Category Archives: Can’t Catch a Break

The Women of Can’t Catch a Break: Late Summer 2015 Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more on Daisy see Outcast Island.

Elizabeth: See Eulogy for Elizabeth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read about Kahtia’s reflections on sex work here.

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

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

 

 

 

 

Prostitution, Decriminalization and the Problem of Consent

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

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

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

The Question of Consent: Context Always Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gazer and the Gazed

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Failure by Design: Isabella’s Experiences with Social “Services”

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


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

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

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

 

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

 

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

homeless-in-storage-unit

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

 

Susan: What’s been going on?

 

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

Trickle DOWN Economics

My friend Tonya, a woman in her late thirties who has lived in poverty for decades, called me today. “I feel like a sponge,” she said. “Everyone’s problems trickle down onto me and I absorb them all.”

Tonya was referring to the term “trickle-down economics.” While she didn’t have the exact definition of trickle-down economic theory in mind (trickle-down economics is the idea that tax breaks and other economic benefits provided to businesses and upper income levels “trickle down” to benefit all members of society), she clearly understood that trickle-down economic policies have not worked for her over the decades in which the gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically.

Trickle-down prosperity is at best “voodoo economics” and at worst a cruel trick played on the majority of the American people. But trickle-down poverty is all-too-true at the level of families and households. Eighty percent of Americans do not have sufficient savings to weather a two month loss of income. For these millions of people, an illness or job loss affecting one member of a household trickles down and out to networks of friends and family shouldering the responsibility to help pay for basic housing and subsistence food.

Poverty also trickles down from generation to generation. Children who experience poverty are more likely than other children to grow up to be poor. Tonya is already keenly aware of this fact. As a young mother, she could not afford housing. She and her daughter lived in shelters, parks, friends’ living rooms, and – for a time – in the stairwells of local universities. Tonya eventually lost custody of her daughter on the grounds of not providing a safe environment for her. Her daughter did not thrive in the years she lived with relatives, a foster family and in institutional settings. Now in her early twenties, she does not have a high school diploma, struggles with reading and writing, and has never held a job. She does, however, have a baby. And just like when she herself was a young child, she is dependent upon other people offering her a place to stay.

Everyone –extended family and social workers alike – expects that Tonya will take the grandbaby. But Tonya, who finally has a stable place to live, is raising a young son of her own and barely scraping by on a few hundred dollars a month of welfare payments. (Full disclosure: I have known her son since the day he was born and can vouch for Tonya’s dedicated parenting and for her son’s unbelievable cuteness!) For a variety of reasons – lack of education, health challenges, bias against out-spoken Black women – she has not been able to keep a steady job. Most recently she was hired to work at a local supermarket for wages that she describes as “high school kid wages” but was fired after a few weeks when she had to call in sick with a throat infection, despite showing her boss a note from her doctor attesting to her infectious health status.

For the past six months Tonya has been stretching her welfare check to help support her daughter, grandchild and a brother who has mental health problems as well as a criminal record that essentially makes him unemployable. She is terrified that the expenses of taking on another person will take away resources that her son needs. There are days when she does not have the money for bus fare so she cannot take her son to school – a sort of trickle-down educational deficit issue that gravely worries her. She also is behind in her rent and in danger of losing her housing, which would likely mean that her son would be taken from her.

I asked her, “Can’t anyone help you out? Can your mother help? Your son’s father?” “No one has any money,” she replied. “We’re all in the same boat. And I’m the one who’s been keeping it going for everyone but there are days when my head is bobbing up and down to get air. I’m near the snapping point; my hair is falling out and I am having nightmares every night. I don’t know why I can’t get ahead. I can’t even catch up. I see people who have the life I want – a job and a house. There’s something wrong with me that I can’t have those things.”

