January 21, 2011

Jennifer De Jesus is a student in the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter and an avid movie watcher. She is also an employee of the Health Professions Education Center, which has one of the largest collection of health films in the New York City area.

Photo credit/Coalition for the Homeless
Photo credit/Coalition for the Homeless

In the 1960s many federal mental institutions were closed, resulting in hundreds of thousands of people with mental illness ending up on the streets. This film centers around a community in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen called Fountain House, the home of people suffering from mental illnesses. Since 1948, Fountain House has been dedicated to the recovery of men and women with mental illness by providing opportunities for members to live, work, and learn, while contributing their talents through a community of mutual support. Their goal is to eliminate the stigma against those with mental illness.

One of the people profiled in this film is Zeinab Wali, a homeless woman diagnosed with schizophrenia. Once in Fountain House, her eager-to-work attitude quickly dispels any misconception that people are homeless because of lethargic reasons.

Currently there are multiple problems, which existing policies do not address nor solve. For example, a common rule in shelters is the lack of storage; no possessions can be left during the daytime. However, a large percentage of the homeless are actually families with children and denying them storage would be limiting them to what they can carry, therefore depriving them of essentials like clean clothing.

Programs such as “Advantage”, a rental subsidy that helps people transition from temporary shelter to self-sufficiency, still have many flaws. Even within the New York City Department of Homeless Service, there is confusion about policies, which results in officials giving out false information. In a recent report conducted by New York City Comptroller, John Liu, it was found that “Advantage” leads to an increased amount of “side deals”; when people in homeless shelters agree to pay additional amounts to landlords “under the table” and “off the record” to ensure they can obtain an apartment and get out of the horrific conditions in the shelter. Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond disputed some of the audit findings and defended itself and its record stating that,. “Over 20,000 Advantage leases have been signed allowing New Yorkers to move from shelter to homes.”

Over half of homeless women are victims of domestic violence and the majority of homeless people are minorities—obviously there are more aspects involved in homelessness than high rent prices. New York City needs to create more shelters and provide better preventative care to families as well as individuals to avoid this issue in the first place. This could be achieved by funding more places like the Fountain House, which change lives daily by integrating the homeless back into society.

As the title of this film suggests, it is time to not only notice but to act.