Dignity for Homeless

The Portland Press Herald | January 24, 1990

By Anna Quindlen

New York – When Ellen Baxter was working on a report about the homeless people of New York City, she went into shelters and subway stations and parks to talk to them about their lives.

The problem was enormous but her conclusion was simple.

“It was so obvious to me that what they wanted was a place to live,” she says. “They wanted a key and a room where they could lock the door.”

That was 10 years ago, and in that time the number of homeless people has multiplied and the patience of the public has worn thin.

It seems the homeless have always been with us and its’ begun to occur to us that lots of them are people we don’t like very much.

Ten years ago some of the homeless were older people, disenfranchised by misfortune or fire or expensive building rehabilitations.

Some were former mental patients sent to the streets by government policy that said large institutions were an affront to humanity but provided few small ones in their place.

The old homeless are still on the streets, but the holes in the societal safety net have spit out new companions.

Young men rove the bus terminal, some of them just out of jail, seemingly looking for a way back in.

Young women push strollers in midtown at midnight, tired of the four walls of the welfare hotel and three kids under the age of 4.

In one subway station a homeless man lies on the floor at the foot of the stairs and orders passers-by, “Put money the money in the cup.”

This has made people angry, and no wonder. The problem is, some of them get angry at the homeless.

“Not in my neighborhood,” we say about shelters, but it’s already too late. If they’re not in your neighborhood yet, sleeping in doorways, looking through the dumpsters for dinner, they will be soon.

To explain our antipathy we say that the problem is too big and intractable to solve. While we’ve been saying that, people like Baxter have been quietly trying to solve it.

In 1986, Baxter opened The Heights in a stolid gray apartment building with a panoramic view of the ramps to the George Washington Bridge.

There are 55 permanent tenants, veterans of such diverse venues as the 181st Street subway station, High Bridge Park and the Fort Washington Armory, where 800 beds may be lined up across the floor on any given night to welcome those who have no place to go.

The people who live in The Heights, and the three other buildings Baxter now oversees, are people with problems. They are people, some of them, who have smoked crack and passed out drunk and spent time in psychiatric wards, and who may do so in the future.

But they once were homeless and now are living with leases, with keys, some with jobs, all with dignity. Their subsidized rent comes out of a welter of entitlement programs and, in some cases, their own wages.

They still may bot be people we like very much. That shouldn’t matter, but it does. We like to like the people we help, to have a poster child.

It is time to grow up about this. Public policy cannot be determined by our collective warm fuzzies.

We may have one of two motives in this matter, vastly different but leading us to the same place.

We can demand that government finance more small permanent residences like The Heights because that is the right thing to do, because we have looked in to the faces of homeless men and women and occasionally recognized ourselves.

That probably requires more than most of us can find within ourselves at this point, after explaining to our children why the man is swearing at the fire hydrant, after having someone urinate in our doorway.

But also consider that The Heights costs about $15 per person per day, including the cost of its staff of social workers and counselors. The armory, that vast expanse of temporary beds, costs at least twice that.

Look at it from a purely selfish point of view as well. You want the sidewalks and the parks to be clear again. You want to be left alone and not importuned for a dollar a dozen times a day.

And up in Washington Heights, and in other quietly compassionate places all over the city, there are people who can help make that happen in a way that will not shame us as human beings.

© 2020 Broadway Housing Communites, Inc.