by Brad Forenza and Cristina Varriale
Tuesday, Oct. 10, marked the 13th annual World Homeless Day. Started in 2010 by social workers, housing providers, family scientists, and allied individuals, World Homeless Day aims to humanize the lived experiences and comorbid factors that unhoused people often endure — experiences and factors that are too often misunderstood as threats by those outside of the system.
“The idea of World Homeless Day really speaks to the underlying current that most people only think of the homeless crisis within the context of media events related to public safety,” noted Danielle Minelli Pagnotta, as she reflected upon the regular news stories featuring the arrest of a person who is homeless.
Minelli Pagnotta is executive director of Providence House, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that provides transitional housing, supportive housing, and other justice-oriented services for individuals and families with a history of chronic homelessness.
According to Minelli Pagnotta, the punitive response to homelessness is the result of a larger systemic failure.
“There is a lot to be said about the intersection of homelessness and incarceration and how the two relate. In New York City, our investment for support services, particularly for individuals classified as “chronically homeless” are lacking.
Instead, we allow people to remain on the streets or in other tenuous situations, where they experience physical, mental, and emotional deterioration. We disregard their plight until they reach a breaking point and commit a criminal act. Only then are we ready to commit hundreds of thousands of dollars to address the situation.
Providence House was founded in 1977 by a small group of Sisters of St. Joseph, who saw a problem in their community: young women returning from incarceration and having nowhere to go. In true Settlement House fashion, the sisters rented (and eventually purchased) buildings, so that they could provide a haven for these young women, and a pathway through which the women could transition to independence. Today, the Providence House model remains true to its origins: housing first.
“The only requirement [to receive services] is that [a client] goes to a dialectical behavioral therapy group,” said Minelli Pagnotta. “So much of that is about emotional regulation … but that’s the only requirement. The program has been so successful that the city recently doubled our contract, allowing us to serve twice as many women.”
Minelli Pagnotta noted that incarcerating a person at Rikers Island for one year costs the City of New York more than $500,000; yet, Providence House and organizations like it spend less than $50,000. To date, their Women’s Justice Program has a 95% non-recidivism rate, as opposed to NYC, where more than half of formerly incarcerated individuals reoffend within three years.
As we recognize World Homeless Day, let us honor the work of Danielle Minelli Pagnotta, Providence House, and allied agencies doing valuable work in this often hidden realm of practice, and — for clients — an often hidden realm of life. Let us follow their lead in expanding compassionate understanding of, and approaches to, our friends and neighbors who happen to be unhoused.
And true to Minelli Pagnotta’s implied caution, let us not forget the dignity, worth, and humanity of each person, especially those we may not be used to seeing.
Brad Forenza, MSW, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Montclair State University, and a recognized scholar of social policy. Cristina Varriale, MSEd., is a school counselor, formerly of Xavier High School and St. John’s Preparatory School, and is currently a doctoral student at Montclair State University in the Family Science and Human Development department.