“Tonya,” I told her. “There’s nothing wrong with you that a good dose of fair and rational economic policies wouldn’t cure.”

explaintrickledowneconomicssmall

You can read more about Tonya here: Sex, race and prison’s violent double standard: Incarcerating men hurts women, too

Orange Frosted Hostess Cupcakes

feature image from Steven Brisson

Maureen Norton-Hawk, co-author of Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility, recently learned that  a participant in our project with poor and criminalized  women has been murdered. Linda’s remains were found  a few days ago in a wooded area near Boston. In light of this sad news, I’ve published a bit of the pertinent article from the local news station, WCVB, followed by Maureen’s heartfelt eulogy. We only wish that as much effort had been put into finding her a home while she was alive as has now been put into identifying her bones.


BROCKTON, Mass. Jan. 7, 2015 —The second set of human remains found in a wooded area in Brockton have been identified, Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said Wednesday. Cruz said the remains were that of Linda Schufeldt, 51, of Quincy.

Eulogy for Linda

by Maureen Norton-Hawk

You could hear her before she ever arrived at my office door. She was always talking rapidly at least one or two octaves above normal. Plopping down on the office chair she would reach into her rolling suitcase that was her constant companion and pull out a package of orange frosted Hostess cupcakes. With a grin she would hand the confectionary to me as she knew that I had a soft spot for them. I never asked how she, as a poor and often homeless woman, could and would give so generously. But that was Linda.

Given her history, one might expect an angry bitter vengeful woman who had been beaten up by life one time too many. Instead of anger, she was an unusually happy, smiling and trusting person who, because of these traits, often found herself exploited or abused. Each time she was victimized she would pick herself up and start again.

It appears that she was brutally murdered. She did not deserve to die this way. As importantly, she did not deserve to live the way that she had to live. In addition to fighting her own personal struggles, she was faced with well-intentioned agencies that always fell short of what she needed. So she would start down the long road to recovery, fail when support was withdrawn or when she did not live up to the formal regulations and then have to start again. At least you don’t have to struggle anymore Linda. Rest in peace.

The Women of Can’t Catch a Break – Christmas 2014 Updates

This is the second “Reader’s Guide to Updates” on the women of Can’t Catch a Break. (Click here for the previous update.) Not all of the conversations, observations and anecdotes that I’ve posted here are profound, but I post them to help all of us (my readers as well as myself) remember that these women are real, multi-faceted people who, like us, face challenges both trivial and great, and who, like us, respond to those challenges in a variety of (often inconsistent) ways.

This post centers on their experiences around the Christmas 2014 holiday season. For many Americans, holidays present economic and interpersonal challenges. For poor, marginalized, ill, criminalized and homeless Americans those challenges are magnified. How can one afford to buy gifts when living on a monthly $700 SSI check? How can one put on the kind of family Christmas celebrations that television and movies show (incessantly!) when one doesn’t even have a home, or when one has lost custody of her children, or even worse – when one is sitting in jail or in a closed rehab facility?

But it’s not all bad news. The holidays can also bring out the best in people. Several women of Can’t Catch a Break received donations of toys to give their children — toys donated by generous strangers. One woman celebrated with her children for the first time in a decade. And one woman cooked her first Christmas dinner ever with a group of new friends. Continue reading The Women of Can’t Catch a Break – Christmas 2014 Updates

Video: Can’t Catch a Break

My colleague Maureen Norton-Hawk and I recently had an opportunity to speak about our book Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the the Limits of Personal Responsibility at a book launch at Suffolk University.

This link will take you to a four minute segment on our struggles to find an appropriate way to describe the criminalized and marginalized women whose stories we tell in Can’t Catch a Break. In this video we explain why we rejected “criminal” “homeless” and a few other descriptors, and why we decided to go simply with “women.”

This link will take you to the full forty-five minute video that includes a brief reading from the book and well as a few of our funny and not-so-funny experiences as researchers.

