Life is never boring for the women of Can’t Catch a Break. Over the past months they’ve faced serious health problems; they’ve struggled to care for their children and grandchildren; they’ve suffered at the hands of violent men; and they’ve remained trapped in an institutional circuit that often seems to present more hurdles than actual help. Yet that is not the whole story. Many of the women continue to build and draw upon social networks that provide them with places to stay, help with childcare, emotional support, and medical advice.

See Summer 2016 Update to catch up on the women and to help put the January 2017 update into context!

 

Andrea has not been well. Though trim and fit-looking (she’s an avid fan of exercise tapes), she’s been having trouble breathing and her body has been retaining fluids for almost a year. By December 2016, after a string of hospital stays, she was placed in a nursing home. When we spoke she told me, “I hate to tell you but my heart and lungs are not doing so well, so they brought me here. There’s nothing they can do for me at the other hospital.”

I’ve known Andrea for almost a decade and I still can’t tell whether it’s stoicism, fatalism, optimism and / or complete trust in modern medicine, but she was far more upbeat than I imagine that I would be in her situation. As always, she is comfortable staying in a medical institution — perhaps more comfortable than staying at home. Unable to read (she has had mild cognitive disabilities all her life), she finds navigating daily life on her own to be a challenge. In the hospital or nursing home she is looked after, there are professionals around who can explain things to her, and with her friendly demeanor she can always find a nurse or other staff person to chat with her for a bit. “I’m fine, Susan,” she told me. “I’m holding my own. I can still tell jokes and whatnot.”

————————————–

Carly (see “A New Home for Carly“) still has not received her baby back from DCF (child welfare department.) Without the baby, she is no longer eligible for the housing subsidy for her two bedroom apartment. For several months after losing her apartment she was on the streets. As of this writing she is couch surfing with a “friend”. (I put “friend” in quotes because Carly has a long history of being taken advantage of and even robbed and raped by so-called “friends”).

Since the baby was taken away, she has become extremely distressed, tormented by hostile spirits, suspicious of conspiracies to hurt her and to steal her baby, and hospitalized (voluntarily and involuntarily). During one hospitalization, “I was shot full of drugs – of Haldol. That’s why I won’t go back there.”

Through all of this, she remains focused on getting her baby back and attends frequent meetings and appointments with social workers, court-appointed psychologists, lawyers, and doctors. She carries around a large pack with her everywhere she goes. The pack contains “all the papers that prove that the baby is mine and that I took care of her properly. I have her umbilical cord, her footprint from the hospital, and records showing she had her infant check-ups.”

I have spent a great deal of time with Carly and honestly cannot figure out how much of what she does and says has to do with her deeply held belief in the active presence of good and evil spiritual powers in this world; how much may be symptoms of mental illness — even psychosis; and how much may be simple naivete. I can say that from what I’ve seen she took proper care of her baby, but I acknowledge that Carly likely tries to show me that she is stable and competent. I don’t envy the DCF workers, psychiatrists and judges who ultimately will decide whether the child is better off with Carly or in foster care.

————————————–

Daisy remains limited in her ability to care for herself, but both of her children have stepped up and are able to help her out. Her son has arranged for a supermarket to deliver food to her at regular intervals. She is not up to cooking (she is allowed to use the kitchen in her rooming house), but can prepare simple breakfasts and frozen meals for her lunch and dinner. She continues to enjoy the program for disabled adults that she attends three days each week, and considers the other people there to be her friends. And, “I do my laundry every single weekend.” She sees her daughter at regular intervals and her son and his wife took her along on a road trip to Ohio to visit her in-laws for Thanksgiving.

She does feel lonely much of the time (on the days she does not go to her program she rarely talks to anyone), and spends more time than she’d like cooped up in her room watching television.

————————————–

Francesca (see “The Bitch at the Welfare Office“) is still living in a working-class suburb with her son and younger granddaughter. She is busy raising the child and has landed a part-time job at a local supermarket. She does not earn enough to be independent, and continues to rely on her son and boyfriend (she has been in several serious relationships during the past year) for financial support. Unfortunately, that support comes with strings attached. In the case of her son, the strings are expectations that she take on the lion’s share of child care. In the case of her boyfriend, the strings are a matter of exerting control over her time and activities. But overall she is happy with her current life and posts encouraging comments on Facebook at least once a day.

One of Francesca’s greatest assets is her ability to nurture social ties. Over the years she has maintained a strong relationship with the mother of her older grandchild. That relationship is paying off now as the two women help one another with child care. All in all, Francesca has managed to create a safe, cozy and loving family and home for her granddaughter.

————————————–

Ginger (seeThe New Price of Freedom“) is back in touch with me on a regular basis! In the summer and early fall she was living on the streets. When I ran into her she told me she was smoking a lot of crack and staying with her “trans mother” (an older woman who had helped her come out as trans when Ginger was in her teens.) A mutual friend told me that he saw her fish around in the garbage and take out a cup and then sit down on the sidewalk with the cup in front of her to panhandle.

A few weeks later she called me from a “safety” phone that she had been given by an agency that helps homeless people. She had moved in with her Aunt after “a homeless man from the Boston Common hit me in the head.” She had a concussion and spent three days in the hospital. When we got together for coffee she told me that she actually had been beaten up three times by the same homeless man who called her “ugly names” because she is trans. When she went to the police they told her they wouldn’t do anything because they told people to stay out of the Common at night. She also had her ID stolen. When she went to meet with a housing advocate he told her that she needs to get her ID first. For Ginger, this is a pretty overwhelming task, involving visits to various offices and paying fees that she cannot afford to pay.

Throughout late fall and early winter she has stayed off crack, resumed her beloved weekly bingo games, and returned to the excellent doctor who has helped her with anti-depressants and hormones over the years.

In November she moved in with an old boyfriend who lives in a rooming house (SRO) but, “We got into a domestic dispute. He hit me over the head with a lamp.” I asked her if she called the police. She said she couldn’t “because I’m a known trespasser [in his building] and they’d arrest me.” For now, she is staying with his brother and trying to move forward on getting her own housing.

————————————–

Isabella (see “Failure by Design: Isabella’s Experiences with Social Services“) continues to grieve for her late husband. Over the past months she’s lived in several different apartments, each of which turned out to be problematic. She has come close to getting a job but in the end things have fallen through. She continues to help out friends and acquaintances who need to get into detox or who need help managing their methadone regimes or other drug-related health problems.

————————————–

Joy continues to cycle through psychiatric wards throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In September I visited her in a locked psychiatric ward where she’d been taken after attempting suicide. She told me that she had overdosed. “I just tried to end it. But someone found me and here I am. I woke up in the hospital with tubes everywhere. They told me I almost died. … I had not used drugs for a long time. I got high that one night to kill myself.” The person who found her called 911, and then stole her phone.

A long chain of miserable events had led her to the point of wanting to end her life. Both of her parents have been unwell and may not be able to care for her daughter for much longer. She did not have a place to live and had been staying with a man who constantly criticized her and told her that she can’t do anything right. And she’d spent the previous month in prison. “A drunk woman started fighting with me [in the street.] I slapped her to get her to let go of my hair, and the police arrested me. I was still on probation from [an old] charge of soliciting a police officer [for sex] so they locked me up. I asked them to take me to a hospital and the police refused. When I saw the judge after a month he said to me, “You’ve been in my courtroom at least twenty times. I see that you have paid all but $260 of your restitution and fees [on old charges]. That’s enough. I’m releasing you on time served and remitting the remaining payments. Your probation is terminated.” Joy plead guilty (she told me she didn’t know why) “and that was that. I was released.” Unfortunately, on that same day a former boyfriend who had beaten her up (badly) was in court on the domestic violence charge. Because she had to come to court for her own hearing she was not able to go and testify at his hearing, and he was released. She asked to be able to go and testify but “I was told that wouldn’t be possible because I had to appear at my own hearing.” After he was released, Joy said, he told people that he would track her down wherever she went. She is terrified of him.

While we chatted at the hospital I noticed that her eyes were puffy and her speech slightly slurred. She said she was given Librium to help detox from alcohol – she had begun drinking over the summer and had become addicted. She’d also been put on Haldol and a few other psychiatric medicines.

Her hospital caseworker joined us and we talked about where Joy would go after the hospital releases (at some point in the next few days.) The caseworker had been tasked with setting up Joy’s outpatient therapy, not with finding her a residential program. Joy made her own call to a rehab program she’d been in previously and was told that they couldn’t take her unless she detoxes there first. “But I’ve already detoxed here! They told me to get high and then come to detox and then I could get into the program.” The caseworker confirmed that this is indeed the case, and told Joy that, “You need to do what you need to do to get into a program.”

We asked the caseworker about getting Joy into a group home under the auspices of the Department of Mental Health (DMH). The caseworker explained that group homes only accept people coming from state mental hospitals and Joy is not sick enough to need to go to the state mental hospital. I pointed out that Joy has repeatedly tried to kill herself. She replied, “Joy is high functioning and does not fit the criteria for a state hospital. What you need to do, Joy, is go to a homeless shelter. They will work with you to help you save money so that you can get an apartment. You need to get a job and then the shelter will reserve a bed for you. You need to go to your outpatient appointments and see the doctor. It’s a lot of work but you have to do it. It’s up to you to do the work.” Incredulous, I pointed out to the caseworker that Joy cannot get a job or an apartment. She has three felony convictions, has been homeless since age 18, and has already been in just about every shelter and program in the state.

