The Case For Giving Free Massages to the Homeless

If ever there was an age of anxiety, it is now. We all seem pushed to the limits at work, personal debt is rising, and the housing market is shrinking, while the world around us seems to be going politically and ecologically out of control. This anxiety is a stress factory that spawns mental, physical and behavioral diseases that, as we know, cost a fortune to contain, let alone fix. On its own, work-related stress accounts for $300 billion dollars a year. 


Many of us are taking an alternative route to deal with this toxic stress. We run to Whole Foods to get the organic kale, we take a yoga or meditation class, get on a massage table, or receive acupuncture or reiki. We can relieve stress by going to a tai chi or a qi gong class, or we do the latest thing and take a “forest bath” by going for a walk in the woods. We see how these things change not only the quality of our lives, but also our health, as measured by blood pressure, stress hormones, immune response and number of doctor visits. 

So, are these things luxuries for the middle class or are they life-changing and money-saving medical interventions? It may sound comical in an age where the battle lines are being drawn around whether low income people should receive healthcare at all, to suggest that they should be getting acupuncture or a free massage, but why not? Since these interventions are proven to work, they could be used on a routine basis to reduce hospital visits, relapse to drug use, and maybe even recidivism to incarceration.

Gandhi once said that poverty is violence, and today 20% of New Yorkers live below the poverty line. This violence is generated by homelessness, by the criminalization of poverty, and the soul-crushing trauma of racism. Can holistic interventions be a significant help in stemming this tidal wave of misery?

We work together at New York Harm Reduction Educators, a social welfare program in East Harlem that does just this. Do tough guys enjoy yoga and acupuncture? Yes they do. Are they interested in following a guided meditation, actively participating in a drum circle, an art group or a walk in the woods? Yes again.  We have seen people locked into a cycle of drugs and incarceration start to turn a corner in their lives. We see those at the margins of our society actually finding room to breathe, room to move, cry, laugh, be human. We see destructive behavior change – this with a very limited budget and space.

The challenge is to make the things that we know work for us and the ones we love available to our neighbors. Mindfulness, meditation, and yoga have already been used in prisons and jails and rehabs to great effect and at little cost – but what about when people hit the streets? There is absolutely no reason to withdraw the stress-reduction just at the moment that stress increases exponentially.

At NYHRE we have found a template for continued destressing that can be duplicated and improved upon throughout the city and in fact the country. This is a case where doing the right thing is doing the practical thing – by opening the space that we have found effective in our own lives and making it available for our less fortunate neighbors we can practice compassion and practicality. In an era when poverty is punishment, the pursuit of happiness should be open to everyone.

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