On December 23, 2003, our co-founder Lewis Haggins passed away on the subway. Eight months later he was buried on Potter’s Field. When our members wanted to go visit his grave and honor their friend, they were told they couldn’t. The Department of Corrections only allows relatives by blood or marriage to visit the secluded island where New York City buries its indigent dead.
The way the poor and homeless are handled after they die in New York City is not the only insult the poor face… but it’s the final insult. The graves on Hart Island are dug by prisoners from Riker’s Island, so the city limits visitors for “security” reasons. The city would not allow any memorial services or other opportunities for people of faith to commend their loved ones to God.
Picture the Homeless, under the leadership of the Civil Rights Committee, had made attempts, prior to Lewis’ passing, to gain access to Potter’s Field to remember the countless homeless buried there. But Lewis’ passing struck home, in a very personal way, how important it is for the poor to have closure in their relationships and to know that they, themselves, will be reposed in dignity. While staff capacity to support a new campaign was limited, our members began meeting to develop and execute a campaign to change the city’s policies.
The essentially spiritual nature of the Potter’s Field Campaign makes us unique among Picture the Homeless’ campaigns. In order to succeed, we needed to build on existing relationships with faith leaders and reach out to a more diverse range of faith leaders. As a result of our efforts, Picture the Homeless now counts among our close allies leaders of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim faiths. As we move forward, we hope to broaden our alliances to include leaders of non-Abrahamaic faiths.
All who pass from this life possess a sacred dignity intrinsic to their membership among the human family; and all consequently deserve to be reposed in dignity and remembered with honor and love.
Less than one year after we learned of Lewis’s passing, by working with our allies in the faith community, we had changed the city’s prohibitive restrictions on visiting Potter’s Field. Now, anyone can visit the island to mourn their lost loved ones, regardless of the relationship between them, at bimonthly memorial services held on the island.
The secret to the overwhelming success of Potter’s Field Campaign just one year after we began lies in the deep resonance of this issue among our membership because we know that this is likely to be our final resting place. In addition, the support from clergy and lay leaders from various faith communities of an agenda developed by homeless people and which ultimately resulted in the formation of Interfaith Friends of Potters Field has been invaluable. The family of Lewis Haggins, who have joined us in campaign meetings, as well as with public officials has been inspirational.