11:15 am May. 26, 20114
"Ohh, my friend, you got the Obama card. Free money!”
That’s how the Albanian bodega clerk described the New York State Benefit Identification Card I swiped through the scanner in order to pay for my roast beef sandwich. His lips smiled wide; his eyes were slits. “Yeah, I want one of those, too,” said the guy standing in line behind me. I glanced over my shoulder to see his navy blue slacks, the ring of keys dangling from his leather belt and his powder blue workman’s shirt with some kind of institutional patch on the front. “Would be niiice to just lay back and collect!”
His giant fist was curled around a bag of Funyuns. His other hand held a bottle of chocolate milk, a five dollar bill clinched between knuckles. It’s funny, the details you remember.
I used to wear navy blue slacks and a powder blue shirt myself. For three years, I was a security guard on the night shift at Westhab, Inc., a homeless shelter and affordable housing non-profit in Westchester. I worked the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, full-time.
I’ve had “better” jobs (such as associate editor at a popular website), but Westhab was my favorite. The company president is Robert L. Miller, a nice guy who came around to shelter sites often to meet with his employees. I remember chatting with him about his son, the rapper Matisyahu. He was tickled delirious by his boy’s sudden explosion of fame: “I was speaking at a function, and afterward everybody rushed right past me to get at my son!”
There was no Oedipal bitterness in his laughter, just humility and pride. That’s the kind of person you want running a social-service organization.
When I lost the job, it was like a funeral. I showed up to work after three days of failing to report, to meet with my immediate supervisor and an operations manager from headquarters. They looked depressed.
“Up to now, you were one of the best here,” said the operations guy.
My supervisor, Conrad, just stared off, possibly thinking about all the ways he’d looked out for me over the years, all the laughs we’d shared. (I’ll never forget Conrad, in his Trinidadian accent, predicting the 2008 election: “That Obama really think he gonna get elected! White man’ll let him fly his kite for a little while, but only a fool would think they’ll ever let him win.” I agreed wholeheartedly.)
I couldn’t account for those three lost days, not without describing a prior year of depression so bone-deep and blinding that it all came to a paralyzing tipping point that week. It was like a three-day bender, but without any drugs or alcohol; it was just me contemplating the idea of fading away from the scene forever. The point is that these aren't reasons that would fit neatly on a short line labeled REASON FOR ABSENCE.
Three months later, the last of my small savings ran out, and I went to my landlady in Castle Hill to tell her that I would be leaving at the end of the week, so that she could get a new room renter lined up right away. She asked where I was going. I lied, and told her I would stay with family until I got back on my feet. On Friday, I went to 30th Street Intake Shelter (better known as the Bellevue homeless shelter) for the first time and got assigned to Ready Willing and Able shelter in Brooklyn.
The next morning, I met my father to load his van up with my belongings and store them in an uncle’s garage. He asked me where I was going. I lied again.
This man was 72 years old, living in a small apartment with his wife and supplementing his fixed income by working in a high school cafeteria. All my life, he’d worked seven days a week—six for the U.S. Postal Service, and Sundays cleaning up at a beauty school. (Growing up, I used to be his assistant at the school, paid in movie money and donuts.)
Decades later, I hadn’t managed to do anything to ease his burden. All my adult life in New York, working simply meant paying the rent and keeping the lights on. So, to the extent that I was committed to living, I was committed to making the next transaction between us be a check for some outrageous sum of money, from me to him. If I told him as much, I knew what he would say: “Sport, I never cared that you kids would become king of the hill or any kind of bigshot, so long as I raised y’all to be good people in this world. That’s all I ever wanted, and I got what I wanted.” And in fact that’s how he put it a couple years later, during one of our annual shy, stare-at-the-floor heart-to-hearts.
I spent the weekend at Ready Willing and Able, a private shelter run by the DOE Fund that offers job training in immaculate facilities. Lunch and dinner are served on bleach-white ceramic plates with heavy, sparkling silverware. The food is fresh and diner quality. By Monday it was time to leave.
