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.

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