October 25, 2007

Homeless Shelters

Posted in Community Education at 3: 29 pm by MK

So I find it interesting that I just finished reading Jennifer Toth’s Mole People, and I’m teaching tonight at a homeless shelter. I have to say that Toth’s book absolutely intrigued me; I couldn’t put it down. I’ll admit that I don’t think it was very well written, and after doing a little research I’m also aware of the controversy surrounding it. But before all that . . .

Mole People was published in 1993, written by Toth who was a then intern with the L.A. Times. She investigates the urban legend of thousands of people living below the streets of New York City. Yes, that’s right, below the streets: in the vast layers of subway tunnels, enclosed waiting rooms, and abandoned storage spaces. While many of the homeless living in these tunnels are alone, Toth finds that there are full-fledge communities of upwards to 200 people who have joined together to live. Some have elected “mayors,” and designated “runners” to provide supplies from aboveground. Some of these communities have electricity, and one in particular had rooms set up, a working shower, kitchen, and exercise room. Sounds pretty incredible right?

Some have discounted much of what Toth has written citing inaccurate setting descriptions in her book and other stories fact checkers have proved wrong. Maybe she embellished things, but why wouldn’t the homeless in NYC have escaped downwards? The tunnels provide warmth and perhaps a bit more (although not much more) protection and safety than some of the aboveground shelters. As Toth was writing, she estimated that there were 5,000 people living below Manhattan. I also read that in the early 2000s the NYPD launched a major initiative to drive people aboveground, so I don’t know what the numbers of NYC below-the-earth-dwellers would be today.

Toth spent a year of her life researching this book. At times she definitely provides hints that she got a bit too close to the people she met, trying to save them and often putting herself in dangerous settings. I just can’t believe that she made most of it up–it’s far too compelling to simply be imagined.

Not that my research project is dangerous or involves the craziness of Toth’s, but it was interesting to read about her experiences and think about them in light of mine. I also took note during her sections on the dangerous nature of homeless shelters. I don’t live in NYC, and I really don’t think I’m going to have any problems tonight, but it’s something to file away in the back of my mind.

And what am I teaching? Tonight it’s a basic money management class on how to make a spending plan/family budget, and how to set financial goals and reach them. Aside from volunteering at a soup kitchen a couple times, this will be the first time I’ve gone into a homeless shelter. I’m excited: this is exactly the population this workshop was designed for. Hopefully it will all go smoothly . . .

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