A housing liaison gathered all the newcomers in a room to give us the rundown. We had four options: join Ready Willing and Able’s program, which prepared men to become street sweepers and janitors; sign up for a Bloomberg administration program which presents participants with a one-way ticket out of town, so long as the applicants could provide a contact person in the destination city who would agree to host them; enter the city’s shelter system, which the liaison accurately portrayed as a horror show, with gang-and-drug-infested death traps like Wards Island (Said one of my brethren, “Yo, I was at Wards Island one night, woke up and a dude was laying there dead, all cut the fuck up.”); or hop in the van with him to tour Brooklyn’s three-quarter sober houses, which were private residences that sounded a lot more promising than a shelter.
I opted for the last one, and ended up staying at a three-quarter house in East New York, Brooklyn for seven months, until the economic crisis that fall brought in a whole new influx of desperate homeless. Then, suddenly, our utopia on the first floor was disrupted by violent, mentally ill housemates and a rodent problem that I tried in vain to solve with traps and an adopted cat. Since I had a job at that point and was paying rent just to stay in a room with three other guys and some very gregarious mice, I decided to leave. (At the time, I had no idea that these three-quarter houses were mostly illegal operations that conveniently siphoned off some of the city's homeless ranks. No wonder the liaison pushed option number four so aggressively.)
Whenever a resident had a grievance with some administrator or policy, I often heard the threat, “I’m going to the Coalition!” I had seen Coalition for the Homeless vans parked in midtown but had no idea what they offered. One of my roommates told me, “If you really need a hookup with housing, don’t go to DHS [Department of Homeless Services], go to the Coalition.” So I went to the Coalition offices on Fulton Street and met with a counselor to see if they could direct me to some affordable housing. I don’t remember the specifics of our meeting, but afterward I did jot down one line that the counselor, a slim, 20-something Hispanic man, laid on me: “We have sort of an adversarial relationship with the Bloomberg administration. A lot of their polices run counter to what we recommend.”
He informed me that the Coalition didn’t offer any housing I was qualified for. It just advocates for the homeless and provides resources, he said.
When I told him that I was broke and had to wait until the next freelance check or food-stamp deposit to eat, he gave me my first Street Sheet. This document is gold. It tells you where to find free food, donated clothing for job interviews, showers and medical services all over the city. (Only later did I discover the 311 soup-kitchen locator.) No matter that some of its information is inaccurate or outdated; the places that actually check out sometimes spell the difference between starving for the night and getting your mental clarity back through basic nutrition.
The adversarial relationship between the Coalition the Bloomberg Administration was a well-known thing, I later learned. The organization's complaints about the administration's policies are all over the Coalition website, and have been reported on periodically over the years.
Mayor Bloomberg has been tinkering with New York City’s homeless problem since his first days in office nine years ago. No matter what his administration tries, it seems, the homeless population in New York just keeps rising. But there are certain basic realities that make homelessness in New York so intractable: The rent is too high, and wages are too low. Just the other day here at Bowery Mission Transitional Center, a job counselor I was talking to made it plain: “The reality? A living wage in New York is $13 an hour and above. It’s not $8 an hour. A living wage is in the $26K-a-year-and- up bracket, so you can pay rent and at least have a little something left over to save or spend.”
Yet, last year, when I attended the mandatory Back to Work “job readiness” program administered by Goodwill, an HRA (Human Resources Administration) client, counselors pushed participants to jump on the first $7.75-an-hour job that came down the pike. Just get to work right away, save, and rent a room somewhere, as quickly as possible, they said.
The thing is, you can rent a room in Harlem for $150 a week. And, at near-minimum wage, your life will become devoted to keeping that room. If after a few weeks, you don’t find a job through one of the city’s “job readiness” contractors like Goodwill or Workforce 1, you must then report to a Work Experience Program assignment.
