Category Archives: Can’t Catch a Break

The Women of Can’t Catch a Break: Fall 2017

The summer can be a slow time for anyone looking for jobs, housing or just trying to get things done. That’s true for must of us, and doubly true for people who are dependent on multiple social service and governmental agencies with shifting personnel and rules. For many of the women, the dominant theme of the summer was waiting, waiting and waiting some more.


Ginger (see “The New Price of Freedomwas super excited last spring when her case manager at a housing agency told her she would get her into an apartment soon. In mid-summer the case-manager took Ginger she was taken to see an apartment in a community right outside Boston. She was thrilled – oohing and aahing as she described “my stove” and “my floors” in this recently renovated flat. She was waiting for it to be approved by the Housing Authority and she was sure there wouldn’t be any problems because the apartment seemed in great condition. We talked about where she would get a bed and what color sheets she wanted. She lined up my help to drive her possessions to the apartment (it turns out all that she owns — aside from a few outfits and toiletries — is a box of assorted glasses and cups she has received as Christmas presents or won at raffles at homeless programs over the years.)

And then she waited some more. Finally, the inspector came and found a leak in the basement of the building. The landlord was told he had to fix the problem before it could be approved. She waited for the repair and then she waited for the inspector to come back. Her housing advocate repeated to her that she just needs to be patient, that these things take a while.

They seem to have taken too long because in early October the landlord withdrew the offer of the apartment.

As of this writing, Ginger remains homeless, though her case-manager has promised to take her next week to see another apartment.


Isabella (see “Failure by Design: Isabella’s Experiences with Social Services“) is still in prison, waiting to find out when she will be let out. Her release date is up in the air while the system sorts out various old charges, warrants, and probation and parole violations.


Kahtia (See “Prostitution, Decriminalization and the Problem of Consent“) is still trying to regain custody of her children. It’s been two years at this point and she is beyond frustrated. In the middle of the summer I accompanied her to a long-awaited Court date.

We met in front of the Court House. Kahtia was sitting outside by herself, an hour before the scheduled Court time – she wanted to be sure not to be held up by public transportation or arrive looking disheveled. In fact, she looked lovely. She had a nice, modern haircut, was wearing beautiful make-up, had her new teeth (they look beautiful and natural), and was wearing a long flowing dress. She was very optimistic because the judge had told her that this would be it – that she would get the kids at this hearing. We joked around and made small talk and reminisced and talked about movies and news stories until it was time to go upstairs.

Outside the courtroom we sat down to wait and wait and wait. And as the hours went on Kahtia wilted.

Finally, a social worker from Kahtia’s lawyer’s office came out to show her the report DCF had filed. The report included descriptions of her visits with the children (all positive reports) and reports from her therapist and psychiatrist. And here is where it got weird. The therapist wrote that Kahtia has done well and learned to manage her emotions,  but then commented that she has failed to go for some of her urines (drug tests). The strange part is that Kahtia is not mandated to go for urines. It was her own idea and she goes voluntarily because she believes this will help her show that she should get her kids back. She missed one or two urines when she was sick. But DCF seized on that one comment from the therapist and gave it more weight than all of the positive feedback.  When Kahtia saw this document she became upset and interpreted it as further evidence that DCF has it in for her.

After another lengthy wait, the social worker returned to tell her that it’s time to go in to Court, but that she can’t bring anyone with her (she had hoped to bring me or sister with her for support) and that a new judge would be hearing the case. This was particularly devastating because Kahtia felt the judge who had been on the case since the beginning was fair and understood the issues. He was set to retire but told her he’d stay on her case until the end. At the last hearing he had berated DCF for dragging things out when Kahtia clearly was complying with all of their requests.

Kahtia was shocked by the news and furious to learn that her lawyer likely knew about the new judge a couple of hours ago but only told her as she was walking into the courtroom. We begged for a few minutes to help Kahtia calm down.

She went into the court room and came out a few minutes later. It turned out that one of the translators hadn’t arrived.

Another wait and she went in again, just for a few minutes. The case was continued for two months, at which time the lawyers will offer motions. Her lawyer will ask to increase her hours with the girls (for no known reason the hours had been cut from 2 per week to 1 per week). DCF will ask to see Kahtia’s mental health and other records for the two years preceding the opening of this case as well as a report from her domestic violence counselor. We asked why this necessitates a two month wait. We were told that all of the lawyers couldn’t find a date that worked for them any earlier.

The delay means the girls won’t start the school year in their mother’s neighborhood and likely will have to transfer schools mid-year, again.

The day that started so hopefully ended with crushing pain, again.


