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Alexander Roberts: Homelessness and the wealth gap


I do not like visiting the 35 homeless shelters our company operates too often. It’s not because of any issue with the facilities as they consistently rank among the best run in New York state. It’s because seeing and meeting our clients and tenants can sometimes be too painful.

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Community Housing Innovations, which I co-founded 28 years ago, serves a thousand people each night in Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Orange and Dutchess counties. While it’s relatively easy sitting in an office and directing the work of 320 employees, personally confronting the trauma, depression and suffering of whom we serve can be disturbing.

While visiting our shelters on Long Island, I met a single mother who had become homeless for the second time, worrying that her two children would lose their places in the Great Neck school system. Her son has succeeded, taking Honors English and sitting on the Great Neck Model United Nations. She fears that his bright future at one of America’s best high schools may be extinguished when all she can afford is an apartment in Hempstead, with its dysfunctional school system and 37% graduation rate.

This single mother with two children tearfully recounted how she recently told her other child, a 5-year-old daughter, that she felt like a failure as a mother and hated her life.

“Well mommy, my life is great,” her daughter replied, “and maybe you can share some of my great life and I can share some of yours.”

I also met two formerly homeless men, substance abusers released from prison, who have shared a two-bedroom apartment for over 10 years, working and staying sober all that time. They each pay about $400 a month, representing 30% of their income. Both are well into their 60s. When these men entered our program, we required that they be sober and engage with our social worker to stay that way. They remain happy and grateful that we had “saved their lives.” One of the men just had a Stage IV cancer diagnosis and was about to begin chemotherapy.

I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they may become homeless again because of new HUD funding priorities to serve the street homeless. They received affordable housing under different rules that I feel may no longer work in scattered-site suburban settings with a shared housing model. Formerly, we were able to screen our tenants who shared a two-bedroom apartment. New HUD rules prevent us from requiring sobriety before accepting tenants, and we must accept active drug or alcohol users into our suburban apartments. In addition, we may no longer require tenants with severe mental illness to participate in services so they no longer have to engage with our case managers.

It’s hard to face the fact that our model of two men or women sharing a two-bedroom apartment in the community that won a national award in 1999 may no longer work when one tenant trying to turn his life around has to share his home with someone maintaining a drug habit along with the lifestyle that often goes with it.

We have a polarized nation of haves and have-nots with 1% owning 40% of the nation’s wealth and earning more income than the bottom 90%.

Inequality in itself, however, does not explain homelessness. Culture plays a significant role since the overwhelming majority of homeless families are black single mothers with children. Male abandonment of their traditional responsibilities, in which 72% of African-American births are to unmarried mothers, contributes mightily to the problem of housing affordability.

It will take people with different viewpoints hashing out a plan that promotes education, stable housing and employment. I believe we are ready for bold, new initiatives that give individuals the resources to lift themselves out of poverty. We must eradicate the scourge of homelessness while demanding more from ourselves and from those we serve.

Alexander Roberts is the executive director of Community Housing Innovations Inc. He can be reached at 914-683-1010.

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