Category Archives: Housing

Housing Tribulations: Still Can’t Catch a Break, January 2018

Over the past decade I have witnessed homeless and criminalized women enter and move through middle age. While they articulate ever greater understandings of their own life histories and circumstances, they remain trapped by policies and prejudices that prevent even the brightest and most highly motivated from catching a break.  Over time they increasingly express fatigue; they become less able to manage the physical tribulations of poverty and homelessness. And unlike those of us blessed by good fortune, they become pessimistic about their chances of ever being able to lead the secure, fulfilling lives that they (like all of us) desire.

Ginger’s Housing Saga

Ginger is a vivacious, fun-loving, socially astute and faithful friend who  invests in nurturing relationships with the people she knows (including me). She also is a trans woman who has struggled to survive since her early teens in one of the most conservative neighborhoods in Boston. She turned 46 this month.

Back in April 2017 Ginger received a voucher for housing (Section VIII). As I wrote in a previous update, she was ecstatic at the prospect of having her own home after decades of homelessness. But the two dedicated advocates at the excellent agencies helping her with housing were not able to locate an apartment that is within her allotted budget, passes necessary inspections, and has a landlord willing to rent to tenants whose (full market value) rent is paid via  Section VIII.

Throughout the Fall of 2017 she stayed with various friends who lived in rooming houses in which they are not allowed to have overnight guests. Typically she would sneak into her friend’s room for a couple of days, get caught, be back out on the streets, and then cycle to another friend. Each time I saw her she looked tired and told me that she felt that she had changed – that she had become “moody.” 

Ginger told me recently that she regretted that when there was a choice between getting on the list for an apartment or on the list for a room in a rooming house she chose the apartment. “If I had chosen the room I’d have one by now. But I don’t want a room – I want an apartment where I have my own bathroom and my own things.” (The issue of having to choose between the list for an apartment and the list for a room has long struck me as a particularly ridiculous requirement.  It sets folks up for blaming themselves for making the “wrong” choice when in fact they have no control over the situation.) Ginger told me, that “I have been patient and so has my housing advocate.” But I could see her patience beginning to wear thin.

Ginger at the Homeless Shelter

Her housing advocate advised her to go to one of the homeless shelters in Boston.

Homeless Shelter in Mansfield, MA.

Ginger did, “but the girls there were nasty to me. They tell me I don’t belong because I’m not a real woman.” She decided to leave the shelter both because she didn’t want to put up with the abusive behavior of the other women and “because I didn’t want to get into trouble for fighting.” For someone who has lived much of her life on the margins of “normative” society, Ginger is acutely conscious of following the rules, however arbitrary they may be. The shelter offered to pay her bus fare — one way — to go to Florida to stay with her brother but, “I don’t want to risk losing my chance of housing here [in Massachusetts].” Shipping “problematic” homeless or mentally ill off to other states, is, unfortunately, a national trend. The last time Ginger tried the “geographic cure” by going to Florida she was raped and ended up homeless, broke and finally eating out of garbage cans.

At the Psychiatric Hospital

In November she called me from the back of an ambulance taking her from a large Boston hospital to a psychiatric hospital outside the city. “It all became too much: being homeless, my mother being gone (dead), my housing situation, everything.” After getting into an argument with a relative with whom she had been staying for a few days, “I grabbed every pill I could find and ran out and started popping them. I got on the bus and by the time I got to [the hospital] I was woozy.” At the hospital she told the nurses that she had tried to kill herself. Ginger and I have discussed this numerous times and it’s still not clear to me whether she actually tried to kill herself or whether this was a last ditch attempt to get a safe place to stay. I’m not sure that Ginger herself knows either. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. The real point is her utter despair.

The psychiatric hospital is located on a lovely campus that cannot be reached by public transportation. As a consequence, none of her friends could come visit her or bring her a change of clothes.  With my daughter’s permission I brought some of her clothes to Ginger (my daughter, a young adult, was delighted.) Ginger promised me that, “I won’t do anything in the clothes that your daughter wouldn’t approve of!”

I was able to spend time with Ginger each week during visiting hours. She liked the hospital, especially the daily organized walks outside on the campus. But she felt “disappointed in myself that I’m here after twenty-five years of being okay.” In fact, the last time she had been in a psychiatric hospital she was a teen-ager grappling with her identity as a trans woman. When her family learned that their child whom they had raised as a son had come to identify as a girl, “The priest came and threw holy water on me – an exorcism – and I went crazy. That’s why I was sent here.”

McLean Hospital, Belmont Massachusetts

The staff told us that Ginger is “a model patient.” She was scrupulous about following all of the many rules of attending group therapy, participating in “constructive activities” such as decorating little cardboard boxes with red and green glitter for Christmas, being supportive of other patients, and learning to “use my DBT” (the Dialectical Behavior Therapy approach used at the hospital at this time.) It was easy to see that Ginger was a staff favorite – she joked around with the nurses, complimented staff members on their clothes and hair, and willingly ran errands for other patients.

After a month or so she earned the privilege of going off-campus with an approved visitor. Together, we went out for coffee, to a thrift store and to the local supermarket where she used a big chunk of her Social Security (SSI) check to purchase two mega bags of assorted smaller bags of chips, a large tray of mini cupcakes, two large trays of Christmas cookies, and a packet of coffee. With the exception of the coffee, all of the purchases were intended as gifts for staff or patients at the hospital.