We then asked what will happen if no placement is found for her when she is discharged. “You will be given two weeks supply of your medication and we’ll set up an appointment for you with an outpatient psychiatrist.” Joy pointed out that it takes longer than two weeks to get an appointment.

The caseworker was not being mean-spirited. Rather, she was a very young woman with no concept of the realities of life faced by someone like Joy. My sense is that she truly believes that if Joy tries hard she’ll make things work.

By November Joy was in another locked ward in another hospital – her third of the fall. When we spoke on the phone her speech was slurred from the medication they gave her. “They are discharging me today – couldn’t find a program or placement. They’ll pay for a taxi.” She told me that she would be going back to [the emotionally abusive] man she’d been living with when she’d tried to kill herself in September. She knew this wasn’t a good solution, “but I have nowhere else to go.”

————————————–

Kahtia (See “Prostitution, Decriminalization and the Problem of Consent“)

Throughout the first part of the fall Kahtia was doing well – volunteering everyday at a soup kitchen and attending multiple AA and NA meetings each week. With pride in her voice, she told me how many people the soup kitchen feeds each day and how much the staff appreciates her dedicated work. Most important, the family court judge told her that if she continues doing what she has been doing she will get her daughters back from DCF custody in a few months.

Her daughters were not doing as well. They had been taken away from their third foster home because the foster mother hit one of them. Now in foster home number four, one of the girls had become very introverted. The new foster mother took them for haircuts, which she is not supposed to do without Kahtia’s permission. “She gave them yuppy hair cuts. I mean, they look cute but it’s not what I would have done.” Kahtia expressed concern that the girls will become accustomed to living in a wealthier household and will resent her when they come back home to her.

Later in the fall Kahtia called to tell me that, “I am going through the worst thing in my life. DCF entered a charge of sexual and physical abuse against my husband [the girls’ father]. They haven’t told me any details and they’ve canceled home visits for the girls.” The story, as best as she can figure it out, is this: Quite a while ago, before she lost the girls, they told her that “Daddy touched me”. She took them to the hospital where they were examined but there were no physical signs of rape and no follow-up inquiry. Several months into their foster care time they said the same thing – that “Daddy touched me” (apparently referring to the same incident.) The girls spoke with their therapists but nothing more was said and nothing else happened. Then, almost a year later, in their third foster home, they mentioned it again. “They sent them to a  trauma specialist – I don’t even know what that is – and now the whole thing is under investigation. I don’t know why they talked about this now. Did something new happen in foster care that triggered them to say this? I don’t know what is going on. I don’t know if my husband really did hit or sexually abuse the girls. I feel guilty for not protecting them. Or if the whole thing is made up by DCF? I don’t know. I’m devastated, Susan, especially, you know, because I was a victim of incest and of rape.” She told me in tears, “All I ever wanted was a family, a husband and my children, a house with a white picket fence and a dog in the back and a cat on the window sill.”

————————————–

Melanie‘s doctors seem to have stopped looking into her medical problems and are concentrating solely on her PTSD. She has been placed on Disability (SSDI), which does not please her. But she is allowed to work part-time and has arranged to return to the shelter where she had been working, albeit as a “relief” staff rather than a shift supervisor.

Her big news is that — after several tries — she passed her test for her learner’s permit. She feels that she is able to drive, but because of her learning disabilities she’d “bombed” the written test. This time she was allowed to take the test with pencil and paper (instead of on the computer), and the person who administered the test was nice, which allowed Melanie to relax and focus on filling in the right answers. “I feel that everything is coming together!”

————————————–

Tonya (see “Knowledge is Power“) is still living in the same apartment. She is dedicated to raising her son and helping out with her grandchildren. Much of her time and resources are eaten up by  family members who come to her for a place to stay and assistance of various sorts.

Her son is now in school and there is no role for her there as a volunteer. “I need something to do but don’t know what to do.”

————————————–

Vanessa, now a grandmother, is staying at a homeless shelter. She has not had stable housing for several years. She looks forward to holidays when she can come stay with her mother for a few days. Other than those visits, she seems to be holding steady — no major disasters but no progress in terms of housing or employment.

 

To read previous updates click on:  Summer 2016  New Years 2016   Summer 2015   Christmas 2014 / 2015    Fall 2014 

 

 

The first time I met Junie I mostly noticed the scars on her face. They were the result of a stove blowing up when she’d been left alone in the house at the age of three. As it turned out, that was only one in a long series of disasters she suffered throughout her life. Junie was the victim of sexual abuse and of trade in women’s bodies, of drug dealers who pushed crack through the streets and alleys of poor neighborhoods in the 1980s, and of the so-called war on drugs that utterly failed to get dangerous substances off the streets but that succeeded in destroying the lives of far too many African American men and women.

I had the honor of knowing Junie for close to ten years. There were times she’d drop out of sight, but we’d always reconnect and then she’d always thank me for not giving up on her. Each time we spoke it seemed like some new rotten thing had happened to her recently: She was arrested for stealing infant formula for a friend who just had a baby (she was indignant about this); she was kicked out of a homeless shelter for bringing in booze (she laughed about that one); she was turned down for housing for people who are HIV positive (she didn’t know why since she’d been HIV positive since the 1980s); she had a fight with the sister who had always been her most stable source of support (she understood her sister’s point of view: “she doesn’t like me hanging out [on the streets or using drugs]”); she was picked up on an old shoplifting charge by police doing random warrant checks on people socializing outside a homeless shelter, and spent two days in jail waiting for a judge to release her pending a court date (she took this in stride, seeing it pretty much par for the course.)

A few years before her death she and Joe, her beloved life partner, moved from Boston to the Midwestern town where Junie was born. They liked the slower pace of life, the lower rental prices (they were able to afford a small apartment, something that was completely out of reach for them in the Boston area), and the warm and and the welcoming church where Junie became a member of the choir.

She couldn’t however, get access to HIV care in the Midwestern town. When her viral load exploded and she developed full-blown AIDS she and Joe had to choose between housing in the Midwest and medical care in Boston. With her health rapidly deteriorating they returned to Boston where Junie eventually was placed in a nursing home twenty miles outside of the city. Three times a week she was brought into Boston for dialysis. In our last conversation, in late February 2016, I asked her if all of the travel back and forth was wearing her down. She told me that it was fine because dialysis appointments were the only time she and Joe could spend together; he had no way of getting to the nursing home to see her.

Last week Joe’s mother told me that Junie decided that she’d suffered enough and that “she passed” shortly after stopping dialysis. Devastated, Joe decided to turn himself and “clear up” an old warrant by serving a few months in prison.

Her death certificate likely reads “kidney failure due to complications of AIDS.” It should read “national failure due to complications of racism, poverty and violence against women.”

 

Note: I initially met “Junie” (a pseudonym) in the course of ongoing research with criminalized and homeless women in the Boston area. For more on Junie and on the project see Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility.

rp_9780520282780_Sered-200x300.jpgThe past six months have been eventful: a birth, a death (see Eulogy for Nicole), a job gain and a job loss, family ties strengthened and family ties torn asunder. Eight years after first meeting the women of Can’t Catch a Break I still struggle to identify indicators or interventions that predict happy or sad outcomes. Secure and stable housing ups the odds that life will be on an even keel, and women who use drugs heavily are less likely to obtain or hold onto housing. But I cannot identify specific personal attributes or past histories consistently associated with continued heavy drug use, moderate use, or refraining from using. Nor can I figure out who makes it to the top of a housing list and who waits for a decade or more for housing. Strong family relationships do seem essential to women’s well-being; that is certainly the case for Daisy and Ashley. But as Vanessa’s and Joy’s stories show, family relationships alone are not sufficient to keep women off the streets or out of jail.  The good fortune to remain healthy should be relevant, and serious health problems can set off a cascade of other disasters. Yet for some of the women, including Andrea and Junie, deteriorating health has led to better access to a range of support services.

The sole pattern I feel confident pointing out is this. The women who seem happiest, most settled and most able to ride the ups and downs that are part of life are the women who have a sense of purpose, a sense that their lives are worth something, that they have something to offer others and — equally important — that others value what they have to offer. While some may argue that having a sense of purpose is a psychological or character trait, my observations suggest that opportunity may play a far bigger role.  In this update we hear from several women who landed a meaningful paid (Mary) or volunteer job (Tonya and Kahtia) or who have been landed with grandchildren to raise (Francesca). These women now feel that their unique contributions make a real difference in the lives of others; that they are good at what they do; that they are respected; and that they have better things to do with their time than chase after drugs or cater to abusive or controlling men.

Andrea (now in her mid-fifties) recently called me, somewhat out of the blue, to tell me that she is in the hospital. In fact, she’d been in and out of the hospital frequently since the early Spring. She said she hadn’t called before “because people are too busy.” Indeed, she seldom has visitors. Her son hasn’t been to see her because he “doesn’t like hospitals.” Her boyfriend rarely comes. And her best friend wants to come but can’t always manage the public transportation system.

