The Plight of the Chronically Homeless: A Life Changing Interview With Charlotte Abrams
It was a lazy, sunny, summer afternoon and I did not know that today my life was going to change.
They say that every experience you have, every person you meet, and every conversation you take part in has a profound effect on your subconscious. Other times experiences affect you in such a jolting way that they inspire you to actively transform. That afternoon was one of those moments for me, and I will do my best to share it with you.
During the first week of my summer internship, at The Student Maximus Magazine in New York City, I was informed that I would be writing about “Talent” and “Inspiration,” those ever-elusive and vague terms used to describe only the loftiest of characteristics for us mortals. I smiled and nodded, saying that sounds wonderful, not knowing that the series of interviews I would conduct would dramatically change my worldview and question my own values. My first interview was with Charlotte Abrams, a New York University Reynolds Scholar, and who is currently a senior at NYU majoring in Economics and minoring in Social Entrepreneurship.
I was scheduled to meet Charlotte in Bryant Park. I chose a table and as I began to settle my things in order, an out of breath woman barely managed to choke out a request to rest at my table for a moment. Without a thought I urged her to sit down and rest. Seconds later, Charlotte came by, smiling jauntily and the woman, noticing that she had taken Charlotte's future chair, apologized and began to stand up. Charlotte of course would not have it, insisting that the stranger remain seated. She easily solved the problem by bringing over an additional chair. Why add this seemingly insignificant anecdote that shows off our kindness to old ladies, you may ask? It was as if the universe knew we were about to start off an interview about homelessness and housing issues.
Charlotte Abrams has dedicated her life to fighting homelessness. Nurtured at home by her parents to help others and inspired by her brother with Asperger’s Syndrome who encouraged her to assist those in need, it was no wonder that, in high school, Charlotte volunteered at Midnight Mission, a soup kitchen and shelter located in Los Angeles. It was there that she befriended Robert, one of the first homeless men that she met. Developing a relationship with him gave a face to and a tangible glimpse into a reality so many Americans have trouble grasping: homelessness.
With her family involved in real estate development, Charlotte had a natural head for business and her life seemed set out for her. However, she did not forget her experience at Midnight Mission; “My plan was to be involved in business, but to also incorporate giving back to the community in my practices,” Charlotte said. Getting involved and learning more about homelessness led Charlotte to discover that an extremely vulnerable population, the chronically homeless, were not being properly cared for and were falling through the cracks. Perhaps worst of all, they were never given a real chance to stand on their own two feet.
Charlotte explained that the chronically homeless were often those suffering from mental illnesses caused by socio-economic situations and traumatizing life events. The causes range from lack of affordable housing to substance abuse, from poverty to jail time. They also suffer from people jumping to conclusions about how they ended up in dire straights. I consider myself to be a good, decent human being, yet I too find myself jumping to conclusions. How many times have you passed a homeless person on the street without giving them money, justifying yourself by saying ‘Well, it's their fault they are in this situation’? “Every one has their story”, Charlotte continued, “and we cannot judge them, because we have not lived through or been challenged by what life handed them.”
The shelter system, although it has helped many get back on their feet, cannot possibly cater to everyone’s individual histories. It does not give the people with mental illnesses the tools that could give them a chance to live on their own. Many shelters have specific rules. Those who are the most at risk have trouble following those rules and are kicked out of the program. Bouncing from place to place, these chronically homeless individuals are stuck in limbo and their situation worsens not only physically, but also psychologically.
Researching alternative ways to help the chronically homeless, Charlotte stumbled upon the recent development of permanent supportive housing for the chronic homeless, and got involved by working at a company in New York, called A. Larovere Consulting. “The idea of permanent supportive housing is very new and was developed at the turn of the century,” Charlotte explained. “It is a cutting edge method, that is different from affordable housing because there are services provided for individuals with issues like mental illnesses and substance abuse problem.” In a Permanent Supportive Housing building, the first floor is dedicated to a case manger and other services, such as employment offices and drug rehabilitation services. If a resident needs a doctor or food stamps, for example, there is someone in the building guiding them. The system has been so successful that it boasts an incredible 85 percent retention rate or more according to the statistics from the studies done all over the country in different supportive housing centers. “Studies show that from a financial perspective it is cheaper to build and develop this system than to keep people on the streets” Charlotte added, “because of the high cost of jails and hospital bills they accrue when they have no home.”
“With nothing but benefits,” Charlotte said, “from both a moral and financial perspective, there is every reason to give a fellow person the chance to get back on their feet and live independently.” This past summer while working at A. Larovere Consulting, Charlotte was employed as a project manager for supportive housing buildings. During her time at this job she helped garner financial support for three supportive housing projects, creating a platform to allow the chronically homeless to be given a second chance. She hopes to continue with this work into the school year.
At this point in the interview, the unexpected addition to our conversation suddenly piped up, apologizing for the interruption. She thanked us both profusely for allowing her to remain in the chair we offered her because nearly all of the chairs in the park were occupied. Unexpectedly, she added that she did not know what would have happened to her had we asked her get up for the seat I was saving for the interview. We pointed her in the right direction and she went on her way. Then the reality of what it means to provide a person with the simplest form of shelter hit me. Being confronted with the quick and positive response that came from such a simple act of kindness caused me to realize the importance of incorporating a cause you are passionate about into your general schedule.
Looking into the future, Charlotte wants to continue dealing with housing issues on a national and even an international scale. “In many developing countries,” she said “many of the residents do not have property rights, nor are they given the chance to, and when the government wants to build new housing for the rising middle class, they are able to level the slums, leaving its former residents homeless and helpless.” With a desire to combat this injustice, Charlotte plans on attending law school and working for a non-profit or non-governmental organization to assist those who have few rights.
While the act of dedicating your life to a cause may seem daunting, it isn’t impossible. Charlotte's advice is “to never stop, if you really are passionate about something. Keep moving forward and create a support system around yourself which allow you to continue.” If there is something you are particularly passionate about, do the research and you will not believe the difference you can make in someone's life. No matter if you dedicate yourself fully to a cause or not, it is important to be aware that the smallest gesture can result in incalculable good. We must try not to forget ourselves in our busy lives to take the time to look around ourselves and at our world to find a way to make a real difference. There are so many opportunities around you, for me personally my first step was treating those in need like they deserve to be treated by happily giving a dollar, sharing a smile, and a genuine “Have a great day!”
There are two websites that Charlotte recommended if you would like to learn more about housing issues: invisiblepeople.tv contains video clips detailing personal stories from individuals about their experiences being homelessness and how they got there. It is incredibly powerful to learn about their stories and will show you in a direct way what life is like without a home. 100khomes.org is a website dedicated to jumpstarting permanent supportive housing, why you should help, and how. Please take the time to check out these websites!