Of Many Things

The first cold day of the approaching winter found me at the Hoboken Shelter in New Jersey, the only shelter in that rapidly gentrifying city across the Hudson River from Manhattan (www.hobokenshelter.org). Housed in a 19th-century Lutheran church, the shelter has had as its guiding spirit for three decades Norberta Hunnewinkel, a Franciscan sister who had previously taught in her order’s two parochial schools until the diocese closed them. “The other sisters found jobs elsewhere,” she said, adding that she herself decided to remain to help with the opening of the shelter by a coalition of churches and a synagogue that wanted to address the problem of the city’s growing homelessness. The Lutheran church’s pastor offered space, and there the shelter has remained ever since.

Sister Norberta and I were talking in the upper-level worship area. The chairs for the congregation were pushed together at one end, and at night the resulting open space is transformed when the homeless women in the program open up their cots. Men do the same in the dining room below. The two areas can accommodate 50 people, with that many more being served a daily hot meal provided by the founding coalition churches and many others.

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Although both men and women face difficult challenges because of their homelessness, the women have the added problem of fear. “For homeless women,” Sister Norberta said, “it’s more frightening to be on the street than it is for men, because they know they can be taken advantage of.” She added, however, that once the stabilizing influence of the shelter’s security and programs takes effect, the fear lessens.

For both women and men, the average stay is a month but it can be extended “if they are willing just to live peaceably and are working on their issues,” she said. The latter includes looking for jobs. The biggest issue, though, and one connected with their homeless condition, is addiction to drugs and alcohol. “It’s the most crippling disease homeless people deal with,” she said. The lack of adequate treatment adds to the problem. “There are detox facilities, but they provide only five to seven days treatment.” The longer rehabilitation programs that provide more lasting and substantive treatment “are almost impossible to find,” she observed, going on to give the example of a veteran who had to wait three months for a place in the Veterans Hospital for the help he needed. “He had to call every single day to ask if a bed had become available. For homeless people, it’s a difficult enough system to maneuver through without that.”

Mental illness is another common problem among homeless people. Sister Norberta said that roughly a third at the shelter suffer from some form of it, and “there’s very little for them in the way of treatment.” Mental illness among homeless people was one of her focus areas when she worked for her masters degree in social work. But general medical treatment, too, presents major hurdles for those in need of care, especially those who are undocumented or who, having “papers,” lose them. One shelter resident in the latter situation was suffering from advanced diabetes. Fortunately, a local hospital “took him under its wing, as a charity case,” but his treatment will take months. The lack of long-term medical care of this kind, she said, is one of the “missing pieces” in efforts to assist those in the shelter to return to mainstream society.

Another of the missing pieces is affordable housing. “From a half to two-thirds of the people here could be on their own if it were available,” said Sister Norberta. Even those at the shelter who are working find it impossible to locate a room they can afford. The snowballing gentrification has gone hand in hand with escalating rents as more and more affluent people take up residence in Hoboken—thereby pushing out low-income residents. “If you earn only the minimum wage, you can’t find anything,” she said. “Here in Hudson County, you have to be earning $20.50 an hour to afford a one-room studio apartment.” She spoke of her astonishment on learning that the mean income for Hoboken residents is between $73,000 and $90,000 a year. “When I first came here 30 years ago, the average income was $4,500 a year.”

The shelter receives much of its funding from FEMA. Ironically, though, the annual amount has been decreasing because it is linked to the per capita income for a given area. Thus, with income rising in Hoboken, the FEMA grant has been proportionately decreasing. On my way back to the PATH train that would take me back to Manhattan, I passed a handsome 19th-century townhouse with a sign advertising a Web site for luxury condominiums there. The luxury condominiums are located just a few blocks away on the very same street as the Hoboken shelter. Go figure. 

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