Eulogy for Elizabeth

This was a hard week. Threatened with a 60 year prison sentence for firing a warning shot in the presence of her chronically abusive husband, Marissa Alexander agreed to a plea “bargain.” She’ll spend another 65 days in jail, on top of the 1,030 days she’s already been locked up.

Two days earlier, my friend Elizabeth was murdered by a man against whom she had taken out a restraining order. Francesca, a mutual friend, commented when she heard about Elizabeth: “The courts don’t realize that a piece of paper doesn’t save you. It’s exactly what it is — a piece of paper.”

Elizabeth (a pseudonym) was one a group of women I first met more than six years ago as part of a long-term project aimed at understanding the daily lives of Boston-area women who have been criminalized, marginalized and abused. Not always easy to be around, Elizabeth frequently wept from the pain in her life – the death of her sister and of her boyfriend, ten years of homelessness, numerous assaults, rape, struggles with alcohol and depression, a broken collarbone and shoulder that had not healed properly. But at unexpected moments she’d look up from her wad of tissues and, cracking a grin, poke fun at her own propensity to break into tears not only when sad but also when someone did something nice for her. Like buying her a cup of coffee. Or saying “Happy Birthday.” Or remembering that she once won a beauty contest. Or praising her generosity in sharing a cigarette or a dollar with someone who had even less than she had. Or giving her the mass transit pass to which she was entitled for participating in the project. “You are so nice to me and I don’t deserve it. I’m a whack job,” Elizabeth would tell me on a regular basis.  Continue reading Eulogy for Elizabeth

Updates on the Women of Can’t Catch a Break

The publication of Can’t Catch a Break is not the end of the stories of the women whose life experiences are described in the book. We continue to spend time with some of the women and as we do we learn more about their lives – both the challenges they face and the strategies they use to address those challenges. It is important for us to convey to readers that these women are not “objects of inquiry” but real human beings who, like all of us, change their attitudes and their circumstances over periods of years, months and even days.

This page is a “Reader’s Guide to Updates” on the women whom you have come to know through the book. In some instances we’ve written full-fledged blog entries about issues that their experiences illuminate. In other cases we’ve simply added a few sentences under their names. All names are pseudonyms.

Please check back – we will continue to post updates!

Andrea: Andrea is settled in a studio apartment, but – much to her annoyance — her boyfriend has moved in with her. According to Andrea he is “too proud” to sign up for housing or food stamps.

Ashley: Ashley has a steady job (though she is underpaid and overworked), a nice apartment, and a lovely boyfriend. Unfortunately she was hit by a car about a year ago and is still struggling with severe back pain, as well as with doctors who too liberally prescribe pain meds for her.

Carly: Carly has lost a great deal of weight, remains involved in her church, and still cannot land a job.

Elizabeth: After ten years, Elizabeth finally has her own apartment. She feels safe for the first time in years and is trying to put her life back together. Sadly, her father passed away this year. Her brother, her closest living relative, seems to have inherited her father’s property and he has taken out a restraining order against Elizabeth. Caste Away: Mass Incarceration and the Hardening of Economic Inequality

November 2014: Elizabeth was beaten to death, on her own living room couch, by a man against whom she had taken out a restraining order. The man who killed her currently is being held on $500,000 bail.

Francesca: Over the past two years Francesca has moved in with and away from Joey several times. She returns because she needs a place to live. She leaves because Joey is verbally abusive. She remains deeply involved with her sons and her granddaughters, and posts frequent pictures of her granddaughters playing with her and their fathers. Yesterday (October 2014) I met Francesca at her new place: a one bedroom apartment she is sharing with her man [not Joey!], a friend’s daughter and the daughter’s girlfriend, and a another young woman. She is thrilled that her name is on the lease so she is not at the whim of the official tenants, but the place is really, really crowded. But the bigger news (for me!) is that I had the honor of sitting with her while she read the Introduction and Chapter 1 of Can’t Catch a Break. She is the “star” of both of these sections — and she LOVES the book and told me that “you got it.” She laughed at the changes I made to her name and certain identifying characteristics (for the sake of preserving her anonymity in the book) reminded me that we’re planning to write something together on the absurdity of young women straight out of college who work for Children’s Services being able to tell experienced moms like her what they have to do. For Francesca, reading the book was a bit of a walk down memory lane. For me, seeing and hearing her reactions are the most important validation of my work that I could ever hope to get.  White Women, Opiates and Prison

