The calls come one after another. Eventually, they blur together — the 60-year-old unemployed real estate broker who is behind in his rent; the former headhunter who is struggling to find work; the wife of a recently laid off high-tech professional who can’t pay her family’s utility bills; and the 81-year-old man who needs an affordable place to live because his adult children can no longer subsidize his rent.
I am perched in a sunny cubicle overlooking a busy Midtown intersection, fielding calls for J-1-1, UJA-Federation’s newly expanded Information and Referral Service. As I gaze out the window, I am struck by the contrast between the steady rhythm of commercial life on the street below and the stories of anguish and despair I hear almost daily from men and women of all ages and backgrounds who have been impacted by the downturn.
I am one of three social workers who answer the phones when the community reaches out for assistance and resources. Technically speaking, we provide enhanced service — asking the right questions and doing the necessary follow-up to ensure that our callers are directed to the right places.
Since the recession began, we have been getting an enormous number of requests for assistance from callers who are struggling financially. Depending on the week, my colleagues and I refer dozens of individuals who have lost their jobs and their savings to UJA-Federation’s Connect-to-Care Initiative, which provides access to employment, legal, financial and emotional support services through a coordinated network of agencies and area synagogues.
Often serving as the first point of contact for people in crisis, I am privy to many of the confidential stories behind the statistics. Not a day goes by that I am not called upon to find referrals to agencies for someone who is facing eviction, unable to pay the mortgage, drowning in credit card debt, newly unemployed, in need of health insurance or suddenly without savings.
By the time they get to us, many callers are at their wits’ end. For weeks or months, they have been privately struggling to make ends meet, worrying about the rent or the mortgage without letting on to the neighbors. It is only when they have used up their resources that they call us, wondering if there is something, anything that can help. Often, they are concerned about the impact on their families. How can they afford to send their children to camp? Who will help support their aging parents? How will they pay the bills or keep the roof over their heads?
Some are eager to talk, while others say little. The latter are usually the more reluctant callers — I can tell when they’re uncomfortable. Sometimes, it’s a subtle crack in their voice, or a slight, almost undetectable emphasis of the word “executive” or “attorney” slipped into a conversation about their life prior to the recession. On several occasions, I have spoken with individuals who say they used to give to charity and never imagined they would ever have to ask for help. And yet, the great equalizer of a recession has placed them in line for food stamps.
Their stories paint a portrait of a once relatively secure New York Jewish community whose core has been shaken. Day after day, I hear the fear in the voices that ask for direction in a time of unprecedented uncertainty, and for reassurance in a time when there is little. Gone are the assumptions that a good education and a strong work ethic will almost guarantee a life of financial security. This is a recession that does not discriminate. Singles, families, single-parent families, and grandparents from various backgrounds — no one is immune.
The newspaper headlines, with their fluctuating prognosis for economic recovery, do little to assuage their fears. Yet I sometimes wonder if callers see what I see from my office window or on the streets of my Upper West Side neighborhood, where life appears to go on as usual, and think they are alone in their suffering.
Henry Thoreau is famously quoted as saying that most men (and women) lead quiet lives of desperation. Sometimes I wonder if the “quiet” only compounds the desperation. Imagine how different life would be if people could cast off their shame and accept that they are victims of an unforeseeable crisis. What systems of mutual support might organically surface in the pews of synagogues and other houses of worship where we are asked to contemplate our human vulnerability, or even at Starbucks, Borders, libraries and other unofficial haunts of the unemployed masses? What new ideas for businesses might emerge if people looked up from their laptops and lattes and began to actually talk to each other?
The economic crisis has exacted a heavy toll on the Jewish community. For all those who are suffering in silence, take it from someone positioned on the frontlines of the recession — you are not alone and there are services that can help. The first step is to share your experience and, when necessary, to ask for help.
Kim Schneiderman, a social worker, served as a J-1-1 information and referral specialist for UJA-Federation of New York.
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