By: Judah Stiefel  | 

Tzedek Society Hosts Panel Discussion to Humanize Homelessness

The YU Tzedek Society, in partnership with the Stern Social Justice Society and the Yeshiva University Honors Program, hosted a panel discussion on homelessness awareness. The panel dealt with the difficult realities of life without shelter, the causes of homelessness, and the government and independent agency responses to combat the unprecedented rate of homelessness in our society. The event’s organization was headed by Tzedek Society member Moses Dykman and Yosie Friedman, who moderated the discussion.

The panel featured four diverse speakers, each with different perspectives on the issue of homelessness. First to speak was Mr. Dale Williams, the Executive Director of Midnight Run, an organization devoted to finding common ground between the homeless and the homed, especially through the distribution of essential goods to the homeless poor. Mr. Williams was himself homeless from 1987 until 1990, during which time he benefited from the services of Midnight Run.  After Mr. Williams’s situation stabilized, he devoted himself to helping those going through the struggles he knew firsthand.  He is currently in his 17th year serving as executive director of Midnight Run.

Second to present was Mr. Noel Concepción, Department Director of BronxWork’s Adult Homeless Services. Mr. Concepción helps individuals deal with both their financial and personal struggles.  Specifically, his Living Room team places individuals in public housing, helps them gain access to welfare, and, finally, provides them with a range of services – including medical attention, psychiatric care, and addiction treatment – in order to help them to overcome their often debilitating personal conditions.  

The other two panelists are involved in homelessness from research and policy angles. Ms. Giselle Routhier, who spoke third, is the policy director of Coalition for the Homeless. Ms. Routhier lobbies the government to provide affordable and supportive housing. In addition to advocating for policy change. She currently oversees the Coalition’s work monitoring and enforcing the right to shelter.  The fourth panelist, Dr. Mike Rowan, is Assistant Professor of Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Dr. Rowan studies a range of New York City-related topics, including crime, policing, and homelessness from a sociological, psychological, and theoretical view point.

Each panelist offered informative remarks. Mr. Williams recounted how he graduated college, but was left without money and support due to a cocaine addiction. When his car broke down in New York City he had nowhere else to go and ended up sleeping on a park bench. He described how he felt lonely and hungry, but the worst part was that he felt dirty and smelled which made interacting with other people difficult. “It’s important for people to know that the homeless are just like us,” Mr. Williams rejoined.

Many of the panelists explained that the main causes of homelessness are mental illness, substance abuse, and growing up in impoverished backgrounds. Dr. Rowan described that the cause of today’s homelessness is not similar to that of previous waves. In United States history, homelessness has been caused by the lack of work after the Emancipation Proclamation, the influx of large amounts of veterans from Vietnam who could not work, and massive economic depression. The homelessness nowadays is more disturbing, he offered, because the main cause is the high cost of housing. People working service industry or part-time jobs do not make enough money to put a roof over their heads. The instances of this form of homelessness have increased since the 1980s. Sophomore Avery Ennis said, “I had never realized how large of an issue homelessness was in New York, but after hearing about how such regular people weren’t able to afford houses my eyes were opened.”

Ms. Ruthier described how the government has retracted aid where they should have increased it. The DeBlasio administration has attempted to provide both shelters for families and individuals struggling as well as rental assistance to help these families more into more permanent situations. Nonetheless, there often are not enough vouchers, and different levels of government do not always follow through on their commitments.

Other services are also very important for the homeless such as soup kitchens, mental health services, social workers, and assistance in job searching. Unfortunately, as Mr. Concepción described, many of those on the streets are not fit to work in jobs due to psychiatric issues or other disabilities. Many others do not want help which is why Mr. Concepción and Bronxworks go out to find those in need and offer services directly to them. They even use GPS technology to keep track of where many homeless like to stay and to follow trends in people’s behaviors. He describes how often after a few tries people will finally come in for help.

Yosie Freidman, President of the Tzeddek Society, said he hoped first of all to “humanize the issue of homelessnes” through the panel.  “We wanted to try to turn homelessness from an abstract topic into a real human struggle. This is why we were so insistent on bringing in someone who could talk personally about being homeless.” Mr. Friedman hoped that through humazining the issue and “pushing people to think critically about the issue,” the panel will start a discussion and, in turn, “inspire people to work on behalf of the homeless, be it through Midnight Run, advocacy, or some other means."

Dr. Gabriel Cwilich, Director of the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Honors Program,  made a political comment at the end of the panel, suggesting that finding affordable housing may grow more difficult for the homeless populations of the United States as the new director of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, takes the philosophy that poverty is a choice that people are able to avoid. It is unclear as to how his philosophy will affect upcoming policy, but it was clear from the panel that now more than ever the homeless populations of New York and the rest of the country need help from wherever they can get.

The Tzedek Society is currently running a clothing drive through Midnight Run to help benefit the homeless of New York. The panel was to raise awareness on the issues surrounding homelessness.


photo credit: YU News Blog