Arafa Speaks, adorned with dangling hoop earrings, a gold necklace and a colorful kente ribbon pinned to her black jacket, opened a Bible and read several verses aloud from the book of Ezekiel in a park on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
“There are those who don’t believe in God,” she said when finished reciting. “There are those who don’t even believe in good. But that’s all right because there are those who do.”
Speaks, 54, has been ministering since she became homeless two decades ago. She said she grew up in a family that did not preach the word but was very spiritual. She referred to them as “faith walkers.”
“Thank God for the Lord,” she said, remembering back to the time she first found herself without a home. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ and that’s when my journey started.”
Faith in a higher power provides a constant source of strength to countless people living on the streets. For some, it reawakens an earlier commitment; for others, such as Charles Hauser, it is a newfound strength. It inspires others to establish organizations and run shelters that comfort the homeless as they face daily, unpredictable hardships.
The effectiveness of faith has even been proved scientifically.
The Centre for Evaluative Clinical Sciences at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire conducted a study in 1999 to evaluate the relation between spirituality, and physical and mental health within a homeless population.
The study found two things — that spirituality appeared to play an important role in the lives of the homeless and that feeling close to God may be linked to better functional mental or emotional health in homeless people.
Speaks said God gave her the name “Arafa Speaks” when she became homeless 20 years ago. She ministers to people on the streets, in the subways and in shelters. She also advocates for the homeless and encourages people to stand up for themselves. She said “true religion” is helping those in need.
“What the churches and others have made the word of God into,” she said, “is not at all what God had planned for his word. He said, ‘Be doers of the word, not just hearers of the word or just preachers of the word.’ ”
When she isn’t ministering or advocating for the homeless, Speaks designs kente ribbons, writes poems and produces a newsletter entitled “Home-L.E.S. in America.” “L.E.S.” stands for the Lower East Side neighborhood.
Speaks said she grew up in a housing project in Canarsie, Brooklyn, but left in 1973. She traveled up and down the East Coast and eventually settled in Lincoln Park, a predominantly African-American community in Rockville, Md.
She said she was evicted from her apartment in Rockville in 1989 because her landlord claimed she violated zoning laws when she set up a sewing shop inside. Speaks has been living in and out of shelters ever since.
According to the New York City Department of Homeless Services, more than 37,000 people were sleeping in city shelters in December 2009.
While families comprise the fastest growing segment of the homeless population in New York City, the number of single homeless adults, such as Speaks, has also risen dramatically.
The Department of Homeless Services’ Daily Census for December 8, 2009, estimated more than 10,200 families and almost 7,000 single adults were sleeping in municipal shelters. Based on this data, the Coalition for the Homeless reports that homelessness in New York City has reached the highest level since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
But New York is not the only city in the U.S facing rising levels of homelessness.
The 2008 Hunger and Homelessness Report, produced by the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Task Force, found that 19 out of the 25 U.S. cities surveyed for the study experienced an increase in homelessness from 2007 to 2008.
While the report cited lack of affordable housing, poverty and unemployment as the top three causes of homelessness for families, substance abuse, lack of affordable housing and mental illness were the three most common causes of homelessness for individuals.
Charles Hauser, 28, said he spent the past two years without a home, battling alcohol addiction and spending time in and out of prison.
He now resides at the Bowery Mission, a faith-based organization in New York City that serves those in need. Its mission is to “restore hope and life to people who are hungry and homeless.”
Originally from Monterrey, Calif., Hauser moved to North Carolina with his family when he was 12. In high school, he was awarded a scholarship to study art, which he has loved since childhood.
But Hauser said he began partying and getting into trouble; he lost the scholarship after getting arrested for selling drugs, possessing a handgun, driving without a license and carrying false identification.
He served time in a correctional institution and North Carolina state prison, and earned his high school equivalency diploma while he was incarcerated.
After being released, he returned to the same lifestyle.
Hauser said he arrived to New Jersey in early 2009 and came to New York soon after. He spent his first night in a construction site near Times Square. He said he continued to drink heavily and struggled to survive on the streets without a home or a job.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “Honestly, I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’ve ever come to this position.’ ”
After three weeks in New York, he was sent to Rikers Island, New York City’s jail facility, for stealing. He said he was sentenced to two-to-five years but only served four months before getting released.
Once back on the streets, he was selling drugs again to survive.
Hauser hadn’t forgotten about art school, though. He inquired at the Art Institute of New York and found out that he could attend, but would have to pay 10 percent of the tuition, which runs $30,000 per year, for the two-year associate’s degree program. Without a job, home and foundation, Hauser said that seemed nearly impossible.
After leaving the school that day, Hauser stopped at the Bowery Mission Soup Kitchen for a meal.
“I didn’t want to hear anything about God or church or anything like that. I kind of walked away,” he said. “But I couldn’t keep repeating that cycle.”
After being taken to the hospital by a police officer for intoxication, Hauser decided to return to the Bowery Mission for an emergency bed.
Since he returned to the mission, his life has changed dramatically. Hauser has a newfound spirituality that has given him hope for the future.
He recounted the day he asked for help from the pastor.
“I asked the man to pray for me, to open up a breakthrough somehow and to get me off the street,” he said.
Three hours later, Hauser’s father, whom he had not spoken to in five years, called him. Hauser still had the cell phone his sister bought him. His father offered to pay the tuition needed for his art school.
Hauser has been in the mission’s discipleship program since then and is making plans to attend art school. He hasn’t been drinking since he got to the Bowery, and he recently started writing a children’s book.
Eden Gordon, the Bowery Mission’s coordinator of public relations, said in an e-mail the faith-based discipleship program, which houses 82 men and is currently filled to capacity, provides education and job training, and graduates men from the six-month program every month.
The mission’s other program, compassionate care, provides food, clothing, showers, a medical clinic and shelter when outside temperatures drop below 40 degrees.
Pastor Reggie Stutzman, the director of compassionate care at the mission, said Hauser is fully rested, has gained weight and is not as depressed as he was when he first came to the mission.
“There’s a glitter in his eye again,” he said. “He has hope again.”
Stutzman said he believes that a relationship with God can help deliver people from problems such as mental illness and addiction, and brings healing into a person’s life.
Hauser said his faith helps him stay sober and cope with being homeless.
“It alleviates a lot of the worries, a lot of the stress,” he said, “because I have faith in something. I have hope and faith that everything’s going to work out. It’s just giving me all the tools I need to build my life back to the position I want it to be in.”
Arafa Speaks expressed gratitude for her own faith, too.
“I thank God for showing me how to not be afraid of humble beginnings,” she said, “and how to take every adversity and turn it into an awesome opportunity.”