If we look outside our windows…

Estrella Star RodriguezIt’s summertime and the city is busy with kids riding their bikes and hanging out on corners; people enjoying the sunshine at our local parks; replenishing their garden, and even repairing last winter’s damages to their homes and businesses. The animals that were kept indoors during the bitter cold months are now outdoors, basking in the sunshine and enjoying the green grass they so missed. But also outside now are the homeless, those that have lost their residence for any number of reasons from physical or mental illness, financial hardship and addictions, to poor decisions made in haste or ignorance. While they were mostly in shelters during the winter, they are now outside, braving the elements of heat and rain, hiding away in the shadows of trees and bushes, trying to blend in with the scenery so as not to be ridiculed. Existing… day by day. Chances are we will walk by them at the mall before they are asked to leave, find them sleeping in a church parking lot, or digging through trash cans outside a fast food drive thru. Society has taught us that they are all mentally ill, or addicted to alcohol and/or drugs. Society is not always right.

Such is the case of an elderly homeless woman I recently met when she came to The Haven seeking refuge from the heat. After getting through the initial shock of her muddy appearance and distinctive odor, I proceeded to listen to her for the better part of two hours, over a cup of tea, as she told story after story of how she got to where she was now…homeless. She was so obsessive about keeping her matted hair out of her face, constantly pulling it back as she spoke, that I wondered how she felt about her torn sneakers and the dry mud cakes and grass clippings stuck on her clothing. My observations were soon validated when she apologized for her appearance. As she spoke, she nervously looked around to ensure that all her earthly possessions remained near enough where she could reach out and touch them. I expected her to ask for money, or lodging, or even food. She did not. I expected her to smell of alcohol, yet she did not. Because of her appearance and circumstances, I expected her to speak in broken fragmented sentences, yet she was very polished and proper. Truth of the matter was she was a lonely lady looking for some conversation; the chance to be heard and understood without judgment. Isn’t that what most of us are searching for?

For the most part, we, as a society, have placed a stigma upon the homeless. We have branded them as useless and expect the shelters to do the work of hiding them away. Though our responses to people in distress have softened with the insurgence of natural disasters, there remains to be a general sense of apathy concerning the homeless population. To replace “apathy” with “empathy” we must allow ourselves to “feel” outside our own skin. For too long we as a people have looked the other way. We place great emphasis on how we care for our pets (this coming from an animal lover) yet ignore the needs of the poor, the aging, and the homeless. We travel across the world to feed the hungry, while there are those that are hungry for attention and understanding, who would love to share a cup of tea over a few stories..right here in Schenectady.

Zechariah 7:9 “This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.

Whether we choose to acknowledge their presence, or look the other way, they are out there. If we look outside our windows (step outside our own skin) we will see them.

If you are interested in volunteering or helping out in the area of “Homelessness,” we have included information for some of the resources that are currently available that we hope might guide your efforts effectively.

Bethesda House – www.bethesdahouseschenectady.org – Bethesda House is an interfaith ministry building a just, hospitable and inclusive community one person at a time by affirming the dignity and addressing the needs of each guest entering this “House of Mercy”. Bethesda House is committed to ending chronic homelessness in Schenectady County.

Legal Aid Society of Northeaster New York – www.lasnny.org – The Legal Aid Society of Northeaster New York provides effective, free civil legal services and education to and advocacy for people with low income or other barriers to accessing the legal system. We secure basic needs, protect and preserve legal rights, provide equal access to justice and seek fairness and dignity for our clients.

Mohawk Opportunities, Inc. – www.mohawkopportunities.org – Mohawk Opportunities provides affordable housing and community support to individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental illness or HIV/AIDS or who are homeless. Services are restricted to residents of Schenectady County.

New Choices Recovery Center – www.newchoicesrecovery.org

Rehabilitation Support Services – www.rehab.org – 1-518-462-1094 Rehabilitation Support Services, Inc. (RSS), strives to enrich and empower the lives of individuals by providing services, including housing, and opportunities for meaningful emotional, social, vocational and educational growth.

Safe Inc. of Schenectady – (518)374-01566 – Safe Inc. offers two programs for at-risk youth – Project SAFE and SAFE House. Project SAFE – Provides comprehensive services on an outpatient basis for males/females who are between the ages of 12-35 who have engaged in street prostitution/survival sex or at risk of sexual exploitation. SAFE House – Is a temporary emergency youth shelter for homeless, runaway, and throwaway youth ages 16-20 and is certified by the Office of Youth and Family Services.

SCAP – Schenectady Community Action Program – www.scapny.org – Schenectady Community Action Program is committed to alleviating the symptoms and eradicating the causes of poverty by helping people help themselves when they are in economic, social, or education need.

Schenectady Inner City Ministry – www.sicm.us

YWCA of Northeaster New York – www.ywca-northeasternny.org – (518)374-3394 – Offers a variety of program components to women. The Domestic Violence component provides a 24-hour Hotline, shelter for battered women and their children, individual and group counseling and advocacy services. Each year, approximately 200 homeless and/or very low-income women call the YWCA NENY “home”. Support services for the women include advocacy, counseling, support groups, information and referrals, health and recreation opportunities and an emergency food pantry. Project Independence is a workforce development program designed to assist domestic violence victims and homeless/formerly homeless women in obtaining employment and education. The Incarcerated Young Parents Program teaches life and parenting skills in a group to incarcerated women.