Sam Lauria is a freshman journalism major.
On Thanksgiving weekend, for the first time, I volunteered to help the homeless living in Manhattan for the St. Dominic’s Outreach Program — a church that does a variety of charity work, including providing aid to the homeless. While handing out winter coats and home cooked meals, I heard several firsthand accounts of the atrocious conditions the homeless withstand.
People in New York City, or other densely populated areas, have probably passed by, handed a dollar to or conversed with someone living on the streets. No matter which of these situations someone has been in, they probably did not pay much attention to them after they exited their line of sight.
There are approximately 70,000 homeless people living in New York City yet the general population never takes into account that they are still human beings since they give them almost no help. Of the people I met who are homeless, I asked if they believed enough was being done to alleviate the horrible conditions of the shelter system.
Based on multiple firsthand accounts of the people I talked to, the New York Department for the Homeless seems to have created a shelter system in which most people would rather turn to the streets. A 2014 investigation conducted by The New York Times regarding the conditions of homeless shelters exposed a number of safety violations. After speaking to some people who are homeless, it became clear to me that this still holds to be true.
The article stated, “A dead rat was found in an apartment, garbage was strewn across the hallways, and a puddle of urine was in the only working elevator in the building.” Of the 25 shelters that were examined, 621 violations were found, deeming the shelters unsafe for children and families. Mayor Bill de Blasio has reviewed these violations and plans to create 90 more shelters this year.
The treatment of the people who reside in homeless shelters are almost as sinister as the conditions of the buildings themselves. Rafael Mercado Jr., a veteran who has been in the shelter system for six years, said that the shelters are not being properly maintained.
“Some people don’t want to go to these places because they’re afraid of what could happen to them,” Mercado said. “There are fights, arguments, sometimes stabbing or something worse.” On top of the violence, the shelters themselves are poorly kept, which can be dangerous to the residents. Mercado is currently living in a single occupancy shelter and is a few steps away from being able to afford his own apartment.
Peter Malvan, another man living on the streets who I met while participating in the Outreach Program, said that there is not enough political action taken to alleviate the miserable conditions of the homeless shelters. He spoke about the lack of concern for the conditions of the people who were being admitted into the shelters.
“There’s a system set up to provide housing and services to people,” Malvan said. “They kind of know how to move people around when it’s necessary, but they’re not good at it, and they don’t communicate with each other enough.” Malvan said.
Malvan says that people who are suffering from serious mental illness or people struggling with addiction are admitted into the same buildings as those who are well. Those people with unstable mindsets or conditions can be considered a threat to others in the homeless shelters.
The homeless population is on the rise, and most people who are homeless are opposed to taking refuge in shelters. Richard P. Shea, whom I spoke to while in Murray Hill, has refused to live in a shelter, said that the homelessness problem in Manhattan is very serious because of the dramatic increase in the homeless population.
“The problem out here right now with homelessness, and poor people in general, is that there’s more. Every week you see more,” he said. “It is becoming increasingly difficult for proper care to be administered — which is a terrible thing. “It would benefit everyone if people who need it get the proper care and services they deserve.”
After volunteering with St. Dominic’s, I can confidently say that the work that they, and many other charities are doing is proving to be much more meaningful to the homeless communities than government funded programs. St. Dominic’s Outreach Program is a volunteer organization dedicated to providing the homeless with home-cooked meals, clothing and other necessities so they can have a little more security during the winter. If you wish to donate or volunteer, the information can be found on St. Dominic’s website.
Vincent Nerone, co-runner of St. Dominic’s, said that people should not only volunteer during the holidays. “I think people should help them all year long. Come out in August when nobody else is out there.”
I can confidently say that after volunteering for St. Dominic’s, my perspective on life regarding the privileges I have been granted has immensely changed. I was introduced to some of the kindest and genuine people I have ever met. As human beings, we should take into account that there are people out there who are suffering. Instead of ignoring their problems, we should make them known and do everything we can to get them the proper care and support they deserve by volunteering and donating to charities that dedicate their time to help the homeless.