The hospital, she told me when I went to visit, “is my home away from home.” Though she is not quite clear about the cause or trajectory of her medical condition (Andrea struggles with reading and with comprehension of complex words and concepts), she likes the hospital and feels that the nurses are “nice to me.” As an example, “The nurse even said that if I’m bored I can come sit by the nurses’ station.” She especially loves the food because “I can ask for whatever I want in my salad.”

When she is not in the hospital, Andrea’s life seems to have settled into a stable routine. She is still living in a studio apartment in a low-income housing complex. She still finds it too small – especially because her boyfriend, who does not have a place of his own, stays with her nearly all the time. She told me that everyone in her building received notice that they are going to receive Section VIII vouchers so, in principle, she can look for a “real” (her word) apartment, but suspects that with her health problems that may not be realistic.

Despite the illness and hospital stay, Andrea (as always) looked nicely groomed. She was delighted when I commented on how beautiful her teeth are: “The woman in the next bed told me that when I smile it lights up the whole floor!”

————————————–

Carly (see “A New Home for Carly“) gave birth to beautiful and beautifully calm baby. For a couple of months all was going well. Carly had moved into her nice new apartment right before the baby was born and, with the help of a “pregnancy choice” organization, she set it up with a crib, changing table, baby swing and all of the other requisite baby paraphernalia. I had the good fortune to babysit a few times and even had the great pleasure of giving Baby her bottle and rocking her in my arms.

Then, everything fell apart. Carly became convinced that the baby’s father was trying to get the baby from her, through violence if necessary. A few weeks later, DCF removed the baby from Carly’s custody. Since then, Carly has been extremely distraught and distrustful. The situation is unlikely to improve before her September court hearing.

————————————–

Daisy (see “Outcast Island“), now nearing sixty years old, is still stably situated in a room that her adult children found and rented for her. She attends a daily program for people with mental health challenges. Though the program does not offer much in the way of services, Daisy likes it very much. She is a social person and enjoys the opportunity to be with other people. Weekends, which last for three days (the program is only open four days a week), are long and lonely, and the time she is most likely to find herself getting into trouble.

Whenever we speak Daisy updates me on her children, both of whom have solid careers and relationships with significant others. My sense is that her kids have set very sensible and mature boundaries that ensure their mother’s safety while also making sure that her problems do not take over their lives. Daisy is proud of her children, proud of how she raised them, and happy that they call her on a regular basis.

————————————–

Francesca‘s (see “The Bitch at the Welfare Office“) life has changed dramatically since the last update.

Both of Francesca’s sons have children. Though the children lived (until recently) with their respective mothers, Francesca has always made a point of encouraging her sons to be good fathers: to see their kids as often as they possibly can and to bring the kids to her so that they can have a relationship with their grandmother as well.

A number of months ago one of her sons received custody of his child. He realized that he would need help, especially during the hours that he is at work. The solution they came up with was for Francesca and her son to get an apartment and raise the child together. They found an affordable apartment in a semi-rural town (this has a serious downside since Francesca does not have a car, leaving her dependent upon her son to drive her everywhere) and quickly turned it into a warm home for the child. Francesca has embraced raising her grandchild. She has taught the child to read, tie her shoes and ride a bike. They adopted a dog and put up a swing set in the yard. Francesca also looks after a few other children in the neighborhood and takes them on “field trips” to the fire station and playgrounds. In a very short time she has created an extraordinary community of families who help one another out and whose children are growing up fast friends.

On some levels, Francesca is living out the fantasy she told me about when we first me: a house with a picket fence, a dog, and her kids with her. She has reconciled with siblings she hadn’t spoken with in years, and loved bringing her sons and grandchildren to a big Easter dinner with the extended family. She is not dependent on a boyfriend for a place to stay or for a sense of belonging, and for the first time since I’ve known her she is involved with a man who is stable, supportive, trusting and respectful.

But on other levels the demons that have haunted her never quite disappear. She still has serious health problems that have landed her in the hospital more than once. During her last hospital stay she re-developed a physical dependence on painkillers. Afraid to tell the staff about her drug history (she, rightfully in my opinion, suspected that if they knew her drug history the would focus on that rather than on her kidneys and liver), she went through withdrawal on her own after she left the hospital. But the more daunting demon is external rather than internal. She has no money, no job, little chance of employment (especially without a car), and a living situation totally dependent upon DCF keeping her grandchild in the custody of her son. Francesca knows all too well that this is a fragile house of cards. But in the meantime, she savors every moment of this “second chance at having a real family.”

————————————–

Ginger (seeThe New Price of Freedom“) has not been in touch with me since the winter. I’ve heard from people who have seen her hanging around downtown. I miss her!

————————————–

Isabella (see “Failure by Design: Isabella’s Experiences with Social Services“) continues to have a hard time. She is still grieving her husband’s sudden death. She still is on methadone and spends a great deal of time at appointments and meetings at the methadone clinic. She has not been able to hold onto a job and she cannot afford an apartment. As a consequence, she has stayed with a succession of friends. She contributes to paying the bills and pitches in on housework and childcare, but does not have the security of a place that is hers. Several times over the past few months she has been surprisingly upbeat, feeling that good job or housing opportunity is right around the corner. But more often she feels overwhelmed and paralyzed by the sorrow of her husband’s death.

————————————–

Joy, now forty years old, truly cannot catch a break. In January she was excited to report that, “I’ve been clean for five months.” She checked into a detox (for perhaps the hundredth time), but “this time I decided that enough is enough and that I’ve had enough.” She was put on Suboxone (similar to methadone) and reconciled with her mother. She was allowed to see her daughter often (her daughter lives with Joy’s father) and even had sleepovers with her. “I am happy that I have my family back.” She remembered that I had told her years ago that many people age out of drug use. “I didn’t believe it at the time but that is what has happened with me. I just don’t want to do it anymore.” While things in her life were not perfect, she was happy to live with her fiance in an apartment down the street from her mother. The day we spoke she had two job interviews: one at a retail store and one at McDonald’s. “I need to put myself number 1,” Joy exclaimed.

By July everything had fallen apart. Crying, she told me, “I do so good and stay sober but still have a shitty life. I don’t understand.”

On a hot summer day I picked her up outside a homeless shelter where she, together with other residents, hang around during the day waiting for the shelter to re-open. Over lunch she caught me up on the past few months. “My fiance beat me up — three times.” The first two she didn’t go to the hospital, but the third time was severe: broken ribs and facial bones. She didn’t press charges because she was afraid his family would come after her, but, she said, these days the state can go ahead and press charges without the woman because they know that women may be afraid. She is relieved he is in jail but nostalgic for her time living with him (she couldn’t stay in the apartment after he went to jail because the apartment and Section VIII eligibility were in his name). “I liked keeping house, cleaning, cooking. I wanted to marry him.” She still has the engagement ring he gave her.

For about eight months the Suboxone worked well, but then she started to have cravings for heroin and asked her doctor to increase her prescription. The doctor refused, “So I quit. I was okay for a while but then I relapsed.” In short, without an apartment, job or boyfriend (none of the job interviews panned out “because of my “record”), “I just decided to go and buy some heroin.” She shot up twice and each time she overdosed and had to be brought back to life with Narcan. (Many drug users now carry Narcan because overdoses have become increasingly common as Fentanyl is flooding the streets.) She OD’d a third time when someone stabbed her with a needle and stole her wallet right after she took out money from an ATM. She has not used since.

I asked her whether she has any leads for housing. Joy explained that she’s been “on the list” for eleven years but has not followed-up or made inquiries. She recently received a call from a town outside of Boston saying her name came up for housing because she had been a victim of domestic violence. She thought they were referring to her fiance’s beating her up but it turned out that they were talking about violence that was done to her twelve years ago. In the end they said she didn’t have enough evidence so she’s not eligible for housing.

When I dropped her off, she didn’t want to get out of the car outside the shelter. There was someone there she didn’t want to see so she had me drop her off on a side street. I had to make some phone calls so I sat in the car for a while. When I drove off I saw her walking down that street, phone in her hand. I wondered if that would be the last time I’d see her.

————————————–

Kahtia (See “Prostitution, Decriminalization and the Problem of Consent“) is still working hard towards getting her children back (see New Years 2016 update.) She has participated in, and graduated from, a succession of treatment programs. The certifications of completion will be useful when she finally has her day in court – a year after her children were taken away.

In addition to going to multiple twelve step meetings each week, Kahtia volunteers at a soup kitchen preparing ‘meals on wheels’ and serving lunch to anyone who needs a meal. She loves her work! Here’s an example of an email she sent me: “On my way to do my service work to give back to the public freely as was given to me love waking up and have a purpose today … feeling awesome and positive I thank my god for waking me up 👆 and pray for those who didn’t.”

At this point Kahtia is excited but nervous. She believes she will get her children back because DCF did not have a real case against her to begin with. But the kids have been in three foster homes and three different schools since they were taken. Kahtia knows that they will all have a lot of issues to struggle through when the are reunited.