Melanie, one of the few women who has been employed for most of the past ten years, was let go from her job last spring because of health problems.  Earlier in the summer her mother — a woman who had held her family together even when she herself was extremely ill — passed away. “I feel the hits just keep coming, with losing my job and then my mother,” Melanie told me.


Francesca (see “The Bitch at the Welfare Office“) has been busy. During the summer and into September her time and efforts revolved around caring for her granddaughter. She and her son mostly got along well and were doing a good job of raising the child (whose mother died about a year ago.) Francesca organized pool parties, took her granddaughter shopping for school clothes, and more or less lived her long-time dream of having a house with her kids and being a Mom and homemaker.

Unfortunately, about a month ago she and her son had an argument during which “he disrespected me. He said I’m dead to him he doesn’t want me in his or [his daughter’s] life; that I’m a loser and never will get anywhere in life. That’s something his [abusive] dad would say to me when we were married.” He kicked her out of their house and threatened to throw her possessions onto the street.

Francesca handled the situation with a great deal of grace and a maturity that, she told me, she knew she didn’t have even a few years ago. She moved in with her boyfriend, continues to spend time with her granddaughter, and has started an on-line business that she conducts from her phone. The downside, and this is not new for her, is that her boyfriend lives in a fairly remote community and Francesca does not have a car. He has a car and a steady job so she is dependent on him for transportation and for financial support. In the past, this sort of power imbalance has not ended well for her.


Tonya continues to amaze me with her resilience and resourcefulness. In July everything seemed to be going wrong. “The blows are coming left and right. They cut my income. I go into panic mode at  the threat of being homeless. My mother is 70 years old and out on the street [due to a fire in her apartment].”

Tonya’s check was cut because she did not consistently make it to her required community service (required in order to get cash benefits – transitional assistance). She was supposed to go to a certain office in downtown Boston everyday, but often did not have money for transportation to get there. “It costs almost $100 a month and the trip takes an hour and a half. They cut me from $490 to $478.” I asked how she’d been able to stay on transitional assistance for so long – the usual cut-off is two years. “Because I’ve been applying and reapplying for Disability. I have pain in my body. So many forms to fill out. Susan, I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m 42 and I’m exhausted. I gained 65, 70 pounds.” She described pain in her knees, back and hands.

“The one good thing is that “my record cleared through Annie Dookhan [the state employee who tainted evidence in the state’s drug labs] but ten years of my life were ruined [because of her record]. I feel I won’t last a lot longer. My father died at 52. I’m going down the same path. Drinking, stressed, tired. I just keeping do more programs and more job training.” One recent program “told me I need to wear business clothes, but I can’t afford to even do my hair, I wear a scarf all the time. Susan, nothing has progressed since you met me. I just want to be a normal person but you can’t on welfare. They want you to be then they make it impossible. … It’s an ongoing battle. Non-stop.”

A month or so later I ran into her as she was walking her son home from day camp. (Full disclosure: I’ve known her son since the day he was born and I can say — with full scientific integrity — that he is the cutest child in the world!) She had signed up for another job skills program but missed the first day of the  because she did not have money for transportation. So she enrolled in another program that teaches people how to be an employee (how to look for a job, how to set an alarm clock, how to talk to your boss). The program is far too basic for her; in fact, she could teach it she has taken it so many times. “But I have to be in a program in order to get help for sending my son to camp. He is at the [] Camp and loves it!”

Tonya always manages to surprise me. Yesterday she sent me a photo of the broccoli she managed to grow in the little patch of dust outside her apartment. I told her that I believe the success of her broccoli plant is an omen of good things to come.

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For those of you who have come to know the women — and for those of you meeting them here for the first time — please feel free to ask questions. You can post your questions in the Comments or email them directly to me at ssered@suffolk.edu. I’ll pass along your questions to the women as best I can. They know that I write about their lives and are eager to share their thoughts and opinions with more people.

To read previous updates click on:  Early Summer 2017  January 2017   Summer 2016   New Years 2016   Summer 2015   Christmas 2014 / 2015    Fall 2014 

Check back often for more updates on the women of Can’t Catch a Break!

 

The Women of Can’t Catch a Break: Early Summer 2017 Update

I’ve finally had time this summer to try to touch bases with all of the forty-eight women who started in this project eight years ago.

Seven women have disappeared from (my) sight. None of their old addresses or phone numbers are still good. None of the people we knew in common have heard from them. I couldn’t reach any of their family members. And I couldn’t find any trace using Google searches (I tried various nicknames and known aliases).

Five women are dead.

