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Seth Wenig/AP

Signs advertising free measles vaccines at Rockland County Health Department, in Pomona, N.Y (Seth Wenig/AP)

Anti-vax exodus

As New York ends its religious exemption for vaccines, some parents turn to homeschooling

A New York moment: 

I wrote back in April about the measles outbreak in New York, and I’m still getting long emails from readers about that piece. People feel more passionately about vaccines than about most other issues I’ve written about! The drama here in New York continues to unfold. 

In the wake of the measles outbreak, and the refusal of a small segment of parents here (about 4 percent) to vaccinate, the New York Legislature this summer removed the religious exemption for vaccine requirements. No religious groups publicly opposed this move while the Legislature was debating it, although now the evangelical lobbying arm in Albany, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, is calling the exemption’s removal a “government overreach.” Federal and state courts have repeatedly upheld the elimination of religious exemptions for vaccines on public health grounds. 

Now there is only a medical exemption for vaccines, and state lawmakers tightened up the requirements for that exemption so it can’t be easily abused. Even without the Legislature’s action, summer camps (a staple for New York children) had banned unvaccinated children from attending.  

The school year has just started here and some New York parents have decided to homeschool their children rather than give them the required vaccines for school. The Wall Street Journal talked to several such parents who feel persecuted by the state requirements. But interestingly, the piece contains nary a mention of a specific religious reason for parents not vaccinating. There are the reasons I heard from our readers in emails—the perceived danger of vaccines—but not an outright religious reason. 

In my measles reporting, I did find parents with religious reasons for avoiding vaccines. Those reasons mainly had to do with the perception that certain vaccines were morally complicit with research on aborted fetuses—or for more New Age reasons, like that a child should not be injected with foreign substances. But it appears to me that many parents here were using the religious exemption even though they had nonreligious reasons for avoiding vaccination. 

Worth your time:  

A French judge has affirmed the right of a rooster to continue crowing. The case drew national attention because the rooster became “a symbol of rural values—eternal values in France—that ... are under threat.”

The court awarded the sued rooster 1,000 euros in damages. 

This week I learned: 

New York, in its voting campaign to create more statues of women around the city, has declined to fund the highest vote getter—Catholic nun Frances Cabrini, an early patron of immigrants. Cabrini built orphanages, schools, and hospitals across the United States.

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Emily Belz

A line of patients waiting for medical care as seen from inside the church at Grand Bassa County. (Emily Belz)

A trip to Grand Bassa County

Since Ebola hit Liberia, a team of doctors and nurses has traveled to hard-to-reach areas to provide basic healthcare

A Liberia moment: 

Metro Minute has been on hiatus because I’ve been in Liberia for a reporting project on mission hospitals. More on that will come soon in the magazine. 

Liberia was in its rainy season when I was there, where the skies dump brief, big rains throughout the day. On one day of flooding rains I piled into an SUV with several doctors and nurses from Eternal Love Winning Africa Hospital (ELWA), a longtime mission hospital in the capital. We drove out past the Firestone rubber plantation (the world’s largest), past massive cottonwood trees, past men making charcoal under smoking mounds in the rain, and pulled into a muddy drive that led to a small church building where hundreds of people were waiting.

Since Ebola hit the country in 2014-2015, ELWA has begun sending its staffers out into the rural areas of the country where there is no healthcare to provide basic consultations. They give advice, send patients home with basic drugs for malaria or blood pressure, or send them to the closest clinic as needed. There is one clinic a two-hour walk from this place in Grand Bassa County, but locals said the staff sometimes isn’t there. Occasionally the ELWA workers will rush someone who needs urgent care back to the hospital for treatment.

The church members had divided their small daubed building into consultation rooms using tarps, and the pastor tried to organize the hundreds of people into an orderly line. Some men with umbrellas stepped up to escort people back and forth from a covered area where the masses had gathered to the impromptu doctors’ offices.

Dr. Rick Sacra, an American missionary and longtime family medicine doctor at ELWA, wondered to his co-worker, Antony Cyrus Suah, whether someone could open a sustainable clinic here. Suah, a longtime Liberian physician assistant at ELWA, doubted it would work because people are so poor they wouldn’t be able to pay. He suggested a combination clinic and cassava farm where people could work for their medical care. This is a constant puzzle for the health workers of Liberia—how to create a sustainable system of quality care. 

As the doctors began pulling out their stethoscopes and seeing patients, I wondered how they were able to hear heartbeats above the din of the rain and lizards loudly scrabbling across the metal roof. But they did their best to absorb an array of health problems from people who had walked hours for an appointment: a fevered 7-year-old withered from months of weight loss, someone with a serious hernia, children with worms, many with high blood pressure.

“We have to figure out long-term care,” Sacra said, looking at the crowds. Pastor Richard J. Suwee, who was managing a combative line that had too many people for the handful of doctors there, said everyone was mad at him. But he himself did not get an appointment, even though he wanted to talk to the doctors about his chronic migraines. “Today, at least others are treated,” Suwee said. “I give God glory for that.”

Worth your time:  

Many of the third-party sellers on Amazon are Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. A seller named Yisroel told BuzzFeed: “Amazon is a blessing especially to our community because it’s something where you don’t need a regular business education. … You can start out at your house and build up a business like that.”

This week I learned: 

Convicted twice of corruption, former New York Assembly leader Sheldon Silver is still drawing a $7,000-a-month publicly funded pension while he goes through the appeals process. 

