Lifting Up Westchester Essays 2022

Mia Ritossa and Eloise McGibbon

Congratulations to Pelham Middle School 8th graders Eloise McGibbon and Mia Ritossa who each received Honorable Mention in Lifting Up Westchester’s annual essay contest. This year’s contest, which is open to all 7-12 graders, asked students to explore the topic “What Role Does Housing Play in Influencing Our Future?”

Mia’s essay, titled “When a House is More Than a House,” focuses on the impact inadequate housing can have on families, including on public health, education and obtaining a well-paying job. 

Eloise’s essay, titled “Housing and Our Sense of Security” argues that Westchester County should take on a more active role in creating housing for those in need. 

As Honorable Mention winners, both Mia and Eloise won a $50 prize and were honored at a virtual awards ceremony this past Sunday, March 20. 

Lifting Up Westchester is a non-profit agency committed to helping individuals achieve self-sufficiency. To learn more, please visit the Lifting Up Westchester website.

Housing and Our Sense of Security

By Eloise McGibbon, Gr. 8

No one, from children to the elderly, should wake up wondering if they have a place to sleep that night. Housing directly impacts our sense of security, and the human right to live in safety should be guaranteed for all, regardless of race or social status. While I have grown up without these worries, that doesn't mean that I have been shielded from these all-too-common horrors. So, I have volunteered at homeless shelters and soup kitchens, and given away my spare change, though always feeling like I'm barely making a difference in the overwhelmingly upsetting issue of thousands living in unstable housing. The county of Westchester is one of the wealthiest communities in the country, yet there are almost two thousand homeless individuals, and tens of thousands of residents living in unstable housing there. This is unacceptable, especially considering the resources that Westchester possesses and could utilize. 

Housing instability is far more than being homeless, it is having to move frequently, spend more than 50% of income on housing, or live in overcrowded conditions. Those who live in unstable houses are much more likely to face food insecurity and unemployment and living in unsafe homes can impact everything from our mental health to our physical health. Our well-being depends on living in homes that are hazard free, have clean running water, and adequate ventilation. Also, unstable housing can negatively impact our mental health because constantly fighting to find another place to live is extremely stressful, especially for families. For parents, it is very distressing to struggle so much while having to take care of others at the same time and worry about whether they will be perceived as a bad parent. For children, it is hard to watch their parents go through so much while they are unable to help and feel like they are only a burden. Homes are so much more than a place to sleep, they are a safe haven where memories are made. Never being able to truly relax in your own home because there is always the underlying possibility of having to move or being evicted is not an experience any child or person should endure. 

Also, the pandemic is making safe and affordable housing increasingly difficult to find, as hundreds of thousands have been laid off and rent continues to go up. Recent data from the census has shown that millions are having trouble paying rent, and the amount of people that have fallen behind on their rent has increased approximately 250 percent. These numbers are very disturbing, especially considering the dual stress of worrying about the pandemic and paying rent that those people have to experience. 

There are homeless shelters in Westchester, which are a great resource, but those quickly become crowded and are still not really stable housing. Lifting Up Westchester does a great job of locating safe, affordable, places to stay, but the increasing demand because of the pandemic must be very hard to keep up with. So, some measures that Westchester can take to ensure that safe housing is accessible to everyone are creating a "Habitat for Humanity" type program and raising awareness. While Habitat for Humanity mainly focuses on repairing houses that are damaged due to natural disasters, this program could instead help build free housing for those in need. Most importantly, it should partner with local high schools, as in my experience, students are always looking for the opportunity to gain more community service hours, and that is something that could be capitalized on. However, creating a program like this is a massive undertaking, and will most certainly need funding and donations. So, raising awareness about this issue is a very important part of ensuring that everyone has access to safe housing. To be honest, I had no idea that this problem really existed in Westchester before I started writing this essay and doing research. It is very clearly abundant in New York City, where I used to live, but for the upper/upper middle-class, Westchester is like a small bubble, hiding us away from these very real problems. Now that I have realized this, I will definitely donate to programs such as Lifting Up Westchester, and I believe that if others were more informed of this issue, they would also want to donate. 

