An affluent Orthodox Jewish family of 12 in Brooklyn recently lost their business. Soon afterwards they lost their home when they could not keep up with the monthly payments. The New York City Marshall’s Office removed their belongings from the house and then locked the family out. While they scrambled to find a new place to live, all of their possessions were carted away. This happened right before Pesach this year. They were sent to live in a New York City emergency shelter in Queens. They had to commute daily to Brooklyn for school, and kosher meals were delivered to them once a day. This tragedy happened through no fault of their own. This is something that could happen to anyone at any time, Rachmana litzlan.
I explored the options available to meet the unique needs of a frum person seeking emergency shelter. I toured a homeless facility for single men on Ward Island. After passing through a metal detector and security guards, I was able to see a huge space with cinderblock walls. There are many rows of beds, and small nightstands. The beds are industrial mattresses on top of a metal frame. Each person must check in anew every day with whatever they own. If the shelter is full then one must find another facility that is still accepting people, or they must sleep outdoors. Food is available and there are even a few classrooms. One man told me that his meager possessions were stolen as he slept on more than one occasion. Fights can also break out without prior warning.
I also visited a women’s shelter in Brownsville. They too had metal detectors, guards, beds, and classrooms. It somehow felt more welcoming than the men’s shelter. There was a long hallway on the second floor with several smaller rooms rather than the big open sleeping space at the facility on Ward Island. However, it is a last resort option for those who have nowhere else to go.
Families with minor children who are in need of emergency housing must travel to the Bronx. There is a central intake office of the Department of Homeless Services called PATH (Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing) that never closes. People must show ID for every member of their family when they first apply, even for infants. Imagine keeping those handy during a stressful time. DHS agents evaluate the need as well as try to resolve the original issue which put the family on the streets. This can take up to 10 days, during which the family is placed in temporary housing. Then a determination is made regarding eligibility. New York City pays private companies a nightly rate to house families in need. The families have no control of which borough they will be placed. This is why that frum family was sent to Queens, even though their children attend yeshivos in Brooklyn.
There are agencies such as Women in Need, Camba Housing Ventures, and Help USA which work to address the needs of the homeless. There is also a small privately-run shelter for men in a shul not far from Marine Park. Last month, a New York Times article reported that there are approximately 78,000 people classified as homeless in New York City. The majority of those go to homeless shelters every night. But the unique needs of a frum homeless individual or family with minor children remain an issue for which we as a community must prepare a practical and accessible solution. We have Hatzolah for medical emergencies and Chaveirim for general assistance. Shomrim watches over our neighborhoods. Shouldn’t we also have a number to call at any hour when we have nowhere to go?
I recently attended a meeting with Shea Rubenstein of the Jewish Community Council of Marine Park together will a few other concerned members of our community to brainstorm about what can be done about this issue. I feel confident that there are enough concerned neighbors here to gather the resources needed to ensure that none of our own are ever forced to be rely on this standard government solution. There must be a way to get this done, and we must find a way to offer real hachnassas orchim to those truly in need.