Only three women are currently housed, sober and employed (or stay-at-home moms whose husbands are employed), and have been so throughout most of the eight year period. 

The rest of the women continue to cycle in and out of housing, jobs, detox and rehab, hospitals, and jail. Some of these women have stable housing but are on Disability. In some cases, they are unable to do any kind of work. More commonly, they cannot find a job that for which they are qualified and that allows them sufficient flexibility to take care of children, health problems or mental health crises.

I’ve been reminded again and again that I cannot predict how any particular woman will be faring at any given time. Just this week I went to jail to visit a woman whom I never dreamed would end up incarcerated again. At just about the same time, I learned that a woman whom I assumed would continue to bounce between prison and the streets is now stably housed and raising her children. 

To read previous updates click on:  January 2017   Summer 2016   New Years 2016   Summer 2015   Christmas 2014 / 2015    Fall 2014 


Andrea passed away.  The fifth woman for whom we’ve written a Eulogy, Andrea was the only one whose death was described as “natural.” Two others were murdered (see Eulogy for Elizabeth and Orange-Frosted Hostess Cupcakes), one died with a needle in her arm (see Eulogy for Nicole), and one died of complications of HIV/AIDS (see Eulogy for Junie). Andrea had a congenital heart defect, but I can’t help but wonder whether the decade she lived in homeless shelters contributed to her death.

Andrea loved working out while watching exercise shows on television. For years, she urged me to do the same. I would smile and nod my head, and tell her that I’d try. Finally, this spring, not long after she died, I started going to a zumba class. I wish I could tell Andrea about it.


Carly (see “A New Home for Carly“) is still homeless. Though she has a voucher for Section VIII (subsidized housing), she cannot find an apartment in the permitted price range. DCF (child welfare department) has not returned her baby to her custody. She’s been told she needs to see a therapist (she is) and attend a parenting class (she is waiting for DCF to run one), but the reality is that without an apartment she is unlikely to get her child back. She has been focusing a great deal of her attention on reaching out to the baby’s father. He is incarcerated, so it’s not clear to me how she expects him to become involved with the child.


As of this writing, Erin is no longer using drugs and seems to have settled down. “One day I just decided to stop. I can’t live like this again. I knew if I kept using I’d die.” She continues, however, to experience memory lapses, “probably [caused by] the drugs. I used to be on anti-psychotics, mood stabilizers. I was diagnosed bi-polar but I think they freely throw that [diagnosis] around. My problems are more because of how I lived.”

Erin’s husband died last year. She now is living with a man whom she has known for many years. He is employed, and she makes a bit of money selling cosmetics. Her main concern at this time is her back. She suffers from degenerative disk disease that interferes with her sleep and with her ability to stand up straight.


Two months ago Francesca (see “The Bitch at the Welfare Office“) had major surgery on her neck. Both before and after the surgery her doctors prescribed large amounts of Percocet, an opioid that has always been her drug of choice. There were a few weeks during which I was worried that she was going to slide right off the slippery slope of monitored pain medication use back into drug abuse, but she seems to have weathered the worst of the post-surgical pain and is doing a good job of going about her life. She still lives with her son and granddaughter, works part-time, and is involved with a man who does not seem (to me) to be abusive.


Ginger (seeThe New Price of Freedom) called me every single day when my father was in the hospital back in January. She never intruded – she’d just call to say that she is thinking of me and is available if I need to talk. It amazes me that she has this much compassion — and consistency in showing compassion — when she herself is homeless.

The last time we spoke she was optimistic about getting housing. She’s been working with a case manager at a housing agency and had been told that she is high on the housing list. But as of this writing I haven’t heard from her for a month. Her phone number is no longer working and I don’t know where she is.


Isabella (see “Failure by Design: Isabella’s Experiences with Social Services“) is back in jail. Though still unemployed and grieving for her late husband, she seemed to be managing her life. She had a reasonable place to live, was consistent about going to the methadone clinic for her daily dose, and had re-established good relationships with her family.

Then, a few months ago she was in a car accident (it was not her fault). She was knocked unconscious at the time of the accident. She woke up in the hospital — handcuffed to the side of the bed.

It turns out that when the police checked her identification on their computer system they found that she had outstanding warrants on a number of old drug charges. Because she had moved frequently, she had not received the summonses to appear in court.

After a week in the hospital, she was transferred to jail, where she detoxed from methadone. The detox process led to major weight loss and seizures. She now is feeling better and is happy to be off the methadone. She would like to enter a drug treatment program to get support in staying clean.

