It was mid-May 1998 and Gladys didn’t know what to do. For her entire life she had always had a place to sleep, a place to call home. But now she didn’t and it was getting dark. New York City, never a hospitable place, had shut its doors to her. And Gladys was terrified.
Homeless: From The Posh Life Of Central Park West To The City’s Mean Streets
David Kelsey and Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
This post is part of an ongoing series on Jewish homelessness.
It was mid-May 1998 and Gladys didn’t know what to do.
For her entire life she had always had a place to sleep, a place to call home. But now she didn’t and it was getting dark. New York City, never a hospitable place, had shut its doors to her. And Gladys was terrified.
She was born a child of privilege.
Raised in a Conservative Jewish household in the Eastchester section of the Bronx, Gladys graduated Hunter College and had training from Harvard’s Institute for Arts Administration. She served as Director of Public Relations for the San Francisco Opera and later held the same position for the San Francisco Symphony.
She married a successful scientist. Eventually the couple moved to New York City where they lived in a comfortable apartment just off Central Park West.
Instead of looking for a comparable arts job in New York, Gladys decided to open a small public relations agency of her own, something she could run part time as she concentrated more of her time on her husband and on her charity work – and that may have been Gladys’ biggest mistake.
Even though she had clients as high profile as the Bolshoi Ballet, the business did not make enough money to support her. This wasn’t a problem as long as she was married, but it became a big problem once she wasn’t.
Her relationship with her husband soured and Gladys filed for divorce, which was granted. Her alimony was enough to pay her rent with $300 left over each month for food, medical expenses, clothes, transportation and insurance.
Gladys wasn’t a money person and she made critical mistakes that she would later pay for in spades by sleeping on cots in homeless shelters and standing in line at soup kitchens.
She ran up credit card charges. She failed to adjust her spending for her new, smaller income. She lived in denial.
Then disaster caught up to her.
Her creditors seized her assets. Her ex-husband refused to help her. There was a fire in her apartment. And then the eviction notice came.
Gladys’s denial continued – until she found herself on the street with nowhere to go and darkness rapidly approaching.
All her immediate family had passed away. She frantically called friends but couldn’t reach them. She called Women In Need, a charity she supported. It couldn’t help her because she had no dependent children.
Gladys, a middle age Jewish woman who knew nothing about the streets, was now homeless.
She spent her first night in a church and spent the following days trying to get help from friends.
Some of her friends offered sympathy but no help. Others told her she would have to find a way to work it out herself. One friend even explained that her rabbi had advised her to “stay away from the situation.”
As a long-standing member, Gladys turned to her own synagogue for help, but the temple’s senior rabbi was “unavailable,” and the junior rabbi who did not know her well declined her request for help, telling her that “we don’t do that.” And the rabbi did not bother to tell Gladys who in the Jewish community did provide help to women in her situation.
So began her saga of homelessness, which she told FailedMessiah.com she refers to as “Gladys in Wonderland,” because of her feeling of “falling down the hole, and not knowing how to get up from a world I never knew. I didn’t know about The System. I never had a friend or relative in The System. I did not know how to work The System. And that might be a broad stroke on why it took me 8 ½ years [to get out of homelessness].”
Social Services denied Gladys’s request for help. Gladys was certain this happened because of her former address and lifestyle. Gladys eventually found a lawyer to take her case pro bono and sued the city for wrongful denial of services.
For her first first six months on the streets, she had no money and no guarantee of food – except at the Catholic shelter where she found refuge, which served dinner four nights a week.
Then the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty placed her in a “Jewish” shelter, and gave her clothing. Although she had her own room, shelter life was difficult. None of the staff was Jewish and few of the residents were. Even though the shelter was “Jewish,” Gladys experienced antisemitism there. She was attacked. She almost lost an eye. Even so, she refers to the Met Council’s staff as “angels.”
Shortly after her shelter placement, United Jewish Appeal – where she had previously served as Chairman of NYC Relations within the Government Relations committee – enlisted her part time to speak for them in order to raise money for homelessness, an opportunity she credits with restoring some dignity.
To leave homelessness people need a sudden infusion of money, enough to secure an apartment and pay first and last months’ rent, or they need good transitional housing and a program that allows them to earn and save money while still retaining some government benefits, both near impossibilities.
“People don’t leave homelessness,” Gladys told us. “Section 8 doesn’t exist. It’s gone. It’s all gone.”
When Gladys turned sixty, she began seeking senior housing, but found out the estimated wait for such housing was ten years.
Then out of the blue, Gladys had good luck that few homeless people will ever have. Her lawsuit against the city had drawn the attention of Dateline NBC, which did a segment on her case. The publicity would lead to her ticket out of homelessness.
Lawyers offered pro bono services. Gladys won her suit against the city for denying assistance. She successfully sued the city and a storage company for losing her possessions placed in the storage facility by the city when she was evicted and then charging her for that storage anyway.
In 2007 her pro bono lawyers discovered that Gladys had been eligible for her former husband’s pension since his death in 2004, something the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services missed. That JBFCS error had left her homeless for three years longer than she had to be.
Her near decade-long descent into homelessness ended shortly after receiving her ex-husband’s pension. She left New York City and relocated upstate, where the money would go farther. She got housing and found a new community.
Homelessness cost Gladys her friends. “When people fall through the cracks, their friends disappear,” she told us. She had learned hard truths about our government and about our community, as well.
Today there are more Gladyses out there, homeless and scared, many made that way by an economic downturn of near epic proportion. Yet the Jewish community seems no better prepared today than it was in 1998 when Gladys first became homeless.
In most cities there are no Jewish homeless shelters at all and the Jewish welfare organizations in them generally serve only as referral points for city, county or state aid, telling needy Jews in crisis which government agency to turn to for what usually turns out to be meager, inadequate help. Most Jewish communities have no transitional housing and no programs meant to transition people out of homelessness. Some offer no assistance at all.
These same Jewish communities send money to feed, clothe and house poor Jews in Israel – a country with a better economy than ours and with a wealthy class studies show gives almost no charity while elderly Holocaust survivors sleep in Tel Aviv parks and beg for food.
This November, the General Assembly of those Jewish Federations will be held in New Orleans. A major focus of the gathering will be “tikkun olam” and social justice. Hundreds of participants will spend a day helping various New Orleans charities still rebuilding the city five years after Hurricane Katrina and its failed Federal government response. Hundreds more will attend workshops on homelessness and other social justice issues.
What these well-meaning Federation Jews need to know is that there are Jews in their own communities who are homeless or teetering on its verge. They are there because of the devastating economic collapse or because of crushing medical bills or because of simple bad luck. These Jews need help and they need it right now.
If those workshops on “tikkun olam” bring these desperate Jews the help they need, then all is well and good.
But if those workshops result in more meetings, study commissions and declarations but no real changes on the ground, then the Federations and their leadership need to be challenged by all of us. A Federation leadership that responds to the crisis of poverty and homelessness by shuffling papers needs to be replaced, and until they are, donors should look for other avenues for their largesse.
We need to narrow the cracks in society so people don’t fall through them. That is what tzedaka means, and it shouldn’t take study commissions and workshops to make this clear to anyone.