This essay was originally posted on Hopes and Fears. It has been re-printed with permission.
By Scott A. Hutchins
I’m 39 years old, and I entered the Bellevue intake shelter in New York City on May 25, 2012, seven years after earning my master’s degree in cinema and media studies from the College of Staten Island. Hundreds of job applications had only gotten me part-time tutoring work and unsuccessful stints in telemarketing that did not come close to paying the rent, even in the Bronx. Job hunting has been made harder by my worsening combination of scoliosis, herniated discs, sciatica, and plantar fasciitis. My father passed away in September 2007 and I received $37,000 in life insurance money. By 2011, this money was gone, my things were in storage, and I was inducted into the New York City shelter system. I’ve been in one shelter or another ever since.
I arrived at my current shelter in August 2014, and the stated nine-month stay means I can expect to leave by the end of this month. The room I stay in is dark and gloomy—the walls like lightened coffee, the floors like mud. At least, unlike any of my previous shelters, I have a private room. It’s about eight feet by ten, and I have a locker next to my bed. The inside of it is filled with apocalyptic rambling from a previous resident. I’ve seen mice climbing on top of my suitcase, which sits upright in the larger half of my locker when not in use. One of the counselors denied me a Christmas present, on the grounds that my room was too messy, just because my suitcase and the things I normally store on top of it were on the floor.
The heater in the room was blistering, even after keeping the window open all winter. Others’ rooms are barely heated at all. This is also the only shelter where I have stayed that does not force residents to leave in the morning (7-9 AM, depending on the shelter) and not return until 5pm. My previous shelter did not even allow residents to stay on weekends.
THERE ARE THREE BATHROOMS ON MY FLOOR, all with leaking walls that make water pouches of large sections of paint. There are also three shower rooms on my floor, all private with locks. Only the one nearest to my room is usable. The second shower can’t get above lukewarm; the third reeks of rotting fish and has a shower head that comes off easily.
Food poisoning is rampant in the shelter system; I seemed to get sick from every meal. My case manager called it a “weak stomach.” I developed gout and hypertension. Since most of the time it’s impractical to prepare food, and it cannot be stored in the rooms, I use my SNAP benefits on ready-to-eat things, which often means spending and eating too much. I would estimate the average cost of a meal at $7; that’s 27 1/2 meals per month. I usually have at least one shelter meal per day, usually including excessive red meat and salt (corned beef hash or sausage is common at breakfast; hot dogs, hamburgers, Chef Boyardee beef ravioli, and Jamaican beef patties common at lunch). Bag lunches are provided only for those who work, and it’s always bologna.
I AM CLOSING IN ON 3,000 JOB APPLICATIONS IN THE 35 MONTHS THAT I HAVE BEEN HOMELESS. I’ve been told that the only way to get editorial work in my field is an unpaid internship, which is illegal if one isn’t a current college student. I have gone on 27 interviews since the month before I became homeless. None of my health conditions make me disabled by the standards of the Social Security Administration because my education and experience show that I can do a desk job. So, it turns out that all I did in running up $65,000 in student loan debt was make myself ineligible for disability benefits. My case manager, as per standard protocol, sent me to a psychiatrist once, hoping he could get me out of the shelter on a mental health disability, such as depression or a sleep disorder. All he found was “adjustment disorder,” which essentially means that I’m a normal person, the shelter system is a virus, and the disorder is a cold that will depart soon after I am no longer living in shelter.
My case manager’s office looks a lot like my room in terms of shape, size, and colors, only he is allowed to decorate it with memorabilia from various trips, a picture of himself with his wife, a diagram of his house upstate, religious iconography, and an award for being the Best-Dressed Employee. He grumbles that I have not been attending the mandatory “relapse prevention” meetings.* I respond that this is because I do not have a substance abuse problem and cannot legally be required to attend such meetings. At my request, he rifles through his file cabinet, struggling to find a copy of the form residency letter which he fills out by hand. This letter, combined with a monthly invoice for my $250 storage unit, is what HRA requires in order to pay for storage. The provide this service if your unit is in the tri-state area, you are on public assistance, and you live in a shelter.
Every night, we must sign a bed roster by 10 PM curfew, which was imposed by Police Commissioner William Bratton under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as “quality of life laws” (which include penalizing people—often the homeless and people of color—for loitering and eating in public). Late passes are not allowed unless you’re working. When I was offered temporary legal proofreading work, I could not take it because most proofreading work is assigned day of and the shelter demands at least two days of employment be fixed, rather than “on call.” I previously lived in a shelter with heavy security and metal detectors that banned all electronic devices other than welfare phones. This ban included tablets, music players, and laptops. I was offered a used laptop by a friend, but because of the policy I couldn’t accept it.
