We should have been home for Christmas,” Henry tells me as we speak one week before Christmas at the law center. “When you don’t have housing, you don’t have nothing,” he adds. This is a short story about Henry and his deaf brother. The two men grew up in Harlem, near the Apollo Theater, over fifty years ago. They attended respected public schools; their mom was a nurse at a fine Manhattan hospital; and their dad had a coveted job, as a supervisor, for the New York City Transit Authority. Their parents died when Henry was in his early twenties; and Henry cared for his deaf teenage brother. Over the years, the landlord of their rent stabilized home induced them to leave; the brothers were unable to find affordable housing; and then Henry became ill and could no longer work and support both himself and his brother, who struggles to find full employment due to his disability.
The two brothers were compelled to move to a homeless shelter over a year ago. There, they shared a small room with a bunk bed. Henry tells us that the room lacked a dresser or a desk to write. After living at the shelter for nearly 8 months, the shelter personnel “logged out” the brothers because they were late in returning to the shelter, having just attended a computer-training program at a prominent university, late at night, leading to college admission. It is not a good thing to be logged out of a shelter: it means that you lose your privilege to live there. Accordingly, the two brothers have been “couch diving” at friends for the past six months.
It is the Christmas season and Henry is determined to affirm the spirit of Christmas. Henry teaches us: “Christmas is not about gifts, luxuries-right now people are going through a crisis; people don’t have a place to stay.” How does Henry advance the spirit of Christmas? Henry explains: “For me, the thing about Christmas is to give to needy people who don’t have nothing.” So Henry is involved in a toy drive for children at a New York hospital who suffer from Down Syndrome; he sings Christmas carols to comfort this community of children (Henry states that it “could have been me”); he brings books to senior citizens at nursing homes and reads those nursing home residents stories and gives out Girl Scout cookies; and he hands out Selective Service brochures for youth looking for a future.
When we ask Henry how we can help him, he tells us: “Please,
that’s all I ask for, a place to stay. Every human being deserves to have a key
to turn a lock.”
And so today, Henry has been accepted as a
client of the law center. We will find
Henry and his brother a home, as it should be. This is not a traditional
Christmas story, and in truth, Henry is not coming home for Christmas this
season. But Henry has taught us
something perhaps more deeply important: it is possible to come home to
Christmas, if not for Christmas, in spite of narrow circumstances. Through
giving, like Henry, we return to a place that can be called home — a place in
time, if not space, that offers the potential for a redemptive world. We wish
you a happy holiday season from all of us at the New York Center for Law and