Homelessness is a national crisis, we can act locally to help those in our midst

We love the picture on our front page. We are grateful to Ada for letting us take it. The picture shows the feeling of love a mother and baby — Ada and Louis — share when they look into each other’s eyes. It is a universal feeling. It makes us happy.

The mother in the picture is, right now, homeless. This is not the sort of picture we usually see of people who are homeless.

The program we feature in our front-page story, by Guilderland reporter Elizabeth Floyd Mair, also is not typical of programs for those without homes. It is not a government program; it is mainly run by a group of volunteers from 12 congregations with another 21 congregations providing support.

The families without homes rotate week to week from one church or synagogue to another. Most importantly, the program provides more than a place to stay. It provides a means for struggling people to get back on their feet, to become productive members of our society.

Volunteers help the families to do everything from apply to nutrition programs to finding a job or educational opportunities and, ultimately, a sustainable home.

We wrote in 2015 about suburban poverty, surprising a number of our readers. Large numbers of poor families is a new phenomenon for local suburban school districts. With the Great Recession, said Rebecca Gardner, on the faculty of the Capital Area School Development Association, “A lot of people lost jobs and homes, something they never imagined happening. They are shell-shocked, ashamed, frightened. They don’t know what to do and are hiding that.”

In Guilderland schools, we reported last year, the percentage of students from poor households had gone up from 5 percent in 2007-08 to 15 percent in 2015. That’s a three-fold increase. Altamont Elementary had the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students — 26.5 percent, more than one in four students.

In Voorheesville, this past March, the school board discussed internal studies that showed nearly 10 percent of students meet the federal requirements for free or reduced-price lunches.

“It’s an increase over what we’ve had, historically,” Dr. James Franchini, Voorheesville’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, told the school board in March; the board moved to implement an elementary-school breakfast program.

Suburban poverty is different than urban and rural poverty, which are widely recognized, Marie Wiles, the superintendent of the Guilderland schools, told us. “It’s hidden,” she said. “There’s such a stigma to it families will do anything to mask their poverty. It’s different than in a rural community or urban setting where that’s how things are. In Guilderland, when you’re surrounded by people who have a lot, you’re more sensitive.”

Guilderland school leaders last year underwent sensitivity training through CASDA where they were placed into family units or were assigned roles as community members — bankers, doctors, police, or social workers.

Wiles was given the role of a 20-year-old with a 1-year-old child. She lived in a household with her 9-year-old brother and their father. The household had no mother.

“I had to get my little one to day care, get to work, and try to fit in college classes,” Wiles said, recounting the exercise. “Our mom was gone and our dad was trying to hold it together.”

The goal was to get through the month. A facilitator would hand out cards describing various problems, like a car had broken down, or a boy broke his arm

“Life happened,” said Wiles. “By the end, I had made it to school once, to my job just a couple of times. We never had the cash we needed to pay rent. My brother stole, to pawn stuff for cash. It was stunning; we were all frustrated. It was hard to access the help in any integrated meaningful way.”

Wiles concluded, “It was horrible.”

This of course, was just role-playing. For Ada, the role is real. But members of the 12 congregations who have banded together offer more than just a place to stay and more even than counseling to access the help that is needed.

In addition to this necessary bridge between people in need of the services and accessing the service itself, the group offers more; it offers commitment.

It continues to help a family in need until the family can live on its own — until a job is secured and a place to live is found.

The local group is part of a national Family Promise network. The network points out that this year in America, more than 2.5 million children and their parents will experience homelessness. Family Promise offers a local solution to a national crisis.

The national network started in the 1980s after Karen Olson passed a homeless woman on the street and brought her a sandwich. “The woman, Millie, accepted the sandwich but asked for something more — a chance to be heard. Karen stayed with Millie and listened,” says literature from Family Promise. “What she heard made her understand that homelessness brought profound feelings of diminished self-worth and disconnection from society.”

That is the intangible quality our reporter witnessed when she visited a family staying in Voorheesville’s St. Matthew’s Church. The child of a volunteer played with a child of the visiting family. They had fun together.

That family had a home, a real home, a place where they were welcomed and wanted, a part of a larger society.

One of our favorite definitions of “home” comes from Robert Frost’s poem, “The Death of the Hired Man.” In the poem, Mary, a farmwife, tells her husband that Silas, an old man who had worked for them, has come back to the farm, sick and weak. Her husband wonders why, as Silas is dying, he hadn’t gone instead to the home of his wealthy brother. Mary tells him:


“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.”


Each of us needs a home, a place we belong, a place we will be taken in. We urge our readers to support Family Promise. This time of year, with the Thanksgiving and Christmas season approaching, many make once-a-year donations — a turkey here, a winter coat there — which are needed and appreciated. But to go a step further, to make a more lasting commitment, is truly a gift.

We thank Ada for the gift she has given us in sharing her story and her picture. Those among us who are poor should have no fear of shame. She has been brave to rise above the stigma and let us photograph her face, which shows her beauty, her love of her son, her humanity. Any one of us could lose a job, or fall ill, or suffer an accident.

It’s comforting to think our government provides a social safety net for those who fall on hard times but, if we’re honest, we can see that accessing those services isn’t always easy.

We commend those who have built this bridge — a bridge of human caring — and urge others to bolster its foundation.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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