Record Number of Families Seek Room in New York Homeless Shelters

December 24, 2008

The first snow of the season arrived just as my parents and I left BLTfish, a fabulous seafood restaurant just west of Union Square.

The snow wasn’t sticking to the ground, but the heavy, wet clumps stuck to and soaked my wool jacket as I walked my mom and dad across 23rd Street so they could catch a cab to Penn Station and make the next trainback to New Jersey.

I hailed them a cab and kissed them goodnight and as the taxi sped away I pulled out my blackberry to check my messages before walking downtown.

I was scrolling through the nonsense when a young man, about 20 or 21 years old, five years younger than me, started talking to me.

“Excuse me, sir,” he asked, “Can you help me with some money?”

I hardly ever give money to panhandlers, but his voice sounded particularly scared. My jacket was now soaked with wet snow, so I reached into my pocket, thought about what my parents had just paid for my dinner, and gave him a $5 bill.

“Thanks a lot, man. You’re the first person that’s helped me out,” he said.

“No problem,” I said as I started to walk away.

The young man walked along next to me and, like a hobo, pointed to his rucksack: “This is everything I have right here.” But a hobo might have said it proudly.

I walked silently, so he spoke again, unable to quiet a reflexive quiver of desperation:

“Do you know what happened to me in the shelter last night, man? They stole my cell phone.”

I now felt guilty not just for being stuffed with an incredibly delicious meal, but also for checking the latest mass e-mail from Barack Obama in the snow.

“My cell phone, man! Now how am I supposed to get a job? I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

“I’m sorry, man,” I said as I turned down 18th street, away from him as he was getting a little intense.

“Well, thanks a lot, man,” he said. We parted ways.

I walked the half-mile towards the Union Square L station thinking: Is there a better way to symbolize the helplessness of the first Recession of the 21st Century than the fear you hear in the voice of a homeless person who’s just had his cell phone stolen? Without a physical address or a place to check emails regularly, how are you supposed to get a call for a job. It is not just a luxury. It is one of the last links to modern life.

Since then, I’ve felt that I’ve noticed a rise in New York City’s homeless population. I have only commented on it with friends as, “Something’s in the air.” I feel that I hear stories of street crime, muggings, and new graffiti more frequently. But the rise in homeless population is something I reluctantly comment on with friends because I am not counting the number of people I see on the street during my morning and evening commutes. But the City is counting and the increase is real:

In what some see as a sign of the economic downturn’s impact on the city’s poorest, more families entered the homeless shelter system in September than in any other month since data has been collected.

Some 1,446 families entered shelter in September, city officials said. That was the highest number in one month since the city began keeping track 25 years ago. In each of the past three months, the city has seen record numbers of families admitted to shelter.

via Record Number of Families Seek Room in New York Homeless Shelters – NYTimes.com.

Nobody has to tell anybody else how terrible homelessness is. It is a a shanda, as my mother and grandmothers and great-grandmothers would have said. So here I am searching the web looking for volunteer opportunities to help out on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when I would otherwise be eating Chinese food or going to the movies or watching TV. But there is hardly any information available, even on The Mayor’s Volunteer Center website. It’s frustrating when you want to help but it seems so hard to access the points that need it. I’m not writing to vent my frustration; I just want to share the vibe I’m having because, you know, since we just elected a “Change” President, perhaps sharing the vibe is the first step towards organizing to make a small difference in somebody’s life.

If you’re interested in volunteering in NYC with me, drop me a note in the comments section, and maybe we can get something going on.

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