————————————–

Mary, now in her late fifties, is doing fabulously well. She had been one of the fortunate few to receive an apartment in a mixed elderly/disabled public housing complex and has thrived for the nearly seven years she has lived there. Before getting that apartment she had been homeless for decades.

Mary’s big news is that she has a job as a PCA (patient care assistant) for a disabled younger woman in her building. Mary reminded me that she used to work as a nurses aid until, in her early thirties she realized that she wasn’t making a decent living and could earn more selling crack. At about the same time, her mother died and she had to move out of her mother’s apartment. She married a man who “wouldn’t let me out of the house. I cut my wrist so that I could get out [in an ambulance]. That is how I ended up in a battered women’s shelter for a few years. … I didn’t know how to go about getting my own apartment.”

Unable to read, Mary had struggled for years finding a job that does not demand at least some literacy (even just use of a computer to sign into work). Her new job as a PCA feels to her to be a great privilege. Though she only is paid for two hours of assisting daily, she volunteers many more hours because “I love it. I love taking care of people, taking care of someone. I’m a people person!”

————————————–

Melanie‘s doctors have not yet figured out a diagnosis to explain her enlarged spleen, liver pathology and diffuse pain. They are running multiple tests which seem to be scheduled weeks or months apart. Between the medical appointments and the pain, she has not been able to return to the work she loves at a homeless shelter. Much to her distress, she has been put on long-term Disability.

Melanie told me that her boss told her that the main reason she can’t come back to work is her mental health. Apparently she “snapped” at people at work a few times (this is very unlike the mild-mannered Melanie I’ve known for eight years). She clarified to me that the people she snapped out were not shelter clients but rather her boss and co-workers who “don’t treat me as an equal.”

On some level Melanie has bought into the idea that her main problems are mental health: depression and anxiety. She was told that all of the things she’s gone through in her life (rape, losing custody of her children because of a drug addiction she acquired after becoming hooked on pain medication in the wake of a botched c-section) have caught up with her. The theory is that the pedophiles she saw as work “triggered” her anxiety and depression.

But on another level Melanie does not agree with this analysis. She tells me that she has not repressed the memories of the awful things that have happened to her and that she has worked at homeless shelters and social service agencies with similar populations for eight years without any problems. The “trigger,” in this analysis, is physical health problems and the fear that she won’t be able to go back to work.

While she continues to express hope that her situation is temporary, she seems to be settling into a daily routine of going shopping and watching television with her disabled mother.

————————————–

Tonya (see “Knowledge is Power“), now forty years old, is living in the same apartment. She finally got the management company to take out the (horrid, uncleanable) carpet and put in flooring, so the place looks quite good. She also looks — and sounds — good. She still scrapes by on the welfare checks she gets. Though her son is now almost five years old, she received an extension on welfare (according to law, welfare ends two years after the child is born) because she has applied for SSI (Disability). The SSI was denied and she applied again, and her caseworkers at welfare keep changing, but somehow they’ve allowed her to stay on welfare as long as she does volunteer work.

She loves her volunteer work! Most days she volunteers at her son’s daycare, in part because she can’t afford to take the bus there and back twice so she just stays all day. But more important, “the staff ask me to stay. I gravitate to the arts and crafts table and I like that I can help.”

Her son is the center of her life and she sees him as her primary responsibility. She puts great effort into providing him with appropriate toys and food, and planning his education.

Like many poor and many African American women, her home — which she was eligible to receive because she is a mother — serves as the landing space for her relatives. The brother who had been staying with her last year finally moved out but then her other brother moved in. This brother has always worked and was married with a child but the marriage broke up. He’d never been homeless before so she took him in.

While all of this was going on, she and and her son’s father were fighting constantly. The key issue to Tonya is that he was working and earning a decent salary but was barely contributing to the household. She finally told him to get out. He now is staying with a family across the street and apparently has a new girlfriend somewhere. “I’m tired of it,” she said, “the men who don’t help but just pass babies around from woman to woman, expecting women to make ends meet. I’m fed up with my family too, but they’re my family and I’ll defend them against anyone else.”

————————————–

Vanessa, about to turn fifty, has not, according to her mother, settled down. When we first met Vanessa told me that she only had been an addict since she was thirty-seven years old. ““I’m late!” she said, with drugs as with most things. “Why did you start using?” I asked. “I was trying to follow everyone else, be like everyone else.” As she explained once I knew her better, she had lead poisoning as a child and as a consequence is “slow” (her word.) She continued living with her mother until age thirty-eight, when her mother kicked her out because of using drugs. “I wish I was still there,” Vanessa told me more than once. “My mother is a beautiful person. She is my Higher Power.”

By the summer of 2016, Vanessa’s mother had become exasperated. “I’m happy to talk to her if she makes sense but not when she’s not. She’s staying in different places. With a friend and then a homeless shelter…I can’t help her anymore. She’ll do good for a couple of days and then don’t do good. She’s grown. You can’t tell a grown up person what to do. I can’t be aggravated to death. I have my own health to deal with. I raised my mother’s children – she had nine and I was the oldest, and my cousin’s eight children, and my girlfriends’ kids and my own and Vanessa’s kids. I’ve done enough.”

Both of Vanessa’s kids (now in their twenties) are living with their grandmother. Neither is working at this time, though one had a fairly good job until recently. “They apply for jobs but it’s hard to get a job now,” Vanessa’s mother tells me.

 

To read previous updates click on:  New Years 2016   Summer 2015   Christmas 2014 / 2015    Fall 2014 

For more on volunteering see: Concrete Suggestions for Positive Change

By Maureen Norton-Hawk, co-author Can’t Catch a Break.

If you were to meet Nicole you would never imagine that she had been battling a drug addiction for years. I can still see her sitting cross-legged on the lawn at the Common during one of our meetings.  Her long auburn hair framed her slender face as she chatted away, oftentimes not pausing between sentences.  She would talk about her love of making jewelry, her efforts to start a business, and the antics of her tiny dog. She was young, attractive, energetic and kind. Her desire to volunteer with the elderly was just one of many expressions of her deep desire to help others.

Unfortunately her giving nature made her vulnerable to those who would exploit her.  The combination of her youth and desire to please others made her an easy target to be used and abused physically, emotionally and economically by traffickers, boyfriends and some family members.

Nicole tried to stay off heroin, and succeeded for substantial periods of time. “I don’t want any more heroin. I want to live, I don’t want to die,” she declared shortly before her death.

Nicole died with a needle in her arm. Even the drug she ran to for relief took advantage of her.

I’d like to think that you are making beautiful jewelry in heaven. Rest in peace, Nicole.

For more on drug-related deaths see ““White Women, Opiates and Prison”   “The Opioid Epidemic: Just the Facts Please”

For previous eulogies see  “Orange-frosted Hostess Cupcakes”   “Eulogy for Elizabeth”

 

Background

I first met Carly back in 2008 when, together with my colleague Maureen Norton-Hawk, I launched a long-term project following the life experiences of criminalized women. Younger than most of the women we were meeting at homeless shelters and women’s centers around Boston, Carly recently had been released from prison on a drug dealing charge. This was her first and only arrest and she herself had never used hard drugs. “I just smoke weed,” she told me, “because it helps me deal with my emotions from abuse.”

In the wake of childhood sexual abuse Carly had been removed from her family, spent a few good years in foster care and then three not-so-good years in a juvenile residential treatment center which she left the day she turned eighteen. “I regret it now,” Carly murmured, “but at the time I didn’t know what it is to be homeless.”

Two years at homeless shelters and on the streets, then a year in state prison followed by a return to the shelters left Carly with single-minded determination to get an apartment of her own. Life at Long Island Shelter (which has since been closed; see Outcast Island) helped her keep her eye on the prize and her name on every housing waiting list in the Boston area.

Carly’s First Apartment

In 2014 Carly finally got an apartment subsidized through a Section VIII government voucher provided by the non-profit agency Home Start. From the outside the building looked nice enough, but inside the stairwell was disintegrating. For $1150 / month, Carly moved into an apartment in which daily sweeping was insufficient to keep up with the mice droppings on the floors or the piles of sawdust created by some sort of wood-chomping insect. Each time I visited her, I could see the mold growing on more places in the walls. In some places, the mold actually seemed to be holding the wall up.

Complicating matters, the apartment was officially a one-bedroom but actually had another half bedroom. While for some people this would be a bonus, that was not the case for Carly. She explained, “I am too generous and can’t say no to people. I’ve been there and know what it’s like not to have a home. So I let people stay with me and then I get hurt.” For a while she let a man she knew stay in the half room. He “made trouble – brought drugs into the apartment,” and when she told him to leave, finally locking him out, he kicked the door down. “I’m lucky I wasn’t evicted.” Then she let a young woman she met at her church stay with her. “But she wasn’t a true Christian. She kept saying she’d help pay the bills but never did. Then she stole from me.” It took Carly almost six months to persuade the young woman to move out.

Yet with all of this going on, Carly found that having a home allowed her the stability to finish her GED, complete a training program to be a nurse’s aid, and look into possibilities for further education in nursing.

