By: Amber Vuylsteke
Que (32) is a social worker at Mainchance, a drop-in center for homeless adults in Manhattan, New York City. On an average day the shelter serves 200 people and around 70 stay for the night. “People are homeless, but it’s not that they don’t have options. It’s not always about a home. I’m sure everyone can stay somewhere for the night, if they want to. But some people just choose to sleep on the streets.”
Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York promised to open 90 new shelters, but has only opened 17 new ones in 2018. Although, Que says there is space enough for everyone. “More shelters is always a good thing but there’s confusion about the number of homeless people who are out there. There’s a difference between the total and the number of people who are actually looking for help.”
Every homeless person has the option to come for help. The city sends teams to go out on a daily basis and search for homeless people to see if they want to go to shelters or stay on the street. Que: “A lot of them choose to stay. They don’t consider themselves as homeless, they are happy with the way they live.” The social worker thinks sending out teams is already a big step, but the government could do more: “There’s a big disconnection between the government and the homeless people. For the government, they’re just a number. Both sides have their own point of views.”
At Mainchance, every person can come in at any time of the day. The shelter serves food three times a day and gives everyone the possibility to shower. Mainchance works together with the churches WHICH ONES? to give people beds for the night. Que says there’s a place for everyone.
For Que, it’s all about connecting with people: “I try to work really personal with them and show respect. I get to know their strengths and weaknesses. You need to earn their trust.”
One third of all homeless people in New York have mental problems. The shelter works together with the hospital. If it’s necessary, there’s always a doctor available for everyone. “We try to get the people who need it on medication. People sometimes end up living on the streets because of their mental problems, others get mental issues by living on the streets. It’s a bit of both. A lot of them are veterans from the war in Iraq,” says Que.
Most of the people who come to the drop-in center searching for help are born in the United States, but some of them are immigrants too. “Some people fly in from other countries to search for a new life in the city. They come to us to search for a way to start their life, they need help. But it depends what the person is looking for, everyone’s story is different.”
In the shelters, winter is the most busy time of the year. Although, also that changes. Que: “I already work in the shelter for four years and I notice that the winter is getting less busy every year because it’s not as cold as it used to be. But if it’s really cold or rainy, we have more people who want to stay for the night.”
What many people don’t know is that homeless people aren’t always unhappy. Que: “In my experience, somebody who’s homeless is more comfortable than us. They don’t need to pay bills, they have no responsibilities. They are free. They can have food and a shower here, they have a bed. Nobody tells them what to do and they don’t need to look after anyone. They move around and come around when they feel like it. Just doing what they want to do and making their own decisions is what makes them happy. It’s all about freedom.”
“For the government, homeless people are just a number”
But of course, not every homeless person feels that way. Some of them are dying to go back to the normal life and function in the society again. Mainchance tries to help them get back on their feet as much as possible. Que: “For everyone it’s different. Some of them really want their own apartment, others just want a job or an ID. We help them to save money and reach their goals.”
And luckily, reaching their goals happens very often. The shelter organises a ‘Hall of Fame’ every three months: “People who moved on with their lives are invited to share their story. They tell the others how they came here and what they did to go on with their lives. It’s a great way to inspire the our other clients, to give them hope. I believe there’s always a way, you just need to want it and get after it.”
Facts about homelessness in New York City
- In October 2018, there were 63,559 homeless people, including 15,572 homeless families with 23,136 homeless children.
- The number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping each night in municipal shelters is now 75 percent higher than it was ten years ago.
- Research shows that the primary cause of homelessness, particularly among families, is lack of affordable housing.
- One third of all homeless people in New York have mental illness.
- 58 percent of New York City homeless shelter residents are African-American, 31 percent are Latino, 7 percent are white, less than 1 percent are Asian-American, and 3 percent are of unknown race/ethnicity.