Budget cuts hitting home for some St. John’s students

Recently, we’ve all been hearing about the budget cuts that New York City has been undergoing. Mayor Bloomberg, under duress from Albany, has been swinging what I like to call “the mighty axe of funding severance” in all directions.

From schoolteachers to senior citizens, we all seem to be feeling the wrath of our local government as it attempts to balance the city’s budget. Each day, newly incited groups seem to be marching on city hall bearing picket signs and chanting in unison. Each day, social programs intended to bring relief to the impoverished and homeless are thrown under the bus of democracy.

Like many of you, after being faced with daily media barrages on the subject of budget cuts, I had become desensitized to much of what was going on. There once was a time when I had been outraged at the treatment of the hardest-hit social and ethnic groups – namely the middle and lower classes – but now sat placidly with a cup of coffee through the morning news programs.

I rode the bus and read the newspaper, skipping over most of the idealistic pieces about the financial hoopla surrounding Hizoner and the city budget because the subject no longer held interest for me. I became emotionally detached.

Then, it all came to a crashing halt one morning as I came to campus, ready for just another day of classes. That morning, I found out that a program being run by St. John’s University in conjunction with the Department of Homeless Services (DHA) had been cut from the city’s budget.

The program, intended to help formerly homeless individuals and those below the poverty line achieve self-sufficiency, is called the Advantage Academy program. It offers, to those who qualify, the opportunity to attend St. John’s and earn an associate’s degree in business and finance. With such a degree, it was the hope of the University as well as that of city officials that a number of Advantage Academy students would go on to lucrative careers and would become assets, not only to their families but their communities as well.

It was a beautiful plan, with St. John’s offering the scholarships, and DHA offering the housing, so that students could go about their day, able to study and perform as expected. However, on March 17, a letter was sent out to the students currently enrolled in the Academy Advantage program, telling them that the program had been cut from the city budget and, as of April 1, all rental assistance would be terminated.

One student enrolled in the program, a college freshman at the tender age of forty, was bewildered and wondered what he should do with the few days he had left. He remembered how, for the better part of the last decade, he had been homeless, tossed about from shelter to shelter and often sleeping on the subway, with nowhere else to turn.

He recalled how the highlight of his day had been the meal he would stand in line for at one of the many soup kitchens he frequented. Years of living with the uncertainty of homelessness had made him solitary and cynical. At some point he was ready to give up.

One day, he was fortunate to find out about the Advantage Academy program, and picked up an application from the DHA offices. Over the course of that day, as he filled out the many forms, answered the many questions and wrote the various essays necessary, he began to feel something he had not felt in a very long time. He felt hope and, for the briefest of moments, smiled.

It was several months later, as he sat at the orientation luncheon here on the campus of St. John’s, when he realized that second chances are not always the stuff of fiction.

He smiled again and began to greet some of his fellow Advantage students. Little by little, though socially rusty at first, he began to make friendships he now hoped would last a lifetime – not contacts or networks, but true friendships. He found an apartment in the Bronx and after going through all the channels, moved into his very own place – the first place he had called home in nearly ten years.

That student, of course, is me. I have faced my share of opposition, it has not been the easiest of rides, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I am here, learning, tutoring and becoming a productive New Yorker.  It is my understanding that, while rental assistance is to be terminated, St. John’s is continuing to provide the scholarships and the education for qualified applicants.

It is my deepest hope that Mayor Bloomberg takes a closer look at the goals of this program, and what its participants have achieved in such a short time, and decides to amend his budget cuts. If not, we all lose out.