A Turn for the Worse

In December of 2015, I visited Carly at the maternity triage department of one of the local hospitals. Embarrassed, she told me that she had the misfortune to become pregnant the one time she “slipped” from her Christian vow of pre-marital chastity. When she first learned she was pregnant, Carly recalled, she did not want to go ahead with the pregnancy. Single, unemployed and living in a horrid apartment, she did not feel that she was in a position to raise a child. And, she explained, she was afraid that she would be shunned by her church for the unmarried pregnancy. But after a visit to the Boston Center for Pregnancy Choices where “a woman prayed and talked with me,” she decided to keep the baby.

A quick look at the organization’s website confirmed my suspicion that “Choices” may be a bit misleading. This organization does not perform or give referrals for abortions and strongly encourages women considering abortion to have an ultrasound “to determine viability” before going ahead with the abortion. Co-opting the rhetoric of choice, this organization – like many others of its kind – have been described as “the darlings of the pro-life movement,” dedicated to helping women “choose” to go on with pregnancies.

That day in December, like many other days throughout the late fall and early winter months, Carly was in the hospital while the doctors and nurses tried to get her asthma under control. The problem she explained, is that the asthma is triggered by the living conditions in her apartment. “The landlord is a slumlord,” Carly told me. “He will not fix anything.”

Complicating matters further, Carly’s blood pressure was high and the doctors were concerned that she may have pre-eclampsia, a potentially fatal condition for pregnant women. Carly had struggled with obesity for much of her life. In the year before becoming pregnant, she succeeded at losing a great deal of weight, but pregnant, she had become bigger than ever before.

Now eligible for a $1500 Section VIII voucher for a two bedroom apartment for the baby and herself, she could not find a place for the price allowed by Section VIII. And when she occasionally did spot a listing that fell within the allowed rent, she found that landlords often do not want Section VIII tenants. (SeePoor and Homeless Face Discrimination Under America’s Flawed Housing Voucher System“.)

Carly had made about a hundred calls both in Boston and in the furthest suburbs and hadn’t even made it to the stage of actually looking at an apartment. But she had not lost hope: “God doesn’t turn his back on me.” In the meantime, she continued commuting between the roach-haven and the hospital.

A New Home (For Now)

As it turned out, Carly was right to remain hopeful. In mid February she landed a lovely two bedroom apartment (albeit in the one neighborhood she wished to avoid – Dorchester, where she’d spent her drug dealing younger days).

This is how the apartment came about: Among the dozens of people with whom Carly networked in her apartment search she met a real estate agent who knew another agent, and the two of them made it their mission to find her a place. Since real estate agents often present barriers to apartment-seekers with Section VIII vouchers, this was quite exceptional.

“They really helped. They even are splitting the agent’s fee [one month’s rent].” For many Section VIII apartment-seekers the agent’s fee presents an insurmountable barrier to rental. This time, for reasons that we could not ascertain, Home Start was able to pay the fee for Carly. There was, however, one hitch. The monthly rent for the new apartment is $34 / month above the amount permitted by the voucher. Carly told Home Start that she’d pay the difference, but they told her that is not allowed. (For more on bureaucratic hurdles see  Failure by Design: Isabella’s Experiences with Social “Services”.)

The way it finally worked out is that the Boston Center for Pregnancy Choices offered to pay the difference for the first year (Carly does not know what will happen after that one year). She does not know why, but this plan was acceptable to all parties and she should be moving into her apartment next week.

For Carly, the lesson learned is that everything worked out “because I chose life. God is good.”

For me, the lesson isn’t so straightforward. Carly remains precariously housed in an apartment she may be able to keep for only one year. She still lives in one of the most violent neighborhoods in Boston, a neighborhood with particularly high rates of elevated lead levels and of asthma hospitalization rates for children under five. She will be raising a child by herself with no financial support other than welfare and food stamps. Her career momentum is on permanent hold. And, if past track records with similar “pregnancy choice” organizations hold true, Carly is not going to be able to count on her pregnancy-support network for substantial help with the daily grind of single-parenting.

For more on Carly click here and here

For more on housing see Health is Where the Home Is

Click here and here  and here for previous updates.

The last few months have brought some changes to the women of Can’t Catch a Break. Not all are of the life-changing sort, but I still marvel at the pace in which new crises arise in the women’s lives. Illness, death and disappointment in and of themselves are not extraordinary – they are the stuff of real life that all of us experience at one time or another. Rather, it’s the relentlessness. Some of the women don’t have time to catch their breath and assimilate one set of challenges and changes before the next set erupts.

Andrea is still unemployed and lonely. “I had a poor Christmas,” she told me. On the positive side, she is still securely housed in a well-located studio apartment.

 

Ashley is a gloriously happy stay-at-home Mom. I personally can vouch for the cuteness of her children. She posts daily photos of their antics and they keep me in stitches. Her husband is doing very well at work, they had a lovely Christmas, and both extended families are great sources of support and company.

 

Carly has had a busy few months. She remains fully engaged in her spiritual life – fighting Satan and trusting God — though she has not yet found a church that suits her perfectly. She quit the last church she’d been part of when the pastor “made white supremacist comments.” Having spent years living with a wonderful Black foster family, Carly will not tolerate racist comments in her presence.

Her big news is that she is pregnant! With a baby on the way she enrolled in a job training program which she graduated with a certificate that should pave the way for an entry level healthcare job. She still dreams of being a nurse in the future.

In the meantime, she remains stuck in an apartment that is saturated with mold and covered in rodent droppings. She desperately wants to move out but has not been able to find a landlord who will accept a tenant with a “voucher.” (Typically through the federal ‘Section VIII’ program, these vouchers cover rent according to a specific scale for low-income people. In tight housing markets like Massachusetts it is very difficult for voucher-holders to find apartments, even though the voucher guarantees rent; that is, the government agency pays rent directly to the landlord.) Because her living conditions trigger severe asthma, she has spent a great deal of time in the hospital.

For more on her housing struggles click here.

Elizabeth: See “Eulogy for Elizabeth, Update

Francesca is (still) a survivor. She is happy living part-time with the man she met last year. He is a stable, family man living in a semi-rural community at some distance from Boston. He works very long hours so she often comes back to Boston and stays for a few days with friends or with one of her sons. She has many close girlfriends of various ages and generations, and she enjoys being an “auntie” almost as much as she enjoys being a grandmother to her two lovely grandchildren.

She has had some serious health problems over the past months. She lost over one hundred pounds and spent a few stints in the hospital. She has been diagnosed with Crohns and Colitis, and then developed a C.difficile infection in the wake of antibiotics she was given for back-to-back kidney infections. She felt miserable with all of this, but is thrilled with her new svelte body!

Ginger moved back from Florida. She had moved there to be with a man she had met but that fell apart after a day or two. She called to tell me that, “I came to Fort Myers [and ended up] homeless. Last night I had a stomach virus. I threw up all over the bus. I had to go to the hospital. I was there all night. I’d been eating out of the trash. I have nowhere to in Florida.”

She called me from a local sheriff’s office next to the bus station. We figured out how to arrange to purchase a bus ticket for her. The next bus would leave in 12 hours and the trip would take two days. She had no money for food.

I spoke with the sheriff to see if there would be a way to help her out so that she wouldn’t risk being arrested for panhandling or soliciting sex for money. He said no. I wrote in my notes: “The irony that we’ll pay for a night sick in the hospital from eating in the trash, but we won’t pay for someone to get food.”

We spoke briefly when she returned to Boston, but since November I have not heard from her. I’ve tried every phone number and every friend and relative I can think of. I did catch a quick glimpse of her hanging out in the Boston Common with a small group of people whom I know to be homeless. It’s hard to know what to think. For many years Ginger has called me regularly at least once each week.

Isabella has had a horrid few months. She, her husband and her husband’s teenage son had been staying in the small living room of a one bedroom flat rented by a friend of hers. Both she and her husband were doing quite well on a methadone protocol that required them to come to the methadone clinic daily. In the Fall, after many months of applications, she landed a wonderful job. The new company sent her to a training seminar and she began to work in an office setting that she loved. Then, two things happened just about simultaneously. One, a more extensive background check carried out by her employer revealed her history of incarceration and she was let go. Two, her husband picked up heroin use (again), suffered what she considered a “psychotic break” that landed him in the emergency room and then the psych ward, and he destroyed all of their possessions.

Several weeks later he died of a heroin overdose.

Two weeks after that her roommate was given notice to move out; the landlord planned to empty out and renovate the apartment. She is now couch-surfing with a friend who lives in a town quite a distance from the methadone clinic that she needs to attend each morning. Isabella does not have a car.

Kahtia has been having a rough time. She still has not received her children back from state custody and she pines for them, as they do for her. After a few months in a sub-standard foster care situation they now are living with a foster family that Kahtia (who is not allowed to meet the family) believes is good to her kids based on how they are dressed and what they say when she sees them once a week in a supervised visit at the DCF office. I asked what she has to do to get them back. She said she’s already done everything she has to do — parenting classes, therapy, clean urines — and now is waiting on the next court date which is in February (two months off at the time). I asked her why the date is so far off and she said, “that’s just how it is.” Part of the problem is that she’s had at least three different DCF workers and two different DCF supervisors which “prolongs the case” (her words) because each time the new worker has to do a new assessment. She has gone to Court repeatedly and each time things are put on hold because of the new worker.

