By Susan Fortunato
I am standing outside a homeless shelter with a crowd of about 50 shelter guests, staff, and a few elected officials. With me are Brother Thomas Steffensen of the Society of St. Francis; Pharoah, a poet and former resident of the shelter; and Christa Hines, executive director of Hudson River Housing.
We lead the prayers.
Pharoah has a salt-and-pepper beard, a large smile, and a perpetual twinkle in his eye. He reads a poem called Nobody that he wrote for the occasion. Brother Thomas lights the candles as I read the names of the 33 people who died on the streets in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 2021. The last name added was Julie Holley, a friend of mine, who died December 20.
The “Lost but Not Forgotten” service occurs every year on the Winter Solstice, December 21, the longest night of the year. It is a chance to remember those who needlessly die on the streets. Most won’t have an obituary, a funeral, or any way for loved ones to grieve.
It is also an opportunity for the community to reflect on the conditions that those without homes are forced to endure, to raise awareness about homelessness in our community, and to work to eliminate it.
Hudson River Housing is Poughkeepsie’s affordable housing agency and runs the homeless shelter. The shelter was founded in the 1980s in the Parish House of Christ Church, in the home in which I live today. My church had lost some of its involvement with the shelter over the years. In 2016, shortly after I arrived as rector of Christ Church, I was invited to serve on the agency’s board.
In 2018, the first year I was asked to lead the “Lost but Not Forgotten” service, a fire at a house on Academy Street — thought to be abandoned — killed four people who had been living there.
Without access to electricity, they had used candles for light. One of those candles started the fire. The house was about a block from my church.
I remember hearing the sirens that night. They proved a wakeup call for me.
Until that moment, I had given little thought to the realities that homeless men and women face every day.
I was aware, of course, that people were homeless. I had been involved in providing meals and other outreach in the community. What I didn’t appreciate was the extent to which people who are homeless are forced to create lives that are largely invisible to the rest of us.
The fire opened my eyes to the complexity of homelessness. I learned to ask better questions of those coming to the church looking for help: “Where are you sleeping? Who is helping you? What do you need? Do you have family or friends who can help you?”
Those questions have helped me develop more meaningful relationships and go beyond handing out $10 or $20 from my discretionary fund. As relationships deepened, it has allowed my congregation to become more involved as well.
Tonight, the chairman of the outreach committee, Bill Riggs, and Barbara Ann Fonts, who coordinates our monthly dinners at the shelter, have come with me. They have brought large boxes filled with socks, gloves, sweaters, hats, and scarves that parishioners have donated through our Advent Giving Tree.
Mike, a big man with a thin beard and mustache, has intellectual disabilities. He loves the bright purple hat he finds in the box. Barbara Ann finds a bright purple scarf that matches it. Mike holds them side by side and smiles broadly. A woman with a broken arm comes forward and tells us this is her first day at the shelter. A survivor of domestic abuse, she has only the thin clothes on her back. We find her two sweaters, a coat, gloves, a scarf, and a hat.
Inspired, Bill turns to me and says, “We have found a new annual event.”
The National Alliance to End Homelessness has not released data since the pandemic, but we have evidence in Poughkeepsie that COVID has made being homeless even worse.
Though the state government still has a moratorium on evictions, the number of people living inside the homeless shelter — defined as “sheltered” homeless — has increased during the pandemic.
That increase could be because other options, like sleeping on a friend’s couch or other informal ways that people cope without permanent housing, were eliminated as people isolated to combat the pandemic. People living outside — defined as “unsheltered” homeless — had a harder time finding help. Without crowded streets, there were fewer chances to find charity and many feeding programs were closed, especially those that offered time indoors. COVID, at least here in New York’s Hudson Valley, has meant that coping strategies for the homeless have been greatly reduced.
Homelessness should not exist in the wealthiest country in the world’s history. It represents the failure of society to address inequality. Our healthcare system is broken. People with addiction and mental-health issues are released before they are properly treated. Without family support, those who lose their jobs, or are temporarily unable to pay their bills, can quickly find themselves in a shelter.
As millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, any disruption to income — an injury or illness, a business closing, a car repair, the birth of a child, an episode of depression or anxiety, or domestic abuse — can cause people to lose their housing.
Looking out at the faces of those in the shelter this year, I am struck by their gratitude. Being here, in the parking lot of the homeless shelter with a folding table for an altar and the poem of a former homeless man for scripture, helps me remember why I am a priest.
These people are hungry for their experience to be named and blessed, for their friends to be remembered by name, for someone to see them and to recognize them as holy.
Being here is as close to the manger as I can get — and that’s good enough for me.
As we continue to struggle with the pandemic, remember that it is always the poorest in our society who suffer the most. Men and women who find themselves without homes this year need most what the church is best able to give: the ministry of presence and the recognition that every person is made in the image of God.
The Rev. Susan Fortunato is rector of Christ Church, Poughkeepsie, New York.