Imagine a dark winter morning. A line of poorly dressed men—black, white, Latino—stretches alongside a 1920’s brick building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The building is the Holy Name Centre, and the men, most of them homeless, are waiting to take showers in the center’s basement. For the past three years, I have seen this same scene on my way out of the building each morning at 6 a.m.
The center has been at its present location since 1938—the site of a former parochial school. But it has been in existence for almost a century, operating first out of a storefront on the Bowery, and then in a slightly larger building nearby. The Bowery has long been associated with so-called flophouses and bars, a place of refuge for alcoholics and others on the margins of society. But gentrification has cut an ever-widening swath through that section of New York City. The center’s director, Msgr. John Ahern, spoke to me recently about these and related issues from the perspective of its long history of services to poor people, which are now threatened—even as the numbers of homeless people in New York and elsewhere rise and as budget cuts make services scarcer.
Although its pace has quickened dramatically, the forces of gentrification had already come into play when Monsignor Ahern arrived at the center two decades ago. Then as now, well-off neighbors complained to him about the presence of the often disheveled men who came for assistance. His response to them: “They were here before you.” He has held his ground ever since. But in deference to their concerns about safety, he or another staff member stands with the men (spiritually as well as physically) as they wait in line for their early morning showers.
A significant number of those who come to the center suffer from mental illness. One of these is Bill (not his real name), whom I often see asleep by the side door of the building when I leave in the morning. Monsignor Ahern said that Bill had recently returned from one of his many brief stays in local mental facilities. “He was both articulate and engaged,” he said, because he was still benefiting from the psychotropic medication he had been receiving. Once out, though, Bill’s ritual includes dumping the remainder of his medication down the storm drain at the corner by the center. Now he is once again virtually catatonic.
In earlier times, Father Ahern pointed out, hospitals could hold mentally disturbed people like Bill for much longer periods. With the closing of many of them in the 1960’s and 70’s, however, Bill became part of a large group caught up in quickly revolving doors—brief periods of mental treatment and then back to the streets. Community-based facilities that were to have been established when the big mental hospitals closed never materialized for lack of funding.
Of the once numerous Bowery hotels, where rooms could be rented for a few dollars a night (many of the men in the shower line receive modest government checks), only a few remain—again because of the upscale trend in housing in that part of the city. A nearby condominium building close to completion has units with prices starting at a million dollars. The real estate value of the land on which the center stands is at issue. Although it belongs to Our Lady of Loretto parish, its ultimate owner is the cash-strapped Archdiocese of New York. “I would love this place to stay,” Monsignor Ahern said, not only for the services it provides, but also “as a reminder to the neighbors of those who don’t live as well as they do.”
Even were the center to relocate to a less upscale part of the city, he observed that the Nimby (not-in-my-backyard) factor would be hard to overcome. In New York City and around the country, this is not a hopeful time for those who find themselves pushed to the margins of their communities.