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Sophia Lee

Mary in her new home. (Sophia Lee)

Mary gets a home

The joy of finding freedom from the streets

Last week, I wrote about two individuals in their 60s, Mary and Michael, on their hunt for housing. With their age and health problems, it’s not easy for them to find housing with their subsidized housing vouchers, especially in an expensive city such as Los Angeles. Only about half of the people in the Section 8 program in Los Angeles manage to sign a lease. The other half lose their vouchers because they don’t find a place to stay within the required time. 

Well, happy surprises sometimes happen: Mary found housing! Within two weeks of her housing search, she had signed a lease in East Hollywood. “I have the keys!” she declared on her Facebook page. “I am officially NOT HOMELESS!”

I visited her at her new home soon after. It’s a studio on the first floor of a two-story white building on the corner of a residential street next to a Taco Bell, some Korean eateries, and a cannabis shop. “Welcome to my home!” she exclaimed as she opened the door for me, beaming at the simple fact that for the first time in a while, she was the one greeting visitors at the door—her door. 

Her apartment isn’t a very nice place by the typical privileged American’s standards. With no AC, the indoor temperature stagnated at a tropical 85 degrees when I visited. Her floors are covered with a cheap, sticky material and need constant mopping and dusting to keep clean. The kitchen has no garbage disposal, the toilet is old, and all the cabinets are made of painted wood that chips easily. This is the kind of housing that $1,229 (Mary’s monthly rent) will get you in Los Angeles these days.

But none of those flaws mattered much to the proud new tenant. In her eyes, everything about this studio was gorgeous. As she gave me a brief tour, she grinned the whole time, giddy with disbelief that she had a place called home.

“This is my home,” she cried. “I don’t have to share it with anybody!” She lifted her arms and twirled like a little girl showing off her new frock. “Look, I can do this in my kitchen,” she exclaimed, “and not touch a … thing!” She widened her eyes: “Most people can’t. Kitchens these days are minuscule!” Then, with her house key hanging on a lanyard around her wrist, she pumped both hands into the air and yelled, “I’m free!”

Knowing Mary’s story, I understood what “I’m free!” meant: It was almost exactly two years ago that she fled her ex-boyfriend’s apartment in downtown LA. He was addicted to prescription drugs, she said, and she was getting sick of his inability to kick his addiction. When she tried to leave him, she said, he grabbed her by the neck, dragged her into a closet, and tried to choke her. As a survivor of multiple rapes, she wasn’t about to endure any more abuse from a man—so she bloodied his nose and ran out. She then lived on the streets until some people who saw her with her walker alerted city officials and didn’t stop making noise until an outreach team secured her a bed at a shelter. In the homeless realm, a little citizen advocacy can make a big difference. 

Some people say they enjoy the “freedom” of living on the streets (at least temporarily). But nothing about Mary’s 16 months of street life felt like “freedom” to her. She was constantly afraid of abuse, robbery, or worse, so she carried a can of pepper spray and a metal stick wherever she went. Under city rules, she had to wake up before sunrise to fold her tent or risk fines from the police, and she wasn’t allowed to set up her tent until sundown. One night, a drunk driver charged his car into the alleyway where she and some homeless friends were sleeping and ran over a young man beside her. She tried to resuscitate him, but his blood filled her mouth—he was already dead. 

Trauma shoves people into homelessness, but homelessness itself presents fresh episodes of trauma. Nobody who’s experienced chronic homelessness escapes it unscathed.

Trauma shoves people into homelessness, but homelessness itself presents fresh episodes of trauma. Nobody who’s experienced chronic homelessness escapes it unscathed. So when I saw Mary so joyfully declaring herself “free,” I felt giddy with happiness for her as well. 

When I first visited Mary, all she had was a queen-size air mattress, a wooden corner table on the verge of breaking apart, a framed Van Gogh poster she got as a gift from a shelter, and a TV she bought for $200 on Craigslist. The next time I visited her, my boyfriend David and I brought her a pile of stuff, thanks to the generous donations of friends: Swiffer cloths, a desk, a swivel chair, a night table, clothes hangers, a toilet brush, lotion, Tupperware, mugs, and bags of groceries. 

Here’s something I’ve witnessed constantly about members of our local community: They genuinely want to help the homeless. But with 60,000 homeless individuals in our city, they just don’t know how to start, or who to help. All it takes is someone befriending an individual on the streets and telling her story on social media, and people’s hearts swell with the desire to give, feeling relief that there’s some concrete way they can help. Within a day of announcing Mary’s new home on Facebook, my boyfriend had raised $325 through friends. 

That $325 is significantly less than what the government gives her through housing assistance, but somehow it meant so much more to Mary because of all the real faces attached to it. When she saw the outpouring of people’s generosity on Facebook, she cried. Days later, she was still crying at the thought of it. The government helps Mary pay for housing, but it takes a community to touch her heart.

I knew Mary had fallen away from the Christian faith of her childhood, so I used this opportunity to remind her, “Aw, you see that God cares for you!” 

She replied, “Ever since I met you and David, I’ve felt the love of not just God, but those He brought into my life.” Then she said, “I've been a Christian most of my life. I just got lost in the moment. You helped to remind me that love is all around me.”

Please pray for Mary. Her journey out of homelessness and into true, lasting freedom may just be beginning. 

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