Paterson, N.J., is not a place name likely to strike a chord of recognition in the minds of Americans elsewhere in the country. Literary types might recall that the poet-physician William Carlos Williams had his office there, and that one of his most famous poems is named after this once-prosperous silk-manufacturing city. Those familiar with today’s Paterson, however, may know it mainly for its entrenched poverty-related problems. Having heard of them from a Little Brother of the Gospel who works in the kitchen of a social services center called Eva’s Village, I boarded a Latino-operated mini-van near the Port Authority bus terminal in mid-Manhattan for the hour’s ride into Jersey.
The Eva of Eva’s Village is a Spanish sister who helped start a soup kitchen in Paterson 20 years ago. She has long since moved on, but over the intervening two decades that small beginning has mushroomed into a complex of buildings in which poor and troubled women and men can find sorely needed assistance. Heading the now large-scale operation of seven integrated programs is Jane Frances Brady, a Sister of Charity. “Unfortunately,” she said as we sat in her office—only a few steps from the front lobby, a location that underscores her availability to those in search of help—“our business never goes down. It’s always going up. All the urban problems exist here.”
The problems include homelessness, drug addiction, H.I.V. and mental illness, along with basic poverty and hunger. Apart from the help offered by Eva’s Village and a few Protestant and Catholic church groups—though Eva’s is by far the largest, with 210 people living on its grounds—the needs of people trapped in these situations frequently remain unmet. This is largely because of the city economy’s low tax base.
Among the most intransigent of Paterson’s problems is drug addiction. “One of my drug counselors” Sister Brady said, “has told me that an addict can be in rehabilitation 3.8 times in order finally to break the habit.” Eva’s Village has residential recovery centers for both men and women. These centers focus on a three-phase program of one year that includes not only addiction counseling and shelter, but also housing for those in recovery who are preparing for independent living. Women, Sister Brady pointed out, present especially difficult challenges because of their vulnerability to pregnancy and domestic abuse. Many are single mothers with children. Now, in addition to its family shelter, Eva’s Village has a transitional apartment building that accommodates children too, as the mothers learn parenting and other skills while the children receive what may be their first taste of stability.
Since addiction renders independent living impossible, for many in Paterson it goes hand in hand with homelessness. Sister Brady spoke of homelessness as a disgrace nationwide, but especially in New Jersey, one of the richest states in the Union. “And yet,” she said, “the state has no real plan for housing these people.”
Among her hopes for the future, consequently, is that the state and the federal government commit themselves to more than lip service in addressing the issue—along with providing mentally ill homeless people with long-term aid instead of returning them to the street after short stays in mental facilities. Nevertheless, she said, some politicians have actually debated the closing of Greystone, a state mental hospital near Paterson.
The mission statement of Eva’s Village speaks of feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and providing indigent sick people with medical help. But it also aims to “preserve and enhance the dignity of the individual.”
The poorest and the most disturbed of the people I saw were indeed treated with a dignity that the outside world seldom accords them. One was a deeply troubled and pregnant young woman in the lobby who insisted on seeing Sister Brady—and whom she did see as I left. Boarding the mini-van for the trip back to Manhattan, I felt that I had witnessed the mission statement in action.