Ginger: Ginger’s beloved mother passed away several months ago. As soon as her outstanding court case is settled (see The New Price of Freedom: $40 (Bail Blog #2) | The Courtroom was a Circus: Bail Blog #3 – $190 and Counting) she will move out of state to live with her brother, his wife and their toddler.

Gloria: Sex, race and prison’s violent double standard: Incarcerating men hurts women, too

Isabella: Isabella is happily married to the man with whom she became involved after she left Reese. They are both on methadone maintenance and out of jail. Neither has a job.

Joy: Joy continues to cycle through jail, detox, psychiatric wards and the streets. She recently told me that she doesn’t expect that she’ll survive much longer. Guilty Until Proven Innocent | Suicide is Painful  | Suicide is Painful, Update

Junie: Junie’s health has severely deteriorated. The last time I saw her she was in respite care. I have not been able to contact her for several months.

Kahtia: On the outside, things look great. She and Enrique are still together, they have their own apartment, and the children are holding their own. On the inside, things are not so good. She has been severely depressed and anxious, and feels that “my life is falling apart.” Over the past year she has had half a dozen health emergencies. Today she told me that the doctor is sending her for a CT scan because “I can’t remember anything, where I put things. I can’t find my medicine. I can’t find my daughter’s shoes in the morning and so she’s late for school. She’s in the best school around here and I’m afraid they won’t let her stay in this school.”

Megan: Megan has been in and out of jail and the hospital. She is no longer able to care for her children.

Melanie: Civil Commitment: If You Build It They Will Come

Tonya: Sex, race and prison’s violent double standard: Incarcerating men hurts women, too

Vanessa: I speak to her on the phone but haven’t seen her for a while. She was living in a rooming house but her room was infested with bugs. She had to throw away all of her clothes and furniture when she moved to another rooming house.

 

Can’t Catch a Break

9780520282780_SeredOur new book Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs and the Limits of Personal Responsibility is now available through University of California Press, Amazon and other bookstores.

The book presents the work Maureen Norton-Hawk and I have been doing for the past six years following the experiences of a group of women post-incarceration in Massachusetts. Through interviews and ethnographic fieldwork we accompanied the women as they navigated a variety of programs, services and life events.Most of the book is made up of the women’s stories and how their stories evolved over time.

Each chapter focuses on a particular woman as she moves among  home, the streets, rehabilitation programs, correctional institutions, hospitals, clinics and shelters; among happy, sad, abusive and deeply caring relationships with friends, family and romantic partners; and among churches, Twelve Step groups, therapists and therapeutic treatment of various sorts.

We remain in touch with some of the women. You can read about their recent experiences here.

Here is an excerpt from the Introduction:

“The majority of the forty-seven of the women we first met in 2008 began their lives in working class families. Most were sexually abused as children. Nearly all witnessed their mothers’ being beat on or yelled at by husbands or boyfriends. Several women became addicts through prescribed pain or anxiety medication in the wake of an illness, injury or a botched medical procedure. In their twenties most scraped by in the unstable occupational sectors of the working poor: food service and nursing homes, and raised their young children with sporadic financial contributions of male partners and public assistance. Poor health eventually made it impossible for nearly all of the women to hold down jobs, leading to homelessness and vulnerability to violence and exploitation. Several remember pleasant childhoods with strong and positive family relations, but found their lives spiraling downward as adults when in a period of a few years their parents died and they could not afford to keep up the rent or mortgage payments. Almost all of the project participants have used drugs, in their words, “to numb myself” – particularly in the context of engaging in sex work in order to feed themselves and their children.