WEP is essentially workfare, working for the city cleaning up parks or helping out in government offices in exchange for your cash benefits. The idea is to build up a slim resume and possibly get hired when a staff position opens up. WEP assignments are available in most government agencies, like the public schools, police and parks departments.
But it was unclear how many of these assignments ultimately led to real employment. Many of the folks I came across who were busy with WEP assignments complained that they were either doing busywork or taking on tasks normally reserved for fulltime employees supported by unions and benefits. While I ditched the WEP requirement by showing contracts and pay stubs from my freelance writing, I cynically took their complaints as the usual harmless bellyaching. We all do it down here, from time to time. It’s a way of venting frustration with the general feeling of stagnancy and dependency.
The fact is that I still have yet to dig up any actual hard numbers on just how many folks graduate from WEP assignments into a stable job. But there is this, from the Brookings Institution: “A primary motivation for the use of work experience programs is to impose a reciprocal obligation on those receiving welfare, rather than to increase future employment and earnings.”
What is clear is that the effort to deal with homelessness has been a volatile science experiment for the city across several administrations. Mayors Koch and Dinkins took stabs at it, and of course Rudolph Giuliani had his own special way of dealing with the dispossessed. But there had been no great, sweeping success stories when Bloomberg started his reign.
As one of America’s most generous philanthropists, he was confident in his ability to hit a home run with the homelessness problem. (A popular Bloomberg quote, after my own heart: "I am a big believer in giving it all away and have always said that the best financial planning ends with bouncing the check to the undertaker.")
How is it that Bloomberg, too, seems to have failed at cracking the homeless code after nearly a decade of trying? Is that even a fair assessment?
It depends on who you ask.
Not coincidentally, Common Ground, whose beautiful apartment buildings I’ve visited a few times, is the kind of organization Bloomberg wants the shelter system to give way to. It provides outreach and support tailored to the individual, at a fraction of the cost that city shelters, jails and hospitals spend on a stray citizen.
This prompts a question: what makes the half-assed, cattle-car manner of processing homeless people in the city system so expensive? Why do fortress-like shelters such as Bellevue have a surplus of cops and security guards on hand but a skeleton crew for maintenance and a medical capability that amounts to “call 9-1-1”?
The place is filthy and crawling with vermin. This is probably just indicative of a belief on the part of Bloomberg that the city shelters are on their way out. But the messy reality is that for the time being, human beings still live there.
Last winter, I was at Open Door, the drop-in shelter behind Port Authority bus terminal, in its last hours of operation. The place had usually been packed when I'd been there in the past, but this night the crowd of folks sleeping on metal folding chairs was pretty thin. The warning had already come down weeks prior. People had already staked out new places to squat.
I later saw some of the former Open Door regulars sleeping in train cars and subway platforms, in the Metro North waiting room at Grand Central Terminal, and cat-napping in the Mid-Manhattan Library. I knew what this was about: A lot of folks preferred the come-and- go of the drop-ins, which Bloomberg had taken away, to the regimented squalor of the city shelters. How many times had I heard caseworkers invoke notorious shelters as a threat? (“Would you rather be on Wards Island? Bedford and Atlantic? Pamoja House?”)
Threats and punitive measures keep the needy in line, but bright alternatives like Common Ground or the now-86’d Advantage Program are rarely mentioned down here.
There is an invisible but sharp dividing line between clients the system deems worthy of serious investment and those it writes off as lost causes.
That is what I consider the true, enduring obstacle to “ending homelessness” (as Common Ground ambitiously describes its mandate): The goal isn’t to bring everybody up but to sort everybody out. In that sense, perhaps Bloomberg’s most successful program thus far is that offer of a one-way ticket out of New York.
“It saves the taxpayers of New York an enormous amount of money,” he told the Times in 2009.
It’s a sentiment that the bodega clerk and the blue-collar Joe who made fun of my “Obama card” could heartily agree with.