In the meantime she is struggling with serious health challenges and now needs to keep a portable oxygen tank with her wherever she goes. She has gained a great deal of weight and struggles getting up and down the stairs to her fourth floor apartment. She says it is highly unlikely that she will be able to move to another apartment on a lower floor.

The good news is that her husband is really coming through for her and the kids. He’s been working steadily and bringing all of his income home, coming to all the supervised visits, and staying by Kahtia’s side through the many medical problems and emergencies. He has sat with her in the hospital, stayed up with her at night, and done whatever he can to make her comfortable.

Melanie has long been one of the few women who has been steadily employed, securely housed, on good terms with her family, and in a stable relationship with a very decent man. I hadn’t heard from her in quite a while until she called this Fall, somewhat out of the blue. Distraught, she told me that she has an enlarged spleen. The doctors don’t know why though they have done many tests. Her concern is that her employer (a social service agency) is going to put her on short term disability which means that she’ll be paid only 70% of her salary and she knows that she can’t pay her bills on that. “If I have to go down to 70% of my salary I will get in my check $352 / every 2 weeks.” We went through her budget together dollar by dollar, and her calculation is absolutely correct. “I’ve used up all of my sick time and vacation time with going to doctors and then just being too sick to go into work.” She went on to say, “My job is the best thing. My Aunt said it’s my calling [to help people].”

Her asthma and depression are also acting up and “I am crying a lot” (my note: which is rare for her). She can’t stand on her feet or sleep on her left side. “I’m literally in pain.” The doctors offered her narcotics but she refused because she is an addict (that is how she defines herself though she has not used drugs at all in ten years.) She’s lost 16 pounds – “I can’t eat and I feel overwhelmed.” She also has gall stones in her digestive system, pain in her shoulder and a broken toe. She said the doctors do not know if these problems are related to one another.

Continuing updates will be posted so check back!

For background on Elizabeth’s murder please read Eulogy for Elizabeth.

Nearly a year after she was murdered by a man against whom she had taken out a restraining order, the newspapers have uncovered a bit more of what happened.

The day before she was murdered she called the police with a request that they get her former boyfriend out of her apartment. She told them she had taken out a restraining order against him. According to the press, “When the two officers arrived, they failed to make the simple computer check that would have confirmed the restraining order she told them she had against him, and should have led to his arrest. They took [him] to a detox facility instead.” He came back the next day (allegedly) and battered her to death.

I can’t know what was going through the minds of the officers when they ignored Elizabeth’s plea for help, when they chose not to believe that she had filed a restraining order against the man she wanted out of her apartment. I can only guess that in their minds she was one more drunk, one more loser, one more woman who doesn’t deserve respect because she has been homeless or incarcerated.

While the Boston police may have invested a great deal of time and effort into educating officers about intimate partner violence, they certainly dropped the ball this time. “Police records show [one of the two responding officers] has had 22 internal and citizen complaints filed against him for use of force, disrespectful treatment, and conduct unbecoming. … [The other officer] has three complaints on his record. … He was the subject of a 2006 lawsuit after he led a car chase that left a 15-year-old boy dead in Roslindale.” Yet according to the Patrolmen’s Association attorney, they are “outstanding officers” who, when responding to Elizabeth’s call, did “the best they could in this situation.”

I could be snarky and say that I’d hate to see the worst they could do in this situation. On second thought, that’s not being snarky – it’s simply stating the truth.

Elizabeth – I still have your picture on my desk. I still hear your classic Boston-accent voice telling me — less than a month before you were murdered in your apartment — how grateful you were for finally having a home after two decades of shelters and the streets. I don’t believe in an eye for an eye, that’s not the kind of justice I’ll seek for you. But I will seek justice.

Click here and here for previous updates. Click here for the 2016 New Years update.

For women who struggle with homelessness, summer can be a bit of a reprieve. Because outdoor sleeping is a realistic possibility (unlike during the long Boston winters when they are stuck in overcrowded shelters with strict bedtimes, wake-up times and a plethora of rules) they may feel a bit less constrained, a bit more free.

Low income mothers who are hard pressed to arrange activities for their kids when schools are closed and temperatures are high often find summer to be challenging. Without a car or financial resources, July and August can seem unbearably long in hot urban apartments, especially when their children beg them to take them to water parks and on other expensive and inaccessible outings.

For women who are trying to arrange housing, welfare or other services, summer is a frustrating time in which social service employees are out of the office and paperwork gets stuck in the bureaucratic mill.

Here are early September 2015 updates on the women of Can’t Catch a Break.

Andrea: She still has her apartment but she gave up her job at the beauty supply store because they only gave her 2 days / week of work and she needs something to do the other days. This decision was taken back in the spring when a friend told her that she might be able to help Andrea get a job as a personal care assistant. At the time I asked Andrea whether she needs certification and a background check for this job. (Neither is simple in light of her prison record.) She told me that she has the certification but it turned out that she meant that she has the application to apply for certification but that she hadn’t yet filled it out. She was waiting for the friend to come over and help her with it (Andrea’s literacy is limited.) Andrea was not clear on what this kind of job entails – for example, whether she’d be working in a nursing home or for private clients, but she liked the idea that it pays $15 / hour and that she can work more hours.

By mid-July she had not made any progress and was unhappily unemployed.

Later in the summer Andrea was much happier. She’d recently heard about a “ladies drop-in place” where she now goes regularly and “hangs out with the people there.” She particularly likes that the women themselves plan day trips and activities, and the people who run the place help them with transportation. In the last few weeks they’d been to the museum, zoo and a water park. The volunteers who work there serve lunch daily and “they keep the place very clean.”

When we last spoke Andrea let me know that she was still with her long-term boyfriend but is unhappy that he takes but does not give. “I want a man who will take care of me and who wants a better life and to do things.” But her biggest complaint is loneliness: “I’m alone. No one comes to see me.”

 

Ashley: Ashley’s life today is as good as it gets. She is married to a wonderful man who works steadily at a highly skilled job. They have a child (absolutely adorable) who is welcomed and loved by flocks of grandparents, aunts and uncles. Ashley stopped working to be a stay-at-home Mom, and both she and the baby are thriving.

Carly is such a pleasant and easy conversationalist. Even though she is the youngest woman in the project, when we get together I often find myself telling her my problems before we even get around to talking about her life!

Carly’s has had some ups and down over the past half year. She had a job for a few weeks at a supermarket but was fired for getting into a fight with another employee. The final straw was when the co-worker called her “the n word” (in reference to Carly’s African American friends) and then referred to a black customer as a “monkey.” Having spent her teen-age years in foster care with a black family whom she still thinks of as her family, “I won’t put up with people using the ‘n word.”

She then landed a job working at a hotel but developed severe respiratory problems, most likely from the fumes of the cleaning supplies. She spent over a week in the hospital during which time doctors performed a slew of tests. Carly was told that the hole in her heart (she was born with a heart murmur) had grown and was now causing problems. “But then at church the Holy Spirit came on me and gave me the gift of being able to see [sense] things that are hidden from most people.” And, when she went back for a check the doctor said the hole in her heart closed. In the meantime she was fired from the hotel.

Since then nearly all of Carly’s attention and conversation is about the Holy Spirit. She can “see” Satan and knows when bad spirits are in people. Carly says that she feels empowered by this, but at the same time she is worried about spiritual warfare, believing that to be the reason why there have been so many obstacles in her life and why and bad things continue to happen to her.

Daisy’s life has settled down significantly. It is a great tribute to Daisy that her children graduated college and have good, professional jobs and solid, healthy relationships. And now that her children are adults, they are able to help her hold onto some level of stability and look out for their mom while maintaining boundaries that allow them not to burn out on Daisy’s endless needs.

Daisy is still living in a room that her daughter found for her in a rooming house in a suburb outside of Boston. While the living arrangements are minimal (shared kitchen and bathroom), they are far safer and saner than the homeless shelters where Daisy had stayed for nearly a decade. Her children also arranged for her to continue in an out-patient day program that picks her up in a van four times / week and brings her to a social center for disabled adults. Though there are few activities or enrichments at the center, Daisy enjoys playing bingo and talking to other people.

When the center is closed (three days / week plus holidays) Daisy is alone and isolated. On cold, snowy winter days and on hot, humid summer days she is essentially trapped in her room – it’s quite a long walk on a steep hill to get anywhere from her house.

I recently took her out to lunch for her birthday and she cleaned herself up and dressed nicely for our date. But she seemed very sleepy, most likely, she said, because of her medication. She has been drinking less and has not been in trouble with police for drinking outside for quite a while. But on the downside, the borders of her life are very constraining and when the social center is closed she often does not exchange a word with another human being for days on end.

For more on Daisy see Outcast Island.

Elizabeth: See Eulogy for Elizabeth.

Francesca: The ups and downs continue. Last spring she ended things with Joey, went to detox (again), and moved in with a friend whom she has helped out with childcare in the past. She enjoyed the domestic scene for a while but then began to feel sick. At the hospital she was told that, “I have an inflammation around my kidneys which caused some muscles around my kidneys to tear; I have a virus and fever and need to go home on bed rest.”

