometimes they just present themselves and I don’t even know when I have blessed somebody, but I enjoy what I do. I enjoy being God’s representative when I come here.

“If you express to me a faith or God puts it on my heart that you can hear what I’m going to tell you, I will give you a word. But we don’t go around just randomly preaching to people.”

Appia, who grew up in East London, has an affinity for The Salvation Army beyond the average employee.

“My nanny took me there when I was a little child and it’s always had a special place in my heart,” she said. “That’s where I went to Sunday school and it’s always been a part of my life. I guess that’s how God plotted it out for me to work here, too. My Christianity will follow me wherever I go. I’m just fortunate enough to do it here.”

Robinson thought about a career in marketing but developed a passion for the homelessness issue when she worked nine years for the advocacy group Homes for the Homeless.

“I love working with people,” she said. “It was a huge blessing getting hired here. It was through The Salvation Army that I was able to take the skills from Homes for the Homeless and apply them here. I’ve applied everything I learned and use it with a whole new level of kindness. The Salvation Army has allowed me to grow even further.”

Robinson said her mother taught her kindness, empathy, and to “value people.” That’s important because the homeless can feel broken and beaten down by the system, she added.

“The biggest thing I pray for every day is just to be able to use my words for kindness, to stay silent when necessary, and to listen actively,” she said. “That’s the biggest part of the job here—to be able to listen with an open mind and heart. When working with families that have suffered ongoing trauma, it’s important to instill faith in people. I praise the Lord every single day. He guides my words and actions.

“We strive to work in a different way with our families because they have been in other facilities where they were treated less than kindly. When they get here, we try to work pro–actively to make sure that their feelings of brokenness are addressed. We try to make them whole again.”

by Robert Mitchell