Passaic, NJ

Homelessness and the ‘Postal Paradox’

Phil Rossi
U.S. Postal TruckTrinity Nguyen/Unsplash

Employing the Post Office to help the homeless

Among the many obstacles facing today’s homeless is the ability to receive mail. While out in the street, one of the deterrents of getting the help these people need arrives through the post office.

Driver’s licenses, SNAP debit cards, and paychecks often require a mailing address. Without a proper mailbox, many in the homeless community are unable to receive letters from friends and family. It also compromises access to government services, and the ability to provide employers with an address. To open a checking, savings, and debit card account, banks also require an address.

Known to homeless advocates as the Postal Paradox — a situation that binds homeless people into a Catch-22 scenario. Besides food, shelter, and medicine, homeless citizens face this added dilemma that may keep them homeless in place of a pathway out.

The city of Passaic, New Jersey has recently installed mailboxes to Dignity House, a homeless shelter. The program’s objective is to help the local homeless population receive mail.

The idea sparked when a recent Dignity House resident had to renew his driver's license. Without a mailing address, the fellow needed to rent a P.O. box. The man didn’t have the means or money to do so.

Similar situations arose with other residents dependant on social services. Replacing government-issued debit cards for items like food stamps and prescription drugs continued to pose challenges for these people in need.

In conjunction with the city of Passaic, Dignity House was able to get an outdoor station with 21 mailboxes on its property. In days, residents began receiving mail. Five people obtained Social Security cards over the first week alone.

Mail is delivered directly to Dignity House. From here, letters are placed in the secure mailboxes or hand-delivered to those who show up on Friday, the day the shelter sets aside for showers, laundry, and hair cuts.

Dignity House is a city-funded homeless shelter converted from an old firehouse. There is a recreation room, a kitchenette, bathrooms, and a laundry room.

Dignity House is also fully equipped to answer and handle any Code Blues. Code Blue is a city ordinance that mandates officials to shelter their homeless citizens during freezing temperatures.

The city witnessed a sharp rise in unemployment and homelessness due to the shutdown. In a normal spring, landscapers and construction companies begin their hiring phases. In the past, an opportunity for folks to leave the homeless ranks for their own housing.

Since the first weeks of the pandemic, Dignity House has also been a weekly testing center. It remains a resource one as well. It continues to face weekly challenges since space is limited and food pantries remain strained.

Providing a mailbox is a great step in restoring dignity. Dignity is a springboard to one’s personal purpose and beyond. Having mailboxes dedicated to individuals provides privacy and helps to enhance self-worth as well.

Personal trauma, mental illness, and various other health issues are known to be contributing factors to homelessness. That said, many individuals are in less need of such resources. Through the U.S. Mail, a stream of communication could prove a big step forward and out of their predicament.

These days, we’re relying on the Postal Service to restore our faith in both our democracy and elections. We’ll also need their help to enhance our humanity, our future, and the fate of our fellow citizens befallen by hard times.

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Phil is a blogger interested in sports, culture, politics, and the art scene.

Hackensack, NJ

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