A few months later she met a new man and moved in with him and his family in a somewhat rural town without easy access to Boston. She embraced the domestic life and the opportunities to cook and clean and help care for his grandchildren. Her own grandchildren came to visit several times and she loved being part of a big family.

This man treats her well – he is not an addict and not violent – but her does have a busy life with work and hobbies of his own. So, after some time Francesca started to feel restless and isolated and now circulates among her son’s apartment, her friend’s apartment and her boyfriend’s house.

Her stated goal for the summer was to confront her fears and make choices for how she wants to live her life.

For more on Francesca see The Bitch at the Welfare Office.

Ginger has been having a hard time since her mother died. She misses her all the time and feels that the center of her life is no longer there. She spent part of the winter and spring in Florida with her brother and then moved back to Boston where she stayed on the streets and with various relatives. She was involved in a volatile relationship with a man – a relationship that involved a few police interventions and quite a few break-ups and reconciliations, as well as at least one incident in which her attempt to throw something at him ended up with her injuring herself.

She knows that it’s not good for her to keep moving around (Florida to MA) because of a man and that “I need to do me.” In the late spring she rented a room in an apartment and seemed settled. But after less than two months she moved out because the person she was renting a room from brought in people who were smoking crack and one time Ginger came home and found a man in her bed. Homeless again, she spent the summer “sleeping here and there.” The last time we spoke she had moved back to Florida.

Isabella’s two big concerns are housing and her step-son who has been in and out of juvenile detention. These two concerns are intertwined: When she and her husband lost custody of his son they also lost their eligibility for family housing. The last time I spoke with her (June) the three of them were staying with a friend. Her husband and step-son were sharing a futon and she was sleeping on a love seat with her feet dangling off the end.

Isabella is capable of working: She is bright and has solid work experience. But between the demanding hours of the methadone clinic (she has to go to the clinic every morning for her dose and she has to stay for group therapy several times a week) and the endless search for a solution to their housing problems she has not even been able to look for a job.

For more, see: Failure by Design: Isabella’s Experiences with Social Services.

Joy: In the spring Joy seemed to be in good shape. Her daughter (who is in her father’s custody) was seriously ill and Joy’s parents allowed her to stay in the hospital with her daughter. Joy was up to the task and her parents were confident that she was not using drugs.

Then, “I relapsed.” With no place to live, she spent some time in an abandoned trailer and then hooked up with a young couple who owned a car and had an apartment. “They’d sit in the car and I’d go out and do my thing [prostitution] and buy drugs and we’d split everything three ways.” She understood that they were exploiting her but didn’t see any other options. In the meantime she had failed to show up in court on an old charge and a warrant was issued for her.

In the late spring she called me from the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. She had tried to kill herself. Joy told me that she was found in the woods (near where Linda was murdered) by someone she’d known many years ago. He called an ambulance and the paramedics had to work for 45 minutes to save her. She was taken to a hospital and then released her after a few days. She then went to the police and said she would kill herself again if they couldn’t place her in a treatment program. They took her to a different hospital’s psych ward where the staff would try to find a long-term bed for her. They didn’t, and in a week she was back out on the streets.

Over the summer two of her front teeth rotted out. We talked about how she always looked after her teeth and I reminded her how the first time we met she attributed her survival to always having a toothbrush and toothpaste even when she was on the streets. I asked her what changed. She said she basically has given up.

For more on Joy’s adventures in psych wards and rehab see, Alternatives to Incarceration: Be Careful What You Wish For.

Kahtia: Things have been rough for Kahtia. She’s been struggling with depression and anxiety, and spent a week on a psychiatric ward in the early spring. But Kahtia is one of the few women to have a truly helpful caseworker who assisted her in getting back on her feet. In April I met her at a soup kitchen where she helps serve lunch and clean up as well as eating her own lunch. She liked the structure this gave to her day while her children were in school. However, during her hospital stay her meds were switched to a new anti-anxiety drug and a heavy-duty anti-psychotic. As a consequence, when we talked she was struggling with intense drowsiness – literally falling asleep with her fork halfway to her mouth. She explained that both medications cause drowsiness and the interaction causes more drowsiness. For the first time in years she did not appear to be well groomed: Her nails were dirty and unkempt; her shirt was dirty; she had some crumbs around her mouth. Her children, however, were clean and appropriately dressed and Kahtia was able to pull herself together to pick them up and school and cook real dinners for them every day.

When we spoke in the spring Kahtia was particularly upset over appearing drowsy because if she “nods” at the methadone clinic they won’t give her the dose (that happened earlier this week) because they assume she is using drugs (even though they have the paperwork about her meds.) She felt (and I agreed) that she needed to talk this over with a doctor who knows her and all of her med history. She tried to call her own doctor but no appointment was available for a few weeks.

By the end of the summer things had deteriorated even more. The head counselor at the children’s day camp called DFS (child welfare services) to report that Kahtia often seemed high in the morning at 7:30 when she dropped her off. Kahtia explained to me and to DFS that she takes psychiatric medication which leaves her groggy in the morning but she is not high. Indeed, her urine is tested regularly at the methadone clinic and she has not used illicit drugs. In any case, the children were taken away and placed into foster care. Kahtia is devastated. And while she can see the children once each week and speak with them on the phone daily, they will start the school year in a different district (where the foster family lives) rather than return to their friends and teachers.

Read about Kahtia’s reflections on sex work here.

Vanessa spent most of the winter and spring in residential programs for treating substance abuse. These stints were broken up by several episodes of her leaving (and not being permitted to return) or her being kicked out for breaking rules or “relapsing.” Each time she ended up on the street in tears and frustrated at the barriers to getting back into a program. Even when she finds a placement, each time she has to “start all over” with detox and then waiting for a longer term bed in a rehab facility.

The last time I tried to call I couldn’t get in touch with Vanessa. Her cell phone number was disconnected. And, after many years of being a stalwart support, Vanessa’s mother is ill and told me that, “I don’t know where she is. I can’t deal with her. I’m too tired. I can’t deal with the aggravation.”

 

 

 

 

Last month Amnesty International came out in support for “the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.” The reasons make sense: Decriminalization will eliminate the jail time and fines that punish (mostly) women for trying to make a living; it will give sex workers access to the health care and services that other kinds of workers benefit from; and it will allow sex workers to turn to the police for protection without fear that they themselves will be arrested. Amnesty International rightly asks, “How can we reduce the threat of violence to sex workers? What can be done to ensure their access to medical care and help prevent HIV? And how can discrimination and social marginalization that put sex workers at increased risk of abuse be stopped?”

But then I looked a bit more closely and two little words made me sit up for a double-take: “all aspects”? Seriously? An organization that I deeply respect has called for the decriminalization of pimping and procuring? Apparently, yes, for the reason that anti-pimp laws have been used to arrest sex workers who share a working space. Does that happen frequently enough to justify decriminalizing all pimping and procuring? It turns out that the answer is no – these laws are not used against sex workers anywhere near as often as they are used against actual pimps and procurers.

I took another look at the statement, and this time noticed a preemptive argument that, I would guess, was written to fend off attacks from people — like me — who would not be so thrilled with across-the-board decriminalization: “These questions about health, safety and equality under the law, are more important than any moral objection to the nature of sex work.” Oh no! My colleagues at Amnesty International could not possibly have used one of the cheapest tricks in the rhetorical arsenal — creating a straw man (“moral objection to the nature of sex work”) in order to imply that the only reason someone might disagree with blanket decriminalization is because of “moral objections” — a kind of objection that, in the current political climate, conjures up right-to-lifers, the Christian right, and other other enemies of human rights! Didn’t they understand that people – like me- might disagree for other reasons entirely?

The Question of Consent: Context Always Matters

Having spent ten years engaged in research and friendship with marginalized and criminalized women in Massachusetts – most of whom have exchanged sex for money at some point in their lives, I am most troubled by the words “consensual sex work.” Amnesty clarifies that they are not calling for the decriminalization of human trafficking or of people who force children or women into sex work. But this glosses over inherent problems in identifying any particular sex work situation as truly consensual.

Kahtia [not her real name], a woman I’ve known through many ups and downs, recalls with some pride a short-lived glamorous career as a prostitute and drug dealer in up-scale New York City clubs. Within a short time, however, “I became my own best  [drug] customer and had to go to the streets to make money for drugs.” Street level prostitution was not so glamorous. She learned to become totally numb and dissociate herself during sex. Kahtia demonstrates this by tipping her head back, closing her eyes, and dropping her jaw open. “It was just…wait for him to finish and give me the money.”

