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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Picture the Homeless Challenges Perceptions of Marginalized

In March, Picture The Homeless members Arvernetta Henry (far right) and Jeremy Saunders (second from right) were among protesters at a rally at the Albany Capitol Building. (Photo by Sam J. Miller) 


Adjusting the yellow bow in her thick gray locks of hair, Arvenetta Henry clasped her hands under her chin. “Everyone calls me Miss Henry,” she said with a smile, “because I am a teacher.”

Henry, who wouldn’t give her exact age, but admits she is over 50, spent most of her adult life as a Bronx teacher. She is no longer in the traditional classroom setting, but through a nonprofit homeless advocacy organization operated by the very homeless population it serves, Henry continues to teach.

“When I was teaching in the 1980s, I didn’t know what transitional housing meant when my students told me about it,” she said. “Now that term has a whole new concept.”

Henry became homeless 18 months ago and sought refuge in a local shelter. But one day, she returned from work to find her bags packed. Shelter workers informed her that she and other homeless city workers were being transferred to Queens.

While living in Queens, she had to wake up at 5 a.m. in order to commute to her teaching job in the Bronx. Her transitional apartment building had an 8 p.m. curfew. Henry was having trouble making it to work and home on time.

“I went to the union,” she said. But, “being homeless is almost like having a disease; they didn’t want to touch it.”

She eventually lost her teaching job as well. It was at this point a friend told her about Picture the Homeless (PTH).

Located in the same building as Fordham Lutheran Church, at 2427 Morris Ave., just south of Fordham Road, PTH is a nonprofit that functions as a learning center for homeless advocacy in the Bronx. The organization focuses on a variety of homeless issues and challenges, including housing, civil rights and police violence. But above all, PTH teaches the homeless how to be their own advocates and how to challenge the system.

At PTH, Henry learned the shelter that kicked her out had violated her rights. “I learned that I have rights and those rights must be posted in a shelter!” she said.

PTH does not provide typical homeless services such as housing, food, or clothing. But Henry says, “[PTH] teaches us how to be services for others. I have gained knowledge that I know I can share. It’s a hands-on academy.”

Even the name of the organization — Picture the Homeless — challenges public perception of the homeless. “Contrary to the media [perception], the homeless are not all substance abusers or mentally ill,” said Jean Rice, a longtime PTH board member and leader of the civil rights campaign.

In fact, inside its walls, PTH appears to be a typical office setting: members making phone calls, sending e-mails, designing fliers and scheduling events. Most PTH members, like Kendall Jackman, are trained professionals who used to be paid to work in such settings.

“The face of homelessness has changed,” said Jackman, who spent 27 years as an office worker. “The majority of homeless people have jobs or had jobs and just need to be retrained for another job.”

“You would be surprised at who’s homeless. There could a homeless person next to you on the train or in front of you in the supermarket. You’d never know,” she said shaking her head.
Most of the workers at PTH, like Jackman and Henry, are volunteers. Although the organization used to have a staff of seven, Henry said they had to cut four of the positions due to a lack of funds.

The organization was originally founded in 1999 by two homeless men, Anthony Williams and Lewis Haggins, in direct response to the Giuliani administration’s draconian homeless policies, which they believed were violating basic human rights.

“The problem is systematic…the homeless are excluded from policymaking,” Rice said. “I always say that it was Giuliani who criminalized homelessness but Bloomberg who industrialized homelessness. And it’s taxpayers that are paying for the inadequate homeless services.”

“It is expensive to be homeless,” Henry said. “People make assumption it’s a free ride, but it costs the state $3,500 a month to keep people in shelter.”

Henry credits PTH for helping her advocate for herself and for teaching her how to empower others to do the same.

“I want all you young people to realize, you don’t have to leave your home … A shelter is no place for children,” Henry said, as if talking to a new PTH member. The teacher in her added, “Please, stay in school!”


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