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United Way of Lancaster County


‘Evicted’ author Matt Desmond lauds Water Street Mission in NY Times

Water Street Mission. Inset: Matthew Desmond.

Lancaster’s Water Street Mission is a model of what organizations seeking to promote housing stability and economic security should be doing, according to one of the most prominent poverty researchers in the U.S.

“Here’s a place that is treating people in their full humanity,” Matthew Desmond said Wednesday in an audio essay in the New York Times. “… (W)ouldn’t it be amazing if that was the norm instead of the exception.”

Desmond is a sociologist at Princeton University and the author of “Evicted,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016. His latest book, “Poverty, by America,” was published in 2023.

He visited Water Street Mission last November, said the organization’s marketing director, Matt Clement, in order to interview residents for a multi-part, multi-author opinion piece exploring homelessness through the voices of homeless individuals themselves.

That article, “A Life Without A Home,” appeared in the Times in February. Desmond’s segment, one of six, features several people staying at Water Street. His audio essay is a follow-up and expansion on that initial story.

In both pieces, Desmond interviews James Costello, a former cook who came to Water Street as a result of financial and medical problems, including the loss of a leg to diabetes. Costello tells Desmond he’s treated with kindness and respect by staff and fellow residents alike: “The brotherhood here is unheard-of.”

America’s struggles with poverty and homelessness aren’t due to a lack of resources, Desmond says, but “a lack of moral clarity, moral urgency. Some might call it a lack of heart.”

Clement said it’s great for Water Street’s staff and the community at large to hear Costello’s comments and Desmond’s perspective.

“I hope it spurs more conversations,” he said, and also that it inspires more volunteers, whether at Water Street Mission or at other nonprofits that serve homeless individuals. It’s a tough field, and organizations across the board are short-staffed.

Desmond previously visited Lancaster in 2017, when he was the featured speaker at HDC MidAtlantic’s “Faces of Affordable Housing” banquet. He called for housing to be considered a fundamental right and recommended providing universal vouchers to every family below a set income threshold.