Though there may be many good things about cubicles, a panoramic view isn’t one of them. In my cubicle at the back of West Bronx Housing’s florescent-lit, windowless office, case folders tower several feet above my head and my supervisor worries that the stacks of files will fall and crush me. This is where I spend my days in AVODAH, helping a population of immigrants and seniors avoid eviction, apply for rent limits, and fight landlords for necessary repairs to their apartments in the poorest urban county in America, Bronx County.
It’s not just the claustrophobia of my cubicle that limits my view, though. On a good day, I’ll help the office prevent one client from being evicted; on a bad day, I’ll call dozens of clients to tell them that they are ineligible for assistance. But good day or bad, my work happens one person at a time, one program at a time – meeting with clients, answering calls, filling out grotesquely complicated government forms. My work is meaningful and I can see the faces of the people I help. I know that when I go home, Mr. O’Sullivan and Ms. Garcia are going to have their rents limited at an affordable level because of West Bronx Housing. Still, though, working so close to the ground and so far from the sort of abstractions and systemic analyses I was used to in my classes in college, it can be hard to see where it all fits into a bigger picture. I only see one tiny corner of the world of poverty, even within the tiny sample of my clients.
But recently – perhaps bizarrely – I’ve started seeing these close horizons pushed back within the confines of my AVODAH bayit (house), the Manhattan apartment I share with 12 other corps members. If my days at West Bronx Housing are giving me an overly intimate familiarity with the intricacies surrounding housing court, my nights in the bayit help to fill in the rest of the picture. If the client we fail to save from eviction vanishes from my life at work, I can imagine her possible path when Hannah, an advocate for those wrongly turned away from emergency shelters, tells me about her day at work while we make dinner. Almost nightly, while we wait for our quinoa to boil or our yams to roast, she rages against New York’s dangerous and overcrowded shelter system. She explains how the city will look for any excuse to turn people away from the shelter they are entitled to by law, and often forces people to stay illegally with friends or family in housing projects, placing their hosts in danger of losing their home and benefits as well.
The math of a typical eviction intake interview is very simple: an income of $800 a month for a family of three plus $300 in food stamps, and rent at $900, with utilities on top of that – the family will always be behind. It’s unlikely we can save this case. The big charities and government programs won’t help a family with no future ability to pay, since even if we can get them out of the hole this one time, they’ll be back in the same place next month, and agencies don’t want to waste the money when there are so many in need. If you just see the numbers, if you only hear their voices over the phone, you could lose track of what it means. But when you go home every night to hear what happens when you can’t succeed – it changes what you hear when you’re doing intake. Gives a different urgency, a different understanding to what it means that this person on the other end of the line is about to lose their home.
Not all our jobs intersect so closely, but enough of them do. New York is too big, people vanish in the system, but from our separate stories you can start to piece together larger narratives. From me they go to Hannah, and then Ethan, who provides healthcare services to the homeless, and my roommate Aaron, who works in a shelter’s work training program. Clients pass from Tova’s work on family law and domestic violence to Ilana’s job with sex trafficking victims to Zoe, helping immigrants gain legal status.
Some people are confused by the relationship between communal living and the social justice work we’re doing in AVODAH. To me, it’s this connection I’ve just been describing that provides the explanation. A community lifts you up out of your cubicle and shows you the ways that your narrow range of forms and services actually matter, the ways they fit into a bigger system. Community might not make that cubicle any less cramped, but it shows you the place your microscopic focus has in the lives of your clients, and it gives you the knowledge and understanding to serve them better.
Alex is originally from Salem, OR, and he spent the last four years studying anthropology at Carleton College in Northfield, MN, with a focus on indigenous issues in Guatemala and Peru. He is currently a New York AVODAH corps member.