In order to stay in the shelter, I have to spend a significant amount of time moving money and paperwork from one government office or private contractor to another, which re-absorb most of my benefits. The Independent Living Plan (ILP) is a document that says that I agree to look for work, comply with the rules of the shelter, and the rules of the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), the welfare office. The job developer won’t let me use the computer lab to look for work because my aforementioned health problems make only a desk job tenable in my condition, and he says there aren’t any, and is not willing to let me “waste my time” in order to look. It’s become routine by now. I won’t qualify for unemployment benefits until I’ve worked on a W-2 job for six months straight; I receive $45 in public assistance, $194 in SNAP benefits and $30 per week for a Metrocard (though it’s only received when in Back to Work programs). The city receives much more to house me—some say the city pays out over $3,500 to the shelter system per month—three times as much as the one-bedroom apartment from which I was evicted.
After my unemployment ran out, I have been required to be on public assistance in order to stay in the shelter, which I’ve been required to exchange for unpaid labor in the Work Experience Program (WEP)—as though time off unemployment benefits (UIB) means that you have somehow lost your skills and experience. In the past, the program has placed me in jobs filing at a food bank and an activist bookstore, and as a computer room attendant at another shelter.
When I’m not in WEP, the rest of the week is spent from 9 to 5 in the Back to Work program, which mostly entails sitting in a holding room, doing nothing but waiting for the computer. You could get a pass to use the computer lab for 45 minutes at an appointed time, with an occasional lesson with an instructor, who might spend an hour discussing dress code, sexual harassment, interview tactics, networking, etc., but it wasn’t every day. I thought it was ironic that they would give us a lesson on networking and how much better it is than an internet job search, while making us spend six hours per day in a room full of unemployed people.
They also give you numerous aptitude and personality tests. I don’t understand the purpose of the latter. One test told me that my ideal job match was as a philologist, a specialist in historical and comparative linguistics. The only ones that really seem to matter are the ones that determine what sort of WEP assignment you should be in. I tested into “clerical,” which is as advanced as they get. Others include janitorial and retail/food service. I also remember taking a test that involved counting nuts of the hardware variety and one to see if you could assemble some sort of metal tool.
I am not currently in WEP or Back to Work programs as I write this because any time there is an administrative mistake, I get excused for several weeks while they try to straighten things out. This has occurred many, many times on in my case. In addition to having a supervisor misplacing my paperwork, and a failure to carry over my medical restrictions from one cycle to another, the most recent incident included the closing of FEGS, a not-for-profit employment placement organization which was shut down earlier this year pending an investigation into a $19.4 million loss.
HRA Commissioner Steven Banks announced on October 1st that the WEP would be phased out, but later he admitted to a delegation from Picture the Homeless (a by-homeless, for-homeless activist group of which I am a part) that this would take about two years. It’s business as usual until then.
I ATTENDED MY FIRST HOUSING MEETING AT PICTURE THE HOMELESS on October 4, 2012. The organization lobbies at city and state levels against discriminatorybroken windows policing, and holds events like The Longest Night: a national memorial service for homeless people who’ve died in the past year. It honors this by opening Hart’s Island, the site of mass graves, to visitation.
I’d come to seek help with the common prohibition on charging mobile phones in shelters, but that soon seemed insignificant compared to what Picture the Homeless had discovered from a 2011 city-wide door-to-door survey: enough vacant property to house 199,982 people (about three times the current record high shelter population) in only 20 of New York’s 59 community boards. The survey reveals that the real estate industry is lying about a 2% vacancy rate in New York City to keep prices inflated; 10% of that real estate is city-owned. Luxury apartments lie fallow while the shelter population skyrockets.
One of Picture the Homeless’s most important goals is its affordable housing initiative. PTH is a co-organizing member of a coalition called the New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI): a housing campaign with several ally groups and nonprofit housing developers which aims to move neglected low-income city owned buildings into a citywide community land trust. Under this model, a nonprofit organization acquires land, permanently removing it from the speculative market, and allowing residents to buy their own apartments as “shares” for as little as a few hundred dollars. It can can veto any developer who wants to put in something from which the residents in and around the community do not benefit.
When Anthony Williams and Louis Haggins, Jr, founded PTH in 1999, many group members had the stereotypical problems of homelessness. More recently, there has been an influx of those who have worked all their lives who have suddenly been priced out, are unable to find employment, or dealing with foreclosures, either of their own property or that of their landlords. I am not the only one in the group with an advanced degree.
In the 1990s, I was a moderate conservative. I voted for Bob Dole in the first presidential election I was old enough to vote. I have since become a far left progressive, woken up to the damage that the capitalist system causes to such a large portion of the citizenry, as private corporations contract both the supplies of money and jobs. The Bowery Mission, a Manhattan-based Christian homeless shelter, has a newsletter called “Red Door”, which each month highlights a homeless person that they have saved from the throes of addiction to drugs or alcohol. Not afflicted with such a malady, I will never fit into their narrative of what a homeless person looks like, nor will I accept the narrative that I am responsible for my plight when the structural problems of the system are so readily apparent, a revolving door through which I never want to return.