“All of the project women have been incarcerated, typically for a few months at a time and typically for prostitution, shoplifting (often of small cosmetic items), possession of small amounts of drugs, accessory in a crime committed by a boyfriend or husband, in several cases public drunkenness, and – most frequently – violation of the terms of probation or parole associated with a minor charge. (Only one of the forty-seven women in the project was incarcerated for a crime against another person.) Incarceration leads to loss of custody of, and often loss of contact with, their children. Coming out of prison with no money, no home, their children gone, and a criminal record that makes them unemployable, the women became dependent upon men, public services and the underground economy.”

“Over the past five years we have seen the same women sober and high, homeless and housed, employed and unemployed, in a supportive relationship and abused by a boyfriend, enthusiastically attending church and stigmatized by church members, involved on a daily basis with their children and out of the children’s lives, sick and healthy, happy and despondent. Sometimes they tell us how well things are going: perhaps they finally got housing, a kind boyfriend, sobriety, charges dropped, health care, surgery, better medication, food stamps, visits with children, a part-time job, a wonderful new caseworker, or reconciliation with estranged family members. We have learned over the years that how well things are going one month or one year is unlikely to predict how things will go later down the line. An individual sometimes will look and sound and act like a poster child for the category “working poor” as it was used during the Clinton administration: A worthy, productive, hardworking soul who with a bit of help will climb the rungs of America’s economic ladder. The same woman a year earlier or a year later will look and sound and act strung out, down and out, “shit out of luck” – the unworthy, unproductive “welfare queen” or “crack whore” who cares more about dope than about jobs or her children. That these transitions are so commonplace suggests to us that the line between scraping by and not scraping by has become exceedingly fragile in contemporary America.”

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 1:

When Francesca came bursting onto the scene at the drop-in center for poor and homeless women she brought a quick spark of energy into the circle of worn-out faces and worn-down bodies slumped in armchairs, nodding off while watching the Jerry Springer show and waiting for the shelters to re-open at 4:00. Outspoken, energetic and full of plans, she declared how terrible it is that Boston’s “Mayor Menino stands by while so many people have to live on the street.” With a few tosses of her long, shiny hair, Francesca announced her dream of opening and running a facility that “welcomes everyone.” Five minutes later she swept out the door into the August heat with a promise to “buy Pepsi for everybody,” and Ginger resumed her desultory search through a pile of donated toiletries, Elizabeth carried on weeping into a handful of tissues and Vanessa went back to scratching her arm and poking around in the trash in hopes of finding a cigarette stub long enough to take outside and light up.

A week later Francesca returned to the women’s center. Flashing her brand-new bright turquoise acrylic nail extensions, she pulled a sequined mini-dress and a pair of 1960s style “go-go” boots out of a bag. With the recession of 2007 shutting down employment opportunities for undereducated and unskilled workers, she had taken one of the few jobs she could get — waitressing and dancing at a local strip club. Thrilled with the clothes and even more thrilled with the admiration from the male patrons, she was nevertheless firm that she would not have sex with the customers — she wouldn’t even let them kiss her on the cheek. But by late fall her situation became tense. At the club, she said, “the owners expect the girls to have sex for money.” As time went on, she began going out on “dates” and drinking more heavily as a way to put up with the pressures of the men at the club. “It is starting to get out of control.”

Just a few months later Francesca injured a ligament in her leg. Unable to go on dancing, she was fired on the spot. Initiating what would become our routine over the next five years, Francesca called us. We picked her up a block away from the club and drove her to the apartment of an old boyfriend who was willing to let her stay with him at night but would not give her a key or allow her to stay in the apartment by herself during the day. Now a regular at the women’s drop-in center, she maintained her outward tough “I don’t take crap from anyone” style but began to confide to us that she felt afraid and vulnerable. “All I do is walk around all day – I have no place to go.” Her arthritis had become increasingly painful (the joints in her fingers looked miserably swollen) and “I have a pain in my throat that my doctor thinks might be throat cancer. My father died of cancer.” Often on the verge of tears, she even considered suicide. “I just can’t catch a break anywhere.”

