Ellen Baxter Brings Message of Homelessness Home to Bowdoin

Story posted February 07, 2000

Ellen Baxter '75 is a diminutive, soft-spoken woman with the strength and courage of a five-star general, battling a fierce and persistent enemy: The problem of homelessness in New York City.

She is held back by politics, prejudices and the sheer enormity of the problem -- 85,000 homeless men, women and children in New York City last year. On the coldest nights, 35 of them die from exposure.

"If similar numbers were to arrive on our shores, it would be considered a threat to national security," she told students, faculty and staff at the Feb. 4 Common Hour.

But little by little, one skirmish at a time, she is gaining ground where many before her had failed.

Baxter described a world inconceivable to most, where the homeless herd themselves into massive shelters to escape the cold; where no one, including clergy, social workers, friends and family, is allowed to visit. They are people with no place to go because they were ejected from foster care on their 21st birthday, released from prison or psychiatric hospitals; people whose lives fell apart because of addiction or the loss of a loved one.

She shared her findings with a Bowdoin alum who worked at a Wall Street law firm; he and a colleague researched the law, and found that the New York State Constitution says the government shall provide food, shelter and clothing to the needy. They took their case to the courts, and in late 1979, a Supreme Court judge ruled that the city and the state were obligated to shelter the men; a subsequent class action suit resulted in a similar finding for the city's homeless women.

But it was a Pyrrhic victory at best. The city's solution was the Fort Washington Armory, where 1,400 homeless people slept on cots on the drill floor. A blue delineated where the tuberculosis sufferers would sleep; a yellow line marked the area for AIDS victims; a red line outlined the space set aside for psychotics who screamed in the night. The lights were kept on all the time to curb the violence.

"As an advocate, I was ashamed," Baxter said. "It was indeed preventing people from freezing to death, but they were treated worse than cattle. There had to be other ways.

"With some naivete, I decided that if shelters were not the answer, permanent housing was."

In 1986, she opened her first apartment house for 55 homeless people. Since then, she has created five more by finding abandoned buildings and securing the financing to buy them. They house 220 formerly homeless people; one-quarter to one-third are working full time; some are going back to school; some "are simply living with dignity," Baxter said. She is working on a new building with 70 three-bedroom apartments catering to grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. Baxter hopes this will help reduce the number of children relegated to foster care because the state won’t let them live with grandparents who are willing and able to care for them but have substandard housing.

Contrary to the belief of the skeptics, her apartments are the most cost-effective way to help the homeless. Her buildings cost $15,000 a year. One cot at the Armory costs $20,000 a year; prison costs $60,000; a psychiatric hospital costs $120,000.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is competing with Hilary Rodham Clinton for the New York Senate, has vowed to fight the state's Constitutional obligation to provide shelter to the homeless.

"Surely, housing is a fundamental right in a civil society," Baxter said. "This is not a political issue; it's a moral issue."

Baxter quoted a blind woman named Bernice, who lived for four years by spending her days McDonald's and her nights in the subways: "America, she should be ashamed of herself. Imagine, an old lady like me. I worked hard all my life. My son is a veteran."

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