This is the first in a series on poverty in the Syracuse area. In upcoming interviews, the Campbell Conversations will explore facets of the problem and what individuals and organizations are doing to try to address it. Kevin Frank is the executive director of the Brady Center, a non-profit ecumenical mission of the Catholic Church. The center works with the homeless, the topic of this interview.
Grant Reeher (GR): Can you give me an idea of the extent of homelessness in Syracuse?
Kevin Frank (KF): I have some numbers from 2013. For individuals in an emergency shelter on an average night: 334 people and 84 families. And there were 267 individuals in transitional housing.
GR: When we say that someone is homeless, what do we mean? Most people have the image of someone living under a bridge, but it does seem to include different categories of people. Would it include someone travelling from home to home?
KF: Yes, that’s the vulnerability of the homeless. We have homeless who are in transitional housing, and they might stay in those places for six weeks, and they can return to the shelter or they might go from a transitional house into a more permanent supportive housing. But many people go from home to home and stay there as long as they can.
GR: Tell me about the work the Brady Center does.
KF: We have 18 outreaches, and our main one is “feet on the streets.” We walk the neighborhood every day. We try to meet people where they are at, because the poorest people will never be able to come to us, we have to go them. We listen and they tell us what their needs are, and if we can do them together, we do them. We have a number of outreaches for the homeless. We have a drop-in center three times a week. We do something really interesting with them: At nine o’clock on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, we go for a bike ride with any of the homeless population that wants to join us. After 10 rides, they get a bike, a helmet, a lock, a T-shirt and a certificate. We have graduated well over 150 riders over the last two years and given out well over 240 bicycles.
GR: Does that provide a necessary form of transportation for some of these people?
KF: Absolutely. It provides transportation to work, so it makes employment possible. For someone who is homeless, a car is out of reach. It is just not going to happen, for the most part. Providing a tangible means of transportation is huge. You are connecting them to employment, to family, to health care. It’s a life-changing thing.
GR: What are the biggest challenges for the center?
KF: I think it is systemic poverty. Poverty just comes at people from all directions, and it just seems so daunting to overcome that or to make a dent in that, to maintain the hope and perseverance, to continue to be in relationship with folks and to walk with them through their struggles. That’s a tremendous challenge.
GR: My understanding is that a lot of times there’s a great resistance from the homeless in accepting help, and mental illness can have a role in that. What are the most important keys you’ve found for being successful?
KF: I think it is relationship, friendship and building trust. The homeless are very open to making a relationship and want positive relationships. One of their great struggles is having people just like them around them all day, people who struggle with the same things they struggle with — addiction, mental illness, traumatic violence and experiences in their lives. They are really looking for a diverse number of relationships, just like we all are, and I think they are very open to that. I think it really is the non-homeless that are resistant to those relationships. That is the change that has to happen.
GR: That reminds me of something that I heard you say a few months ago. You said a lot of people say that there won’t be peace until there is justice, but there won’t be justice until there is kinship. Is that what you are talking about here?
KF: That is exactly what I am talking about. We can’t look at these problems and woes in our society from the outside in. We have to look at it from the inside out. When I say inside out, I’m really talking about kinship. I’m talking about being in relationship with people who are struggling. What are their needs? What are their issues? What can we do together? How can we make that next step?
GR: Is the Brady Center filling in something that’s missing in the government’s response to this problem, or are you adding something? How does your mission and role fit in?
KF: There is really very little for them to do during the day. [Many of] the shelters are night shelters, and they have to leave at 7 in the morning. They have nowhere to go, they have nothing to do. They roam the streets, they are tolerated, at best, in our community, and that just leaves a vicious cycle that is very difficult to get out of. When we opened the drop-in center and the bike ride, what we were really offering was an alternative. There was something during the day, it was something where they could build community with each other, something they could feel good about and have their self-esteem lifted. You know: I was successful, I rode on this bike ride, I made 10 rides, I earned this bike and I’m getting to meet people who are different than me. So we are definitely filling a niche there that is difficult to fill in our community.
GR: You’re coming at this from a spiritual perspective. Are there particular things that different groups in society, different organizations, might be able to provide, that would be relatively easy for them to provide, that they are not doing now?
KF: I think so, I think one of the ideas in the Catholic Worker Movement, which was a movement started by Dorothy Day, was that each church has a house of hospitality, the place where the poor in their own community could go, and the people from the church or churches would provide hospitality and care for those people within their own community. I think that it is a wonderful vision. There is a great divide between what happens in the suburbs and what happens in the city. One in three adults is poor in the city of Syracuse. One in two children is poor. Many of our mainline churches have moved out of the city. So all of these resources, all these connections, are no longer possible. I think church as a whole could do a better job with doing mission- and relationship-building within the city.
GR: I imagine that this is difficult and emotion-provoking work to do. Is there one experience that has moved you more and illustrates some of the things that you’ve been speaking about?
KF: When I was working at Unity Acres, there was one: Bill Dingham. Bill struggled with addiction and homelessness for most of his life. He was in the A Building, really heading up the A building. A Building is for people who would come while they were drinking. While they were drunk we’d send them to Bill, and Bill would take care of them. Bill took care of these men better than anybody else could. I watched him for three years, administer to them, sit with them, get what they needed to go through withdrawal. He was amazing. Bill died on the streets of Syracuse. He froze to death in the middle of winter. I always say to myself, if you read his obituary, you just wouldn’t get the care and the compassion, the beauty of this man, the wonder of this man. How he did a work for others that was just profound, that I couldn’t have done and that most could never have done.
GR: Let me give you an experience that I imagine all of us have had. Someone is stopped at a stoplight in their car, and there is someone standing there with a sign asking for help because, the sign says, they are homeless. What do they do?
KF: Well that’s the million dollar question, right? I think it really is up to your heart, follow your heart. I personally make it a point that I’m in a relationship with a number of homeless people, and that is my investment with them. I’ve heard that some people carry an orange or some type of food in their car. Some people carry socks — the homeless always need socks. And some people who feel a call to give money, and I think you need to follow your calling in that.
GR: What about people who read this, who are moved by the problem and moved by the way you have spoken about it, and they want to do something but they are not sure that they want to come down to the center and go out on the streets?
KF: You can call different places that care for the homeless, whether it’s the Brady Faith Center, Catholic Charities, Rescue Mission, Vera House, or Salvation Army, and see if there are ways that you could volunteer — whether it’s making a meal, whether it’s providing clothing. I think you just have to get started, that’s the main thing. But the goal really is relationship, and if that means starting with making a meal, then start with a meal, but let that not be the end. Let’s try to keep it going. I think there are two worlds, the world that serves and the world that receives. We are trying to break that down, to see us all as servers and receivers. Even if I am on this side of the table serving a homeless person on the other side, to try at some point during that experience to come around that table, come around that little barrier that divides our worlds, and sit down together and listen and make eye contact, and see if some form of relationship could be built.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.