In the meantime, she has lost her apartment as well as all of her belongings (from jail she couldn’t arrange to transfer her clothes and furniture to a storage locker.) No one in her family has written or come to see her.


Kahtia (See “Prostitution, Decriminalization and the Problem of Consent“) continues to work with DCF to regain custody of her children. Each time it seems that the matter is resolved, something else comes up.

She is still going to all of the required appointments and programs, still volunteering at  soup kitchen, and still seeing her children once each week.

Unfortunately, her health has deteriorated. She has trouble breathing, carries oxygen with her, and struggles to go up the four flights of stairs to her apartment. Most days she only goes out one time so that she won’t have to navigate the stairs more than once. It’s unclear to me how she’ll manage when her children come back home.

This week she was too sick to go to her volunteer job. At this writing, she is sitting in the emergency room waiting to see a doctor.


Melanie – a woman who had worked steadily for the first seven years I knew her, is now on Disability because of mental health challenges. She desperately wants to go back to work.


Patricia has overcome a great deal in her life. Her mother died of an overdose and her father is serving time in a European prison for drug trafficking. She began drinking in her early teens, and ended up in prison because of a string of DUIs.

After her stint in prison she trained as a medical assistant and worked fairly consistently for the past six years. At this point she feels that she is a functioning alcoholic, though there are times she drinks too much and has to phone in to miss work. Unfortunately, she recently lost her job at a clinic.  “A doctor behaved inappropriately to me. The clinic fired me, not him, because he brings in the clients and the money.”  As of this writing, she has been collecting unemployment for several months.

Even with all of that history, Patricia looks and sounds like a soccer mom! She relishes hosting pajama parties and going to her kids’ school events. Patricia is one of the few women who has never been homeless. An attractive woman with a friendly and pleasing manner, she has always had a boyfriend, a “sugar daddy” (her words) or extended family to stay with. She and I agree that the fact that she has never been forced onto the streets or into the shelters is a function of how she looks and sounds (middle-class) as well as the reason that she continues to look and sound so very well.


Paula, a white woman in her early fifties, had fallen off our radar for a number of years. A few years ago she was arrested on a drug charge. Last year we heard through the grapevine that she died of an overdose. It turns out that she, in her words, “almost died”.  Paula explains, “I caught pneumonia and I was using hard, so I got septic and my lungs acquired ARDS – a fatal lung disease. I was on life support for 6 weeks.”

Just last week she told me, “I’m OK, I guess. I’m clean but lost both parents and am dealing with an alcoholic husband. We’re living in a low rent room in [central Massachusetts]. I have been out of prison now for two years and have lived in five different spots. It sucks.”

On the positive side, “I passed my driving test and bought my first car. I never thought I’d actually have a car!”


Life is unpredictable for all of us – the reality of impermanence is one of the four noble truths of Buddhism. But the women of Can’t Catch a Break seem especially vulnerable to shifts in public policies and in social service programming as well as to the vicissitudes of luck and fate, and the challenges of their own mortal bodies.

 

Eulogy for Andrea

Andrea* was one of the most focused people I have ever known. From the first time we met at the Women’s Center at St. Francis House in Boston (she kindly participated in a five year project following the lives of women who have struggled with homelessness or incarceration) she clearly articulated her goals in life: She wanted an apartment of her own and she wanted to work in order to “keep busy.”

Andrea never liked lazing about, but the unfortunate combination of chronic heart disease, an employment landscape not suited to people with any sorts of disabilities, and dependence on social service bureaucracies that lacked the resources and the flexibility to help her find a long-term job placement kept her stuck in a cycle of short, dead-end, job training programs. “I have to stay focused,” she told me. “I’m forty-six. I don’t have time for [messing around] anymore. When you are sixteen or seventeen, bee-bopping around – that’s fun. But not at forty-six.”

Andrea was born in Mobile, Alabama, and moved to Massachusetts as a child. Raised by loving grandparents, she attended a school for kids with developmental disabilities. Andrea loved that school. One of the first times we met she told me that, “I wish I was back there now.” Looking back, I think she was longing for the sense of community and of having a place to go every day. Many times during the first years of our acquaintance she reminded me that her mother and grandparents had died and now she was alone. “I had four funerals in a row,” Andrea reiterated.

Andrea never seemed depressed, but she often felt sad or frustrated. “That is because my housing situation is messing with me. I don’t feel like myself. I’m lonely, discouraged. I sit down and cry and I see other people here [at the homeless shelter] get to leave and go home or go to different programs and I say ‘when am I going?’ I have nowhere to go. I pray to the Lord everyday to help me.” One time I asked her whether God gives her what she asks for. “He does, but on His timetable, not mine. But if I ask politely then I will get it, ‘ask and ye shall receive.’” I also remember her asking me to pass her concerns along to Mayor Menino. She was sure if he could hear her problems he would help her get housing!