On the way back to the hospital she told me that “this was the best day ever,” and I think she really meant it. Quite simply, she was delighted to be out and about, to be with someone who cares for her and could take her in the car to places she wanted to go. She particularly emphasized how happy she was that she could buy things for other people. The chips were for another patient in her unit who has three small kids and whose kids love Doritos. The cupcakes were for the staff. The cookies for the patients. “It feels so good to do things for other people. It makes me feel “good about me that I am buying these things for other people.”

Ginger at Respite Care

As the weeks went on the problem of what to do with her took center stage. The excellent psychiatric staff did not want to release her to homelessness, but they didn’t have a valid medical reason to keep her in the hospital. They were able to extend her stay through Christmas and New Year, and then arranged to send her by ambulance to a respite care facility for homeless people in Boston.

Boston Health Care for the Homeless is a superb organization that provides first rate services for many people in the Boston area. Without the Barbara McGinnis House

Barbara McInnis House

respite care facility, folks would be on the streets the day after surgery, managing complicated medical care, with broken legs and hips, and while declining during terminal illnesses. (I urge readers to consider donating to this wonderful organization.)

 

However, Ginger does not belong in a medical facility. Her challenge is housing, not disease. She does not need complicated medical treatments nor does she need to spend time resting in bed. She needs housing. And while she (and I) are relieved that she has a safe place to stay while waiting for some sort of housing solution to come through, her stay at the respite facility bears a bit too much of a resemblance to being in jail. Like other patients, she is not allowed out of the facility except for documented medical appointment to which she must be accompanied by an approved caregiver. She cannot have any outside food; upon arrival she had to discard the remaining cupcakes and Doritos that she hoped to be able to share with a new set of staff and patients. She is only allowed visitors for a couple of hours, several days a week. The floor she is on is kept locked. And while Ginger rarely complains about rules (even ones that seem egregious to me), she called me up today to ask if I could bring her soap. She has been using the soap dispensers in the facility and her skin has become so dry that it is pealing. She has money to buy better soap but she is not allowed out to do so. (Ironically, soap — at ridiculously marked-up prices — is available for purchase in prisons in Massachusetts.)

When I went to visit her today I found three armed guards at the entrance to the facility (that’s normal) and had to go through a security check in order for a guard to unlock the elevator for me to go up to see Ginger.

What’s Next?

I don’t know. Neither does Ginger. Her housing advocate took her to look at an apartment yesterday, but it has to pass inspection which will take at least two weeks. She has moved up to the top of a list for a studio apartment down the street from the facility where she currently is staying. Apparently, she told me today, she possibly could have been accepted into this building a few months ago but it turns out that her two housing advocates were not communicating with one another (despite Ginger’s repeated efforts to get them to talk.) One of these options may work out. Or not. Neither Ginger nor I feel as optimistic as we did when she received her housing voucher nearly a year ago.

What I’ve Learned from Ginger

I often feel furious when I hear that the homeless shelter offered to pay for a one way ticket to Florida. Or when I hear that the housing authorities took so long to inspect an apartment that the landlord changed his mind about renting it to someone with a housing voucher. Or that the emergency room doctors sent to a mental hospital a woman I know to be quite sane. Or that the psychiatrists sent her to a locked respite care facility because they didn’t know what else to do with her.

But Ginger rarely gets angry at the people she sees as doing their best to help her. I have never heard her blame a doctor, nurse, social worker, case worker, therapist, housing advocate or even judge or law enforcement officer for the miseries she has endured for thirty years. Ginger may not have taken any Sociology courses (she barely made it through a year or two of high school) but she understands that all of these folks have their hands tied by the same institutional structures, public policies, and correctional and welfare systems that have sent her from pillar to post since she was a teen-ager. She truly believes that the people she encounters in the system are well-intentioned, are doing the best they can given insufficient funding and irrational rules. And I have witnessed time and again that these people really like her and want to help her. What I’ve learned from Ginger is that it’s not just homeless women who can’t catch a break, neither can the overwhelmingly good-hearted people who work in the institutions that have failed her for a third of a century.

Postscript

As I finished writing this article I saw that the U.S. Conference of Mayors has selected Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh as chair of the council’s committee on housing.  This honor is in recognition of the priority he has placed on creating affordable housing: “Since Walsh took office in 2014, some 13,551 new units of housing have been completed, and an additional 8,412 units are under construction. The administration has committed more than $100 million in funding toward the creation and preservation of affordable housing,,” according to the Boston Business JournalMayor Walsh also has called for restrictions on short-term web-based rental (air bnb and the like) that squeeze low-income renters out of the market. All of this sounds promising but as Ginger has learned, when dealing with housing you must not count your chickens before they hatch (or before there is a home for them to settle in to roost.)

Ginger’s tribulations are not unique. Read about Carly’s experiences with housing here.

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!”

————————————–

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

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

————————————–

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

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

————————————–

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

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

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

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

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

————————————–

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

————————————–

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

————————————–

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————————–

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

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

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

————————————–

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

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

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

————————————–

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

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

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

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

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

————————————–

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

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

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

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

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

————————————–

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

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

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

 

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

For more on volunteering see: Concrete Suggestions for Positive Change

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