Here is the Table of Contents:

1. “Joey Spit on Me”: How Gender Inequality and Sexual Violence Make Women Sick
2. “Nowhere to Go”: Poverty, Homelessness, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility
3. “The Little Rock of the North”: Race, Gender, Class, and the Consequences of Mass Incarceration
4. Suffer the Women: Pain and Perfection in a Medicalized World
5. “It’s All in My Head”: Suffering, PTSD, and the Triumph of the Therapeutic
6. Higher Powers: The Unholy Alliance of Religion, Self-Help Ideology, and the State
7. “Suffer the Children”: Fostering the Caste of the Ill and Afflicted
8. Gender, Drugs, and Jail: “A System Designed for Us to Fail”
Conclusion: The Real Questions and a Blueprint for Moving Forward

Here is a review from Publisher’s Weekly:

In this passionate, deeply researched study, Suffolk University sociologists Sered and Norton-Hawk argue that prisons have “become the way that America deals with human suffering,” especially the suffering of women, who are being incarcerated at ever higher numbers. The authors, who closely studied 47 formerly incarcerated women in the Boston area for 5 years, examine both how women land in prison and how fragile their lives are after release. They discuss the inarguable connections between being abused and getting arrested. Reaganomics and welfare reform, Sered and Norton-Hawk argue, have had disastrous consequences for these women, both before and after incarceration. In particular, lack of stable housing makes women who have been imprisoned more dependent on men. In the study’s most original chapter, the authors argue that the therapeutic and mental health services available to the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, rather than directing attention to how society has stacked the deck against marginal women and suggesting political solutions, teach that people’s problems are the result of their own unhealed trauma. This compelling and important book deserves to be widely read.

Here is a short article about the gorgeous painting on the cover of the book:

Judging a Book by Its Cover: Color Drenched Acts of Resistance

by Caitlin O’Hara

Can’t Catch a Break, published this month, is a brilliant book that teases out the nuanced relationship between gender, drugs, and jail in many women’s lives.

We asked coauthor Susan Starr Sered the story behind the cover image, which features an abstract image of bold colored stripes, dripping paint, and few hints as to how to contextualize what we’re seeing.

In an email, Susan describes her search in vain for appropriate images dealing with women and prison. The results depicted literal prison imagery that didn’t capture the range of experiences of the women her book profiles, or “disgustingly voyeuristic male-fantasy pornography.”

And then she came upon “this gorgeous image.” The piece is part of an installation by artist Markus Linnenbrink, at the JVA/Prison in Düsseldorf, in a 132 ft long underground tunnel that connects its security check to the visitors’ area. The artist explains that the JVA prison is considered “a model institution and has been designed to deal with security and humanity as best as possible, thus the desire for a unique approach [to its visitor entrance].” You can find more images and information about the project at this Colossal profile.

“It’s hard for me to describe why this image struck me so forcefully,” Sered writes. “Perhaps the vertical lines look like bars made out of women’s make-up and nail polish. The color dripping down from the horizontal stripes looks as if it’s weeping. The ambitious horizontal stripes decaying down into drips on the wall evoke, for me, the mess that’s come of the good intentions behind trying to cut down on crime, drug use and so on. And finally, people in prison spend so much time with nothing to do but stare at blank walls, so I love imagining those walls as color drenched acts of resistance.”

And with that, Sered cuts to the heart with precision, as she does so often throughout the book. Beyond interpretations of line, color, drip, and context, what captivates is the image’s undefinable power: inviting yet defiant; strong despite, and owing to, its imperfections. Just like the women this book profiles.

And follow this link to the “Page 99 test” discussion of Can’t Catch a Break. “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”