Wilson and Maria have been living under a vestibule of the Church of St. John The Divine — the largest Gothic cathedral in the world by most accounts, located near Columbia University in New York City — for 5 years. They ended up there when their apartment building was closed after the City discovered that the building’s landlord was stealing power and gas from the building next door — and all the residents of Wilson and Maria’s building were kicked out by the local government.
Wilson was a computer technician and Maria was in college, studying to be a social worker for children. With two children of their own, they didn’t have a large savings. When their apartment building was shut down, they found themselves homeless.
The two of them are well recognized in this community. They keep the sidewalks swept, they have helped a dozen other homeless people living under the church get into rehab and they have smiles and waves for the thousands of people who walk by their makeshift home every week. They are politically active and have found a way to vote (a downtown church lets them use their address), and they vote in every election, big or small.
Four weeks ago, they were offered a basement apartment in Rochester, NY. Rent free, at least until they get back on their feet. When armed with an actual home address, they stand a chance of employment and convincing the courts to return their children to their custody. The security would also give Maria an opportunity to go back to college, and Wilson the money to have his leg amputated, for reasons related to diabetes.
Since the offer of the rent-free apartment arrived, they have been working diligently to make it work, although there have been setbacks. For instance, they needed their identification papers in order to make this move and get jobs. The church was holding onto them for “safe keeping.” When they went back to get the documents, they learned that the church had thrown them away. It took two weeks for them to replace the documents, and the Rochester apartment opportunity was slipping away. They have also had to give up some conveniences to save for the move. Conveniences like eating. Yet through it all, they remain positive. Politically active. And good neighbors who just happen to live in a tent under a church. And, just this week, the church has taken action, after 5 years, to have them forcibly removed. Insane.
We’ve been documenting Wilson and Maria on video since they got the offer of the new home, but haven’t put together a full edit. The story we’re recording does not have an ending yet. It won’t have an ending until moving day. And they have saved up all but $170 of the funds they need to complete the move and avoid removal by the church. We’ve collected dollars, one per person, from everyone in the neighborhood who is willing to help. Each dollar we collect is signed by the member of the community who gave help. But this is Harlem. It’s a place where poorer people who can’t really spare a dollar will give one, and wealthier people who can spare even more won’t give a dime.
Right now, they only need another $50.00.
People, it seems, really do forget that it takes a village to build America. And that’s America today.
Here is a very roughly cut video from the day they learned about the opportunity to move. Bear with the quality. Like their saga, it’s a work in progress.
Go light a candle or think a good thought. For Maria and Wilson — and, really, for all of us.
Please know that this post is not about raising the money. It’s about letting people know that the homeless are not always the evil people in society. We’re all one step away. And in spite of the horrible circumstances that have made people take that step into the streets, the homeless are still Americans like the rest of us. And they might just care a lot more than most of us about the land they live in.
We’ll be keeping this post updated.