To sum up, housing is an integral part of our life that has a direct impact on our personal development. Living in safe, stable housing helps us to develop a sense of security or feeling of confidence and freedom. It is important for everyone to develop this, but especially children, as those who throughout their childhood have a feeling of security and safety are likely to become independent and emotionally healthy as they grow. The ability to live securely in safe housing has, unfortunately, become more of a privilege than a right, but it is still something that I will never take for granted going forward.   

When a House is More Than a House

By Mia Ritossa, Gr. 8

The future of Westchester is heavily influenced by how communities tackle housing. Housing environment requirements have made great advancements since the early 1900s. But many dwellings have not been updated, new safety standards have been bypassed, and more hazards have been created, especially since the Covid-19 Pandemic. This hinders our communities from developing and thriving. 

During the era of mass immigration to America, immigrants came from all over the world, many to Ellis Island. They all came to New York City for the common motive, to start a new life. More often than not, they came with little or no money, expecting to quickly find work, as America was considered to be “the Land of Opportunity.” Despite their hard work, these expectations were increasingly hard to meet and many immigrants ended up living in tenements. Tenements were buildings consisting of unsanitary, small apartments usually housing large families in terribly poor conditions. For example, many tenement homes had only three rooms with few or no windows. This was hazardous in case of an emergency evacuation being necessary. Problems like these were addressed by the Tenement House Act of 1910. This act created numerous requirements to ensure the safety of tenement residents. 

Despite this new law and several other reforms, there are still many housing dilemmas that remain today. Since the pandemic, many have lost their jobs, have not been able to pay rent, and are facing possible eviction. Due to the rapid spread of Covid-19, people are hesitant to move into shelters. In response to this, the New York State eviction prevention moratorium was created providing families with relief from paying rent until they find a new job. Still, families living in close quarters, shared homes or even no homes are prone to spreading diseases amongst themselves. In addition to spreading diseases, having families on top of each other inevitably leads to problems with relationships and loss of physical and mental health. 

Growing up very fortunate in a stable household, I cannot bear the thought of the possible consequences of growing up in unstable housing. The first consequence that comes to mind is education. Out of the 1,800 homeless individuals in Westchester, approximately two-thirds of these families have children. Without having space to study and do homework, it is hard for these children to keep school as a priority. Without a good education, it is nearly impossible to get a good job. Between trying to get higher education and a job, one gets stuck in an inescapable cycle of unemployment and homelessness. This is sure to decimate one’s mental and physical health. Living in an unstable dwelling, during a pandemic does not help the feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety.

To eliminate these problems, the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Westchester County Housing Programs, and other organizations that are included in the process of building housing in Westchester should not only focus on housing development but instead, focus on community development. When residences are being created, places, where communities can develop and thrive, must be built. When creating home developments, organizations should space housing out. Leaving space in between these places of living will leave room for vital resources such as recreation centers, gardens, parks, pools, gyms, and other ways for individuals to socialize outside of their dwellings. Instead of creating high-rise buildings, housing developers should consider building smaller apartment structures to foster a sense of community among residences. This will create a sense of community and leave people feeling less isolated. This will greatly benefit society for the reason that individuals need to interact. As a result of community building, people will have countless shoulders to lean on in times of hardship, and in these times, become successful in helping others in their community.

Lifting Up Westchester, a non-profit organization, has made spectacular progress in improving housing quality for everyone. They are devoted to assisting all individuals of any race, gender, and age battling poverty, homelessness, hunger, health, and lack of education. They offer programs that change thousands of lives each year, including the volunteers’. They offer countless volunteer opportunities including after-school and summer mentoring, outreach programs for developmentally disabled children and adults, shelter programs, maintenance projects, community engagement, and administrative general assistance. Despite their efforts, many social and economic issues remain, including unstable housing issues. With more government and community support, Lifting Up Westchester can and will continue to grow, spread its morals, and eventually complete its mission of lifting everyone to greater self-sufficiency with dignity and respect.

Ultimately, Westchester needs to center its housing around the community’s needs as well as the individual’s. After all, housing is not just where you live, it is where communities grow and flourish.