The Poor Know No Prejudice

Homelessness is escalating at an alarming rate. We live in one of the most affluent counties in New York State. However, more and more people are finding it difficult to financially navigate in our county. ...

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Homelessness is escalating at an alarming rate. We live in one of the most affluent counties in New York State. However, more and more people are finding it difficult to financially navigate in our county. Affordable housing is almost nonexistent. Human services for the poor and needy are almost impossible to access on your own. Even with assistance, it is a frustrating and demeaning process. The rules change constantly, depending on who you speak with. These days, we spend more energy talking to machines than people.

The poor and homeless wear many different faces. They are white; they are people of color; they are young and old; they are Catholic, Protestant, agnostic and atheist. They are documented and undocumented; they represent every nationality and every kind of family system. The poor and homeless know no prejudice. They are everywhere, in every community and in every township.

The problem with most of the poor and homeless is that they tend to be invisible until they break the law or cause a problem. We pretend that they don't exist until they get in the way or cause us some social discomfort. They have no voice because they have no fixed address and thus no formal political representation. The poor and homeless rarely vote because most of their energy is committed to survival.

What is of grave concern is that what few human services we have are becoming more overburdened and even less available to the poor and needy. Few people purposely choose poverty and homelessness. It is a social circumstance that usually evolves over time.

Most of us have a safe, warm place to live and sleep. Rarely do we ever go to bed hungry or worry about a shower or wearing clean clothes. It is disturbing to think that there are a growing number of people of all ages who worry every day about some very basic life essentials.

Why are the numbers increasing at such an alarming rate? Depending on who you speak to, the answers to this disturbing question vary. After more than twenty-five years in our community, I have some observations that I think clarify why homelessness and poverty are increasing, especially among our young.

Too many people are living beyond their means. Credit cards are maxed out! Entry-level employment with a livable wage is almost nonexistent. Transportation, on a good day in Suffolk County, is a challenge. Our public transportation is limited and not available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Healthcare is a nightmare and out of reach for most of the working poor and even a growing number of middle class families. Insurance premiums are ridiculous and now even at a higher rate, give you much less.

A growing number of young people are growing up in an environment where they are not being parented effectively. They live in family systems that have no structure or discipline. The rules are blurry and the lines of accountability are nonexistent. Thus, anything goes regarding social behavior, especially around drug and alcohol use. Too many young people are getting buried in the social mayhem of their time.

Our network of human services, whose sole purpose is to serve the needs of the poor and homeless, are skeletal at best. We lack the resources and the professional people to empower the poor and homeless to self-reliance and healthy living. The human services bureaucracy makes it almost impossible for a poor and/or homeless person to ever move beyond their cycle of dependency. Many of our poor and homeless have limited skills, little or no education and in general, just have a hard time navigating life's complicated landscape.

It seems to me that it is not cost effective to set poor and homeless people up for failure. What limited money we allocate to the poor and homeless must be revisited. We need to think outside the box and do things differently. If we don't, things are only going to continue to deteriorate and get worse.

In spite of the invisible nature of our poor and homeless, there are a growing number of people within our community who have eyes of compassion and hearts of concern. That is confirmed by the fact that almost all of our local churches and synagogues have arms of compassion and social outreach to the poor and needy. This outreach is not limited to their own congregations and is not only extended seasonally, but is available for people in need throughout the year.

Recently, I was invited to a very special banquet that was held at the Setauket Presbyterian Church. The Reverend James Wallace is the Pastor. The occasion was the Fifth Annual Benefit Banquet for the Welcome Inn, which is a network of soup kitchens in our local community that provides hot meals for the poor, needy and homeless. Our local network is supported by the Interfaith Nutrition Network - known as the Inn.

The Setauket Presbyterian Church donated their parish center for this evening celebration. The Welcome Inn volunteers transformed the parish center into an elegant dining room for its' Fifth Annual Benefit Banquet. The place settings were elegant, the menu was extraordinary. It was prepared by the volunteer chefs who cook all year long in the various soup kitchens in our larger community. The wait staff who served this phenomenal meal consisted of the legions of volunteers who serve the countless guests who come to the various soup kitchen locations throughout the year.

Music for the evening was provided by the Port Jefferson Chamber Ensemble, under the direction of Michael Caravello, Director of Music and Fine Arts at Port Jefferson High School. They were exceptionally talented and gifted musicians. They truly enriched the evening. I was most impressed that they gave up a Saturday night to help raise money for the poor and homeless.

The other thing that amazed me about the evening is that over one hundred and forty people gathered to support the important work of the Welcome Inn. The ecumenical spirit was inspirational. There were people from a wide range of faith traditions that were guests and also volunteers who prepared and served the meal. Many of them have worked side by side for years, serving the poor, the needy and the homeless with great dignity and respect. Their collaborative spirit is probably among the best kept secrets in our larger community.

It was also amazing to see the generational split among the volunteers. Young and old alike, giving of themselves, week after week to the poorest of the poor in our midst, and doing it with joy and happiness. It was truly refreshing to see their camaraderie and commitment.

Barbara Curtis is the President of the Welcome Inn. She eloquently reminded all of us that night that the poor and the homeless they serve are not from Guam, but rather are our neighbors who live among us. She thanked everyone for not turning a blind eye to people in need and for making a commitment to making a difference with dignity and compassion.

For almost twenty-five years, volunteers from the ecumenical community have quietly and anonymously served the poorest of the poor with dignity. These courageous men and women have demonstrated, by the power of their example that ordinary people can make a difference that really does count.

They are the unsung heroes among us, reminding us that we must build bridges and not walls within our community.