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‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’ hears from a shelter director who knows his way around city hall

Isaac Adlerstein, the executive director of Broadway Community at Broadway Presbyterian Church, takes a New York minute to share innovative practices

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Isaac Adlerstein is executive director at Broadway Community at Broadway Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Isaac Adlerstein, the executive director of Broadway Community at Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City, whose efforts helping the city open shelters in New York City faith communities for asylum seekers was reported here, was the guest recently on “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast,” hosted each week by Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe. Listen to their conversation here. Adlerstein comes in at the end of the 16th minute.

“The truth is, folks become homeless by falling on hard times,” Adlerstein said. The “vast majority” of the people Broadway Community works with have suffered a severe medical issue or job loss or have seen their rent raised beyond what they can afford.

“That’s not to say people don’t face mental health challenges or chemical dependency,” Adlerstein said. “We have that in the general population as well. For some reason, when people are poor, we hold them to a higher standard as a society.”

In New York City, “so many people are desensitized to seeing folks living in squalor,” he told Catoe and Doong. “It’s not right. It’s become something we expect as part of the New York City experience. As a result, we don’t always have the urgency to change it.”

While homelessness “is more prominent in major cities, it is a national problem,” according to Adlerstein. “We as a country have a responsibility to ensure that everyone is able to have access to food, shelter and education. That’s something any society should do. Since it’s a national problem, the only way to address it is with a national solution, and the only way to get national solutions is by electing people who can make policy changes on the national level.”

Broadway Community, a human services agency housed at Broadway Presbyterian Church, began with “a couple of students from Union Theological Seminary and a couple of parishioners” from the church, Adlerstein said. “Folks’ hope and dedication to serving their neighbors turned into something that’s had an over 40-year legacy.”

“We have the power,” Adlerstein said of people in faith communities, “to make society what we want it to be.”

From their facility in the basement of Broadway Presbyterian Church, Broadway Community provides its neighbors with a soup kitchen and food pantry, maintains a shelter open every day of the year, and helps to offer a medical clinic, a computer lab and, more recently, a life skills empowerment program.

“The city has been a wonderful partner,” Adlerstein said, which “has allowed us to keep up with increased demand.” In May Broadway Community served 77% more meals than it had in May 2022, “and 2022 was our busiest year to date,” Adlerstein said.

The shelter Broadway Community operates at Broadway Presbyterian Church “is a unique model,” one of just two like it in the city, the other being at Rendall Memorial Presbyterian Church.

“Things are comfortable at Broadway,” Adlerstein said. “We have 15 beds here for both men and women. It’s a testament to our calm and safe atmosphere” bolstered by security providers, a person trained to de-escalate conflict, two cooks who alternate days at the shelter, showers and laundry service.

“I would like to see this model replicated across the city,” Adlerstein said, “and finally it looks like that’s going to happen.”

Last month, Mayor Eric Adams announced creation of a faith-based shelter program to house New York  City asylum-seekers at up to 50 houses of worship for two years.

On average, people spend a year between the time they enter the shelter system and the point where they obtain permanent housing, Adlerstein said. “That year is very traumatizing. People staying in a shelter may not feel tremendous agency over their lives,” he said.

A great initial step in Adlerstein’s mind would be to reduce the caseloads of workers assigned to care for those experiencing homelessness, caseloads that are right now up to 50 per case manager.

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

For many, “the shelter system is the first point of contact. It has to be improved,” Adlerstein said. “If people prefer to sleep on the streets, you can’t effectively usher that person into permanent housing. We need to make shelters smaller and safer.”

For anyone thinking how they can help, Adlerstein suggested first speaking “to people with lived experience and take direction from them. Folks with lived experience are the experts on this subject matter and have a lot of rich ideas on how to improve these systems.”

“I tell people, ‘Serve at your local soup kitchen or serve at your local food pantry,’” Adlerstein said. “Just get to know our most vulnerable neighbors as people and not as some image that was conjured up by the media.”

Finally, “Elect people who will make this a priority and who don’t want to tolerate homelessness anymore,” Adlerstein said. “In this country, we’ve been able to do a lot of things when we put our minds to it … I think we can do a similar thing for homelessness.”

Listen to other editions of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” here.

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