Over the eight years that I knew her, Andrea completed numerous job training programs. Typically, these consisted of her being sent to work as a dishwasher or chambermaid for a few months, until the “training” ended. Then, after a waiting period, her social worker would send her to another training program. For the most part, Andrea saw these trainings for what they were: boring, somewhat exploitive, dead ends. But I recall one program that she loved. She worked for a few months in the cafeteria of a school for disabled children. She told me how much she liked going to work each day where people knew her and said good morning to her, and she liked asking the kids what they want to eat and serving them.  “I joke around with the kids and they joke around with me.” Like her other job training programs, this one did not lead to a “real” job. Still, for the months the job lasted she felt “lucky to have this job. I’m not bored.”

One of my favorite memories of Andrea came early in our acquaintance. Though she never was a drug user, she had been sentenced to drug court because someone staying in her apartment was arrested for selling drugs. The drug court protocol involved regular attendance as well as documentation of participation in Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. At drug court graduation each member of her drug court class was asked to stand up and say a few words. One by one, the others thanked the judge, parole officers, counselors, AA, family members and God for helping them in their recovery. Andrea, going last, thanked herself “for making it through this court.”

A few years ago Andrea finally moved into a studio apartment of her own. Still, she kept her eye on the prize – she wanted a “real” apartment, a one bedroom so that she could invite friends to sit in her living room.  But in the meantime she loved being able to watch television in her own space. Andrea was an avid exerciser and loved working out with exercise programs on television. She also loved to make up her own exercises, and often urged me to exercise more (she was quite right about that!) Back when she was in school she was quite an athlete: She even ran relays and hurdles in a local Paralympics. Up to the weeks before her death, Andrea continued to take great care styling her own hair and manicuring her nails. My own lackluster grooming was a frequent source of amusement to her!

As her health deteriorated, Andrea began to spend lengthy stints in the hospital and in nursing homes. I remember that one of the last times I visited her in the hospital she told me how much she liked being there: “They take good care of me. The nurse even said that if I’m bored I can come and sit by the nurses’ station.”  Andrea explained that she loves the food: “I can ask for whatever I want in my salad!” And while she rarely had a visitor, “the woman in the next bed told me that when I smiles it lights up the whole floor.”

A few months ago when I called her she told me that she was in a nursing home. “I hate to tell you, Susan, 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. But I’m fine – I’m holding my own. I can still tell jokes and whatnot.”  A few weeks later she was sent back to her apartment. “No more hospitals. They can’t do anything for me. But I’m all right, Susan.” That was the last time we spoke.

Of all of the women who participated in our research project, Andrea was the most consistent about calling and staying in touch. Despite struggles with literacy and the lack of secure housing, she never lost my phone number or forgot to make the monthly call to arrange a time to meet. Still, I don’t think I ever really got to know her. Andrea craved social relationships yet was an intensely private person. To this day I do not know whether she saw me solely as a hoop she needed to jump through in order to get the T (mass transit) passes we distributed to participants in our study, or whether she actually liked having the opportunity to chat with someone who really wanted to listen to her. I don’t know why it bothers me so much not to know, but it does.

Andrea left behind a brother, a son, several nurses who gave her excellent care over the years, and a few close friends. I do not know if she counted me among those friends, but I do know that I will never forget her.

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*”Andrea” is a pseudonym. In consultation with the Institutional Review Board at Suffolk University, I maintain the confidentiality of study participants who have died.

Click here for more about Andrea and the other women of Can’t Catch a Break. Also see “Eulogy for Junie”  “Eulogy for Nicole”  “Orange Frosted Hostess Cupcakes (Eulogy of Linda)”   “Eulogy for Elizabeth”

The Women of Can’t Catch a Break: January 2017 Update

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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!”

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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.”

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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 

 

 

Eulogy for “Junie”

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.

The Women of Can’t Catch a Break: Summer 2016 Update

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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.”

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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

Eulogy for Nicole

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”

 

A New Home for Carly

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

http://www.mold-help.org/content/view/420/
Source.

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

Source.

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.”

https://dundeemedstudentnotes.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/pre-eclampsia/
Source.

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.

https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/environmental_justice/resources/guidebook/guidebook01.cfm
Source.

“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

The Women of Can’t Catch a Break: New Years 2016 Update

Click here and here  and here for previous updates. Click here and here for later 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!

Eulogy for Elizabeth, Update

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.