Rights and Dignity in the Face of Homelessness and Addiction

DC Christmas homelessness

To live free from sexual assault is not a comfort that must be earned – it is a right.  The NY Post editorial entitled The New York Times’ ‘Homeless’ Hooey disagrees and calls the mice and mold infested rooms at the Auburn Family Residence where residents risk being the victims of sexual assault and other violence “too generous” for the families living in it.

“Yes, the family’s housing has problems, including mice and reports of sexual assaults and other crimes. But the Times and Elliott, like much of the liberal establishment, seem to think it’s the city’s job to provide comfortable lives to outrageously irresponsible parents…

If the city is at fault here, it might well be for having been too generous — providing so much that neither the father nor mother seems much inclined to provide for their kids. That would be a story worth reading.”

This was the response of many to the NY Times’ article Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life.  This article follows the 11 year old girl living at the 600+ person shelter by my old High School, Brooklyn Tech.  According to the article the shelter is not up to code and has many serious violations including passing out expired baby formula and food to residents.

Rather than being appalled by the conditions these children live in, some prefer to argue that they deserve it, if not less.  Dasani’s parents have been addicted to opiates for years and are currently battling through withdrawal and the psychological damages of addiction.  Many use this as justification for cuts to programs designed to feed kids and get families jobs and housing.

Our society discriminates against people living with mental illness, especially those battling addiction.

People with severe mental illnesses have been the victims of brutality and homicide by our own police.  Recently, a 90 lb teen with schizophrenia was helded down by two officers, tased, and shot dead by a third officer.  This was in response to a 911 call by his parents to get him to a hospital.

And while not true of many people living without permanent housing, addiction and other forms of mental illness – depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar are prevalent among those in the shelter system.

20 – 25% of the homeless population lives with SEVERE mental illness (compared to the general population’s avg. of 6%)

Mental illness creates an invisible minority group.  And when that minority status is exposed like an unbandaged wound the rest of the world backs away.  Others become uncomfortable and develop a system of victim blaming.  This only results in further discrimination and victimization.

All people are deserving of the same rights and the same human dignity – from others and from our government.  Mental illness and homelessness can happen to anyone.  There is no such thing as the deserving/undeserving poor.  People, especially those fighting mental illnesses like addiction, do not have to earn human dignity.  They are not less of a person for their situation and illness.

And EVERYONE has the right to safety from sexual violence.  It does not matter if they live in a shelter, public housing, or a pent house.  And despite what the NY Post says, it is the city’s job to protect that right.

I encourage everyone to read Dasani’s story of her life as a homeless eleven year old. 

If you want the opportunity to volunteer at the Auburn Family Residence please check out New York Cares. There are currently two programs to work with the kids at the shelter:

Art Explorers at Auburn Family Residence
Bedtime Stories at Auburn Family Shelter

When The World Turns Upside Down…

Everyone experiences life changing heartbreaks, disappointments, and tragedy.  We lose a loved one or have our own futures snatched from us.  Our lives are turned upside down.

But people are resilient.  Out of the Holocaust came newly forged families.  Countries rebuild following civil wars, genocides, and natural disasters.  The past tragedies become our new normal.  We live and adapt.  There is substantial research on grief and our ability to move on.

So what if our lives were literally turned upside down? In 1950, Ivo Kohler and Theodor Erismann documented their experiments in human perception at the university of Innsbruck, Austria.  Kohler wore a unique pair of glasses that used mirrors to make the world appear upside down.  At first he had difficulty with everything from pouring tea to grabbing a pen.  Up was down and down was up.  He found it very difficult to function.

However as time went on Kohler adapted.  At first it took work and practice.  He had to get out of bed and try really hard just to complete everyday tasks that had been second nature before.  It was frustrating.  But every day became a little easier. Every day had a new accomplishment.  And after two weeks his life was normal again.

When we face personal tragedy it feels as though our world is turned upside down.  We lose our ability to function.  Daily activities become a struggle and we just want to give up.  But research and personal experience has shown me that people are resilient.  The kids and adults I have worked with in shelters and respite centers evidence the fact that terrible things happen that completely change every aspect of our lives.  But everyone can regain control of their life.

Two weeks – and the world will start to turn right side up.

Kohler, I. (1964). The Formation and Transformation of the Perceptual World. New York: International Universities Press.
Gregory, R. L. (1998). “Eye and Brain.” The Psychology of Seeing fifth edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 138 -190.
Stratton, G. M. (1897). “Vision without inversion of the retinal image.” Psychological Review. (4) 341, 360-463.