Down and Outside

Photo by Brett Sayles / Pexels

Walking to a favorite local café after dropping my car off for service, I passed one of those little free libraries. I chose a copy of This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann, an author whose work I hadn’t previously read. Settling in with my breakfast burrito and cup of coffee, I was unprepared to be disturbed by what I began to read.

At the turn of the century in New York City, we are introduced to four “sandhogs” – Black, white, Irish and Italian men who dig the subway tunnel that will connect Brooklyn to Manhattan. A three-generational story of one of these men alternates with the contemporary narrative of a subway dweller living in the bowels of the underground.

This novel shines a brilliant light on racism, poverty and homelessness above and below ground in the Big Apple. The writing is at times raw, the images vivid, the setting palpable (you can feel the steam rising from the grates) and the characters real. The author pulls back the curtain to immerse the reader in a community of those who dwell in the margins of society, their monikers, their values, their culture, their currency.

Reading this, you can’t help but look at our own homeless encampments with a fresh perspective. If this was the author’s intent when this book was published almost ten years ago, I applaud him for raising this consciousness.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “on any given night in America, more than half a million people are homeless.” Half a million! The problem is multi-faceted: a chronic shortage of affordable housing and new home construction, elimination of social programs, poverty, mental illness, substance abuse and the crushing economic impact of the pandemic.

Some economists have speculated that once cities cross a threshold where residents must spend more than a third of their income on housing, homelessness spikes. When incomes don’t keep pace with rising rents, residents scramble for what they can afford leaving those at the bottom out of the game.

There was a time in my early employment history when I worked as a “junior secretary” in the mortgage division of a savings and loan. As part of assembling a mortgage application for review by loan officers, I was asked to calculate the debt-to-income ratio and note this on a cover sheet. At that time (mid 1970s) lenders required that an applicant not obligate more than 25% of their net income to a mortgage payment.

A 1979 court decision granted New Yorkers a “right to shelter” with a system that allows people to sleep indoors every night. Only approximately 5% are left unsheltered. Though our climate is more forgiving, life between sheets of cardboard under tarps tented over shopping carts is not.

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