The St. Francis breadline started during the Great Depression and continues today, serving three to four hundred people a morning, many of whom are homeless.
"They feel safe here. People don't bother them as much," says Father Paul Lostritto, executive director of Franciscan Bread for the Poor, which administers the line.
Every morning, the line stretches multiple blocks leading up to this midtown church, where the homeless or hungry can get items such as sandwiches, coffee and oatmeal. Afterwards, "they hang out," says Lostritto, who says he tries to foster a sense of community. "They need help," he says, "they need guidance."
Brother, can you spare a policy initiative?
You won't hear many politicians skeptical of helping the homeless during the holiday season — it's a question of how best to deliver that help. Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his new plan for how to help the homeless, who've been with us longer than the St. Francis breadline.
Since summer, the de Blasio administration has absorbed hit after hit about the homeless situation in New York. While he first seemed to downplay the extent of the crisis, the mayor is now tackling homelessness head on.
His focus on creating 200,000 units of affordable housing was always relevant to homeless individuals, but his supportive housing program, which aims to add 15,000 units over the next 15 years, is more direct. It matches people often living on the street or in shelters with cheap housing and programs such as mental health services.
He is rightfully proud of helping 22,000 individuals get out of shelters and into permanent housing.
But the most recent changes in policy came last week, with the resignation of the mayor's Department of Homeless Services commissioner and the announcement of HOME-STAT, a new homeless outreach program aimed directly at street homelessness — the 3-4,000 individuals who live entirely on the street, and are often the most visible symbols of homelessness.
HOME-STAT aims to get a much more accurate picture of the street-homeless by performing daily canvassing in the most high-impact areas, mainly Manhattan from Canal Street to 145th Street, in addition to quarterly counts. Outreach teams will be available to develop a "specific plan," de Blasio said, to help individual homeless people get the services they need or get off the streets. Outreach teams and NYPD units dedicated to the homeless will respond within an average of one hour to calls concerning homeless people who need help or who are being disruptive.
Some homeless individuals said they didn't expect to see much change.
"Housing," says Melvin Ashford. "That's the only thing I'm looking for."
Ashford, 57, says he's been on the street for five years. He says he avoids shelters for various reasons: gang activity, drugs, robbers.
"A roof over my head," says John J., who preferred to give only his last initial. "My own roof, not a city roof," John, 52, says.
Jonathan Martinez, 27, came to New York from New Jersey, hearing that conditions were better here. Besides housing, his immediate needs include a phone — "good Internet access with good speed," to allow him to make a good resume, which would allow him to get off the streets, where he says he feels under constant pressure from police.
Time will tell
The name HOME-STAT self-consciously echoes the policing technique that revolutionized the NYPD — CompStat, the data-driven style of policing admired and reviled in equal measures for its relentless focus on small pockets of crime and for its connection with broken windows policing.
Hopefully, the program will provide actually needed services, as opposed to simply identifying pockets of homelessness and sweeping the problem under the rug.
Most importantly, it should ultimately lead to homes.
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