Was this “consensual”? One could argue that it was: She initially chose high-paying sex work and drug dealing (exactly the kind of “consensual” sex work Amnesty likely had in mind), and even the subsequent sex work could be seen as a choice she made in order to support her wish to use drugs. But, looking even further back:

Kahtia’s earliest memories are of Sunday dinners at the home of her Irish maternal grandparents. The clan, including Kahtia’s mother and white half-sister, would be seated around the family table. Kahtia and her brother – children of an African-American man — were told to eat in the hallway: Their dark skin color was not welcome at the dinner table. An under-the-radar heroin addict, Kahtia’s mother supported her own habit by shooting up Kahtia and her brother with drugs and receiving money from the men she invited to rape them. Kahtia remembers her father as a good but weak man (he was an alcoholic). She also remembers being told she exhibited “unruly behavior” due to which she was removed from home and placed into a residential program for “problem kids”. Child Welfare Services did not believe Kahtia’s stories of abuse, and she was sent home on weekends where the rapes continued. By the time she was ten Kahtia decided that anywhere she went would be better than home, so she ran away. Living on the streets as a very young girl, Kahtia encountered what she considers to be her first bit of good luck: She was adopted by a powerful gang. Emoting pride, Kahtia recounts how the gang leader heard of “the girl who kept a razor blade hidden inside her mouth” in order to defend herself, and supported her in her initial forays into drug dealing and upscale prostitution.

The details vary, but the broad outlines of abuse, time in juvenile institutions, an initially helpful older man, fear, anxiety and drug use are present in the experiences of nearly every woman I know who has ever worked in prostitution, even for a brief time.

One might be tempted to say that for at least some women, paid sex work constitutes disengagement from or resistance against traditional patriarchal practices of marriage — at least they are getting paid for what other women may be compelled to do for free. Marjolein van der Veen, a feminist economist, suggests that prostitution “opens up possibilities for commodification as a site for new economic alternatives of producing commodities in noncapitalist class structures.” Jane Scoular, a legal scholar, much along the lines of the Amnesty International statement, similarly argues that that there is nothing inherently harmful in sex work. Rather, the problem for women lies in specific temporal settings in which sex work is criminalized, marginalized and stigmatized.

While these contentions may have some intellectual merit, in my many conversations and interactions with Massachusetts women who have worked in prostitution I have never glimpsed even a hint that it’s possible to extract a neutral commercial exchange (sex for money) from the real life worlds of women who are poor, sick, homeless, abused, and / or trafficked. These contentions, as Rutgers University professor Barbara Foley writes, “tragically disregards the oppression that forces women into prostitution.” Indeed, every one of the women I know says, in one way or another, that working in prostitution, compared to even the worst marriages and lousiest jobs at fast-food joints, is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

The Gazer and the Gazed

The women I have met make it clear that unwanted, repeated bodily penetration is not equal to other paid or unpaid labor. In order to work in prostitution they must disengage the self, “go numb.” Sex work – by its very nature — transforms the body into an object to be gazed at rather than a subject with the power to gaze. Olivia (pseudonym), a former stripper interviewed by law professor Jody Raphael, recounts her experiences working in a peep show: “I know how the animals in the zoo must feel as people walk by gazing at them.” Raphael, who interviewed Olivia over a period of many months, understood that Olivia dealt with this work, “By disassociation through alcohol and drugs, and through the fantasies of pretending she was someone else, Olivia left her true self behind. While in stripping, Olivia never used her real name.”

Raphael’s observations illuminate that problematic word in Amnesty International’s position — consensual. As Rachel Moran, an author and advocate who was pulled into the sex trade when she was fifteen years old writes, “I know from what I’ve lived and witnessed that prostitution cannot be disentangled from coercion.”

True consent, as understood by every university and hospital ethics committee in the country, requires explicit acknowledgment of the inherent power differential between the researcher and the study subject – between the gazer and the gazed. While messy and complicated everyday life is not the same as a controlled research setting, informed consent standards that reflect decades of legal, philosophical and ethical consideration point to the difficulties in assessing sex work as consensual. Informed consent standards adopted in the wake of Nazi medical experimentation and other blatant human rights abuses require that all possible risks be clearly spelled out and understood by the study subject; it requires the subject to be fully physically and mentally competent to give authentic consent; it makes explicit that the subject is free to end the encounter with no explanation and with no penalty at any time; it spells out to whom the subject can report problems with the study or the researcher; and — of particularly great relevance here – it disallows the researcher to offer payment or other forms of compensation that can be construed as unduly pressuring the subject into agreeing to the study.

By these standards, and in light of the real life experiences of most sex workers, decriminalizing all aspects of “consensual” prostitution, is likely to turn out to be, as Rachel Moran writes, “[I]n the name of human rights [a way to] decriminalize violations of those rights, on a global scale.”

For a deeper discussion of these issues see Susan Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk. 2011. “Gender Overdetermination and Resistance: The Case of Criminalized Women.”   Feminist Theory 12(3): 317-333.

 

 

My friend Isabella has been beside herself with worry over her son and her housing situation. Ever since the first time we met (seven years ago!) in a half-way house for women, she has told me that she wants Americans who are fortunate enough to live in secure and stable housing to know what people who are dependent upon the institutional circuit of shelters, clinics, welfare, jails and DYS must go through just to (barely) hang on. I urged her to writer down her experiences. What follows is a Facebook conversation between us about what she’s been going through these past few months.


Isabella: Like many others, my husband and teen-age son and I have been living in what they call “scatter shelters.” What that means is that there aren’t enough good solutions for homeless families so they put us in apartments scattered around the city. Because we are a family, we were given one bedroom in a four bedroom apartment shared by four families. Some of the families have several kids, so it was very crowded. We all shared the living, kitchen and bathroom. One of our housemates at that apartment was an alcoholic and hit our son in the head with a bottle of Grey Goose. After that the manager moved us into another shared apartment in even worse conditions than the first one.

We are not criminals or children, but at the scatter shelter we all have a 9:00 curfew, 11:00 on weekends (though we can get a weekend pass.)

One weekend our son was staying with his grandmother and he called us up to say she had kicked him out. But it was after curfew (he had permission to be out but we had not arranged to be out) so we had to call the shelter supervisor to get permission to go and get him. By the time we reached her and got permission the last T [public transportation] had run so we had to take a taxi, which cost us $120 – a very big part of our monthly income.

 

Susan: Are you able to set up the apartment to feel like home?

 

Isabella: Because of all the moves and living in one room most of our stuff is in storage, including a television and really nice living room set that my father bought us before we lost our housing. But storage is expensive and we owe $3000 to the storage company. The company will not accept a partial payment and told us that they would auction off our stuff if we can’t come up with all of the money right away. But both of us are disabled and we live on Social Security so we couldn’t come up with the money.

homeless-in-storage-unit

I’ve been anxious and depressed through all of this, but what’s happened in the past two weeks has pushed me over the edge and I’m crying as I write this.

 

Susan: What’s been going on?

 

Isabella: Our son had gotten into some trouble for which he was put on probation. Unfortunately, he violated the terms of his probation and so he was taken into DYS (Department of Youth Services) custody for an indefinite time of anywhere between two weeks until up until his eighteenth birthday. So I’m SUPER STRESSED OUT, losing my mind actually, because we have NO IDEA where we’re gonna go. They’re saying that since our son is in the custody of DYS that he cannot be considered a part of our “case file” so we can’t stay in the family shelter. But he can’t be released by DYS to us if we don’t have a stable environment to live in. But we’re going to lose our place in the shelter because he is not living with us RIGHT AT THIS MOMENT and without him as part of our case file we are $26 over the monthly limit to qualify for a homeless shelter.

I called the housing office and was told that our son DOESN’T qualify as homeless, because and I quote the almighty DIRECTOR of DHCD, “He already has a place to stay [in DYS custody]; so he’s not homeless…” They said, “When he gets out and is homeless have him call us to verify he’s on the streets and we’ll reevaluate your eligibility.”

So basically we’re stuck in a Catch 22: Damned if we do, damned if we don’t!!! He CANNOT be released if we do not have a place for him to stay…BUT, we cannot keep a place to stay if he remains in lockup!!! I can’t win! I’m losing my fucking mind!!!!!! I’m so sorry for the vulgarity but I am flabbergasted.

I’m SO SUPER STRESSED I have no idea where we’re going and the thought of being homeless with our son frightens me like nothing has ever frightened me before.


 

While many of the poor, chronically ill and criminalized women I know turn their anger and blame on particular “bitches” who work in social and correctional services, Isabella has made clear to me from the first time we talked that, “It’s a system that is designed for us to fail.” Emergency assistance programs make frequent changes in eligibility criteria for receiving services, causing feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability in those who are dependent upon welfare as well as obligating recipients to spend great amounts of time and energy re-certifying their eligibility for the support and services that, in most other industrialized countries, are considered a basic right.

Even when you qualify for assistance, it turns out that Social Security Insurance (SSI) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Family (welfare) remittances are not sufficient to live on. As a result, recipients also are drawn into homeless shelters or other housing programs. Homeless shelters, while better than the street in most instances, are structured around rules that seem designed for people to break them. For a mother, residence in a homeless shelter is a surefire way to draw in child welfare services. Child welfare services are more likely than not to send women to drug testing programs which in turn easily leads them into the correctional system. Conditions of probation and parole — such as requiring constant urine tests — make it impossible to hold down a job. And children like Isabella’s son who were drawn into child welfare services are more likely than other children to end up in juvenile detention facilities, jails and prisons – all but guaranteeing that they will remain stuck in the same institutional circuit that failed them from the start.

You can read more about Isabella and the institutional circuit in Can’t Catch a Break.