Before she began teaching in the fall of 2012, sociology Professor Alexandra Cox dealt with up to 80 clients at a time working as a mitigation advocate at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. Cox worked for an alternative to incarceration for her clients, many of whom were teenagers or afflicted with mental illness.
It wasn’t until Cox became a social worker and started making regular visits to Riker’s Island that Cox said she began to realize “the ways in which prison and jail become a revolving door for many impoverished and homeless people.”
During an event hosted by the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) in the Student Union Room 62/63, Cox gave a lecture on homelessness.
NYPIRG intern and third-year sociology major Rosario Caceres coordinated the event, presenting a film from Press TV on the extensive problem of homelessness, called “U.S. Homelessness & Poverty At An Alarming Height.”
According to NYPIRG Higher Education Project Leader Barbara Cvenic, NYPIRG interns are expected to lead meetings and organize events within their specific campaign over the course of each semester. Caceres’ campaign is hunger & homelessness.
Caceres, an advisee of Cox, asked her to contribute to the event and speak to expand on the topic.
“I know she has some background information with the homeless,” Caceres said. “I felt like she was the right professor to speak about this topic in the criminological view of homelessness.”
Cox began her address with a story about a man named Orlando, who she said she built a relationship with over several years working on his cases.
Orlando, an immigrant from Puerto Rico, was in his 50s, illiterate and HIV positive with a history of mental illness, Cox said.
According to Cox, Orlando was living in “supportive housing” until he was arrested on assault charges. He was found innocent. But when he got out of prison, Cox said Orlando lost his housing. Without readily available support, he found himself back in jail.
Cox said stories like Orlando’s “frame a theme” that is “representative of a lot of people within the criminal justice system.”
Cox said the police focus on low-level crimes such as peeing in public, loitering and turnstile jumping has put the homeless at greater risk of arrest and that they are often caught in a cycle that is difficult to break.
In her lecture, she stressed the transient lives of the working poor — that they are often funneled into jobs that don’t pay enough to live in cities such as New York and there aren’t enough places to go for assistance.
According to Cox, options in Ulster County are limited as well.
For those leaving prison and looking for housing, Elizabeth Manor and Hummle Housel in Kingston are the only supportive housing locations in Ulster County that are also within reasonable distance to public transportation, Cox said.
Cvenic is also familiar with the issue of homelessness within the region.
“I did a project last semester and did some research on poverty levels in Ulster County and I’m really glad that NYPIRG is focusing on this issue,” Cvenic said. “It’s especially important because the hungry and homeless rarely have a voice and they are a marginalized and silenced population.”