Sliding Into Homelessness
I am 21 years old and a full-time student at LaGuardia Community College, working toward a degree in writing and literature. I am a writer for Represent magazine and I work as a research analyst for an international company.
Here’s how it happened. As I neared my 21st birthday, I was living in a group home, starting college, and didn’t have a job. So my two best post-foster-care housing options were the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and New York/New York III. NYCHA is a housing program (also known as “the projects”) that allows you to pay 30% of your income, no matter what it is, for rent. NY/NY III is “supportive housing,” furnished apartments with caseworkers and social workers in the building to help residents with practical and emotional needs. NY/NY III is available to nine categories of people in New York City, including people who are mentally ill, substance-abusing, living with HIV/AIDS, and youth aging out of foster care up to age 26.
Three months before my 21st birthday, I applied to NYCHA but they closed my case because I didn’t have a job and I couldn’t pay my share of the rent. I was supposed to be receiving Social Security Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because I have a condition called short bowel syndrome that requires me to go to the hospital fairly often. (If you are getting SSI, NYCHA counts that as income. See p. 25 for more on getting SSI.) I showed a letter from my caseworker saying I would be getting SSI, but I never did get it, so NYCHA took me off the list. I later got a job, but I couldn’t reapply for another six months.
I also applied for an apartment through NY/NY III one month before my 21st birthday. I got accepted and all I was doing was waiting for the landlord to call to tell me when I could move in. The director of the program told me it could be a day or a month or longer, depending on when someone moved out. I figured I was set, because I had two options.
But when I turned 21, a spot hadn’t opened up with NY/NYIII. So my agency sent me to live with my mother even though I did not belong at my mother’s house. I hadn’t lived with my mom since I was 15 and she’d put me in foster care when I was 17. My mother agreed that I could stay with her temporarily as long as I paid the monthly cable TV/Internet/phone bill and contributed some food as well.
Things were all right at my mother’s for the first month. I got a job as a research analyst, conducting surveys over the phone. I made $7.25 an hour and worked about 30 hours a week, so after taxes were taken out I brought home less than $200 a week. Because we didn’t know when I’d get into the NY/NY III program, my mother helped me look for a room to rent and found one nearby in the Bronx.
I checked out the apartment, and I loved it. I planned to save up from my salary for the security deposit and first month’s rent, but my mother harassed me for the $152 cable bill, even though I was never in the house and only watched television for about four hours during the month. She constantly asked me when I got paid, and how much I got paid, and it made me upset. The television that I had to pay for was on all the time, even when I got home from work at 1 or 2 a.m., and still on when I left at 6:30 a.m. for school. I was bringing food into the house, but still it was a constant money issue with her and that kept me from being able to take the apartment.
My mother was also calling me messy. I was sleeping in the living room, and there was no place to put my clothes away. Finally, she kicked me out, and I went to my brother’s house. He’d just been fired, though, so I only stayed with him for two nights. I then moved in with a friend of mine. Her mother wanted me to pay her $200 a month, but when it came time, I didn’t have that much after paying for my MetroCard, food, and other necessary items.
I went back to my mom’s, but then she said I could only sleep there on weekdays. On weekends, I had to find somewhere else to sleep. So that first weekend, I decided to sleep on the subway, riding several train lines from end to end. I had to work that weekend, so I tried to figure out where I could take a shower.
When you turn 21 you are on your own. Not having a place to sleep creates suicidal thoughts. What if you cannot handle sleeping on trains or buses or in the streets? I didn’t want to be looked down on. I started sleeping on the trains because I didn’t want to deal with anyone else. I found out the reason I was forced to ride trains all weekend was so that my mother could have her ex-boyfriend stay with her. I never went back to her house after that.
One of my friends began worrying about me and found a place for me to stay with a friend’s mom. The girl’s mother asked me to pay $25 a week to stay. I thought I could swing that, but then the mother said I could no longer stay because she didn’t like her daughter having to let me out the door in the morning and stay up late to answer it at night. In addition, my friend’s grandfather said he didn’t want me there because of my sexual orientation (I’m an out lesbian). I was only there five days.
I packed up everything I could and went to The Door, a drop-in center that helps youth who are in care, aged out, or homeless who need a place to hang out and feel safe. I told them I was homeless and they referred me to a couple of shelters and programs. I had more options than most because I had a job and was going to college.
On September 22, I spent my first night in a homeless shelter, a women-only place in the Bronx called Franklin Shelter. I saw a metal detector, security guards, and an office for signing in. There were four floors, and on each floor were several dormitories. Each big dorm room holds about 20 beds, with a locker next to each bed. There’s a gymnasium, library, laundry room, basketball court, bathroom, and cafeteria on one floor.
The hallways are narrow and long, with security on each floor making sure the women are in their beds, monitoring what beds were open and were taken, and breaking up fights or other disturbances. Bathrooms have tissue all over the floors, and the shower curtains look like half-sheets. Hypodermic needles lie on the floor of the shower.
The shelter serves breakfast from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m.; lunch is from noon to 1 p.m.; and dinner is from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. They do bed checks every night at 10 p.m. If you are not in your bed by that time you lose it to the next person checking in. The only way you can come after that hour and not lose your bed is if you have a late pass. I got a late pass because my job doesn’t end until 11 p.m.
Everyone entering the shelter system has to get a TB (tuberculosis) test and a psychological exam. Everybody is assigned a caseworker when they come into the shelter. They help you find ways to progress and get you longer-term housing. Franklin is an assessment shelter and you can only stay for 21 days, though some people can stay for longer in special circumstances.
The residents told me, “They will take things out of your pockets while you’re sleeping.” So, the first night, I slept with nothing in my pockets and a pen in my hand in case I needed it as a weapon. The fact that shelter staff woke me up at 6 a.m. and served breakfast at 6:30 a.m. helped me get to psychology class on time, so that was good. My late pass meant I always had a bed when I went back there.
I really didn’t have emotion when I got there. I just kept reminding myself that it was a bed and a shower. People did yell all hours of the night, and fought almost every night. There was a four-person fight one night over a phone charger. People will steal your underwear, your jackets, anything. It’s a dog eat dog world and I got a full night of sleep only about half the time.
Guys were out in front of the shelter in big cars, waiting to persuade girls to participate in sexual acts for money. I think those men know that women in the shelter have no money, no way of getting around, are alone, are on drugs, or have children. A lady in the shelter pointed out another lady who was a prostitute—she was outside every day around the same time in heels and make-up. She would get into a car, disappear and then come back, like on a schedule.
Some of the guys out front and some of the females in the shelter were drug dealing to support themselves. Women were even selling women: Lesbian couples and aggressive lesbians were selling straight and gay women.
Because I am working, after 18 days I was transferred to Creston, a better shelter, also in the Bronx. I had heard it was horrible, but I like it. The front looks like an institution, but inside, the doors have a doorknob, keyhole, doorbell, peephole, and a number, just like an apartment. The rooms are smaller, with only three people living in them and you can bring food and drinks in. I can stay here till I find an apartment. The shelter workers still help with housing, saving money, jobs, and everything else. I like my roommate and it’s not that bad, but I would like more freedom. The shelter takes half of your paycheck, and gives it back when you leave, to put toward permanent housing. As if we can’t save money for ourselves.
Now, I’m looking for an apartment on Craigslist and I’m also exploring far-away colleges. I recently got my learner’s permit and will soon get a driver’s license in preparation for living somewhere else. I’ve always wanted to go away to school; I’ve lived in New York City my whole life, and I’d like a change. I’d like a new life.