We spoke with Karl Chan about poverty in New York City. Karl Chan is Associate Director at The Bowery Mission and responsible for partnerships. He immigrated together with his wife to the United States from Australia in 2018. His passion for justice and social equality led him to his current position at the Mission, which has been serving homeless and hungry New Yorkers since 1870. Karl Chan likes to keep himself active by playing tennis. He is also an amateur photographer.
1014: In New York City, one of the richest metropolises in the Western world, do you at The Bowery Mission see that people are affected by poverty?
Karl Chan: Poverty is omni-present in New York City, yet easily overlooked among the glitz of Wall Street, Broadway, Fifth Avenue, the Met and all the other popular destinations. It becomes very visible if you stop and choose to look beyond the façade of bright lights. On average, 1 of 125 people are homeless. This translates to 70,000 homeless men, women and children in New York City with a population of 8.4 million.
Twenty percent of New Yorkers, which includes one in three children, live below the poverty line. Sixty percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and just one crisis resulting from, inter alia, untreated medical issues, unemployment, rising rents, hazardous housing conditions, domestic violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, or systemic injustice can lead to poverty and homelessness. For the last 140 years, The Bowery Mission has provided compassionate care and hope for those who have lost their homes and safety nets. In New York City, everyone has a right to shelter, and we at The Bowery Mission try to turn this right into reality. For every person sleeping on sidewalks or on subway trains, 17 more are sleeping in shelters.
What is The Bowery Mission doing to help people in need? What are some of the tasks and challenges that arise in the work of The Bowery Mission? Do you experience joy in your work?
Karl Chan: At The Bowery Mission, we provide basic needs such as food, shelter, showers, clothes, and medical exams. Every year, we hand out approximately 558,000 meals, 100,000 items of clothing, and offer 140,00 nights of shelter. Our mission is twofold. Firstly, to provide hope and build trust by meeting these basic emergency needs. Secondly, to invite individuals to be a part of our residential programs, helping them make progress towards their goal of independent living. We have a robust program with a full continuum of care that is adapted to meet people where they are at. Some need a short-term program from 3 to 6 months, a safe environment and assistance that includes, for example, job and vocational training. With our long-term program (6 to 15 months), we reach those who may have been chronically homeless, are in recovery or have a deeper level of needs and require a greater level of support to rebuild their lives from the ground up. Just as there are multiple reasons to slide into hardship and homelessness, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to rise out of poverty. Our counselors, social-workers and ambassadors build name-knowing and trust-filled relationships with every guest who enters our doors. That is how we are able to hear each person’s individual story and come alongside them to personalize a pathway out of homelessness.
Our greatest joy and satisfaction are to look at the many success stories our work and the determination and strengths of our guests yield. I am extremely proud of one of my colleagues who – after 30 years of homelessness and a crack-habit of $ 100 per day – finally enrolled into our program and has now run the New York City marathon. Overall, 74% of all our program graduates at The Bowery Mission have enough income to meet their basic needs.
In an ideal world, what should be done in your New York neighborhood and beyond to achieve the U.N. goal of “no poverty”?
At The Bowery Mission, 17,000 volunteers per year serve with us. They experience firsthand what homelessness looks like and get to understand how they can make a difference. Also, the administrative staff of The Bowery Mission is, for the most part, located at our emergency shelter – to help us deepen our understanding of the community that we serve. This all helps to break down existing societal barriers - a small contribution on the journey for social justice.
In an ideal world, all people would know about the injustice of poverty. Education and advocacy would play a significant part in making this happen. Programs for adults and children would break the vicious circle of poverty and inequality and open opportunities in underserved communities. Children from underserved communities would have opportunities and receive the enrichment and mentoring they need. All people would have a voice and be able to tell their stories.
In an ideal world, humanity and compassion would prevail. People would put other people first. Respect and dignity would dominate human interactions across all socio-economic backgrounds and the pre-conceived notion that many people have about homeless people simply being lazy would be a story of the past.