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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

For more on volunteering see: Concrete Suggestions for Positive Change

Christmas House Decorations wallpapers

Maybe it’s because of the bitterly cold temperatures at night this week, or maybe it’s my own visceral response to overdosing on television shows with happy family Christmas scenes and neighborhood holiday lighting competitions, but I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently to how housing and homes impact health.

About a decade ago I traveled to the Mississippi Delta, Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, south-central Illinois, the mountains of northern Idaho and the cities of eastern Massachusetts to speak with individuals and families scraping by without health insurance. Most of these people worked in construction, retail, agricultural or service jobs. The details varied, but across the country I heard about spiraling poor health, declining employability and growing poverty. In 2015 I made return trips to check in with the people I’d met ten years earlier.[i] While I was able to locate nearly all of the original interviewees who owned their homes (including very modest homes of immigrants in colonias in the Rio Grande Valley), I only located a minority of the renters. Typically, their original phone numbers were disconnected and original addresses belonged to subsequent tenants. When I knocked on neighbors’ doors the most common response was, “I don’t know [so-and-so]. I’ve only lived here for a few months myself.”

In previous posts I’ve written about marginalized Boston-area women who cycle through shelters, jails and the streets. In those contexts the “problem of homelessness” is relatively easy to see and define – all I had to do was visit shelters or walk through the public parks in which people without homes congregate during the day. But for me, it took weeks of trudging through muddy housing developments on the outskirts of Mississippi towns and knocking on doors in public housing complexes in a central Illinois cities to get a glimpse of the lives of those less visible Americans who generally manage to rent housing of some sort for periods of time but teeter on a financial edge that keeps them moving from place to place.

Unfinished housing project at 47-04 198th St. in Auburndale stands abandoned for several years.

On my 2015 reprise tour I looked for a total of 145 people in five states and was able to locate 98 of them. The missing people were not evenly distributed either geographically or by race. In Mississippi, the state that consistently has the poorest health profile in the country, I managed to locate only 11 of the 28 people whom I sought. The utter disappearance of 17 of 28 people did not surprise one local healthcare advocate (he asked to remain anonymous): “People move away to Birmingham or Tupelo to look for work. There is very little home ownership in Mississippi. The common thing is ‘lease to own’ in which a developer arranges for people to ‘lease’ (pay rent) and after 20 years they have an option to buy – to switch the rent to a mortgage. But people almost never make it to the 20 years so the developers keep leasing the same houses over.” Many of these houses would not pass even the most cursory safety inspection in other states.

I was able to locate 70 out of 88 white people I’d originally interviewed and 21 of 28 Latinos / Latinas (mostly in the Rio Grande Valley), but I only found 10 of 29 African Americans. This is consistent with national patterns. According to the US Census, the homeownership rate for the fourth quarter 2014 for non-Hispanic White householders was highest at 72 percent. The rate for All Other Races householders was 55 percent. And for Black householders it was only 42 percent. According to researchers Gregory Sharp and Matthew Hall, “The 1968 passage of the Fair Housing Act outlawed housing market discrimination based on race. …  However, emerging racial disparities over the next three decades resulted in black owners who bought their homes in the 2000s being 50 percent more likely to lose their homeowner status than similar white owners.” Even after adjusting for socio-economic characteristics, debt loads, education, and life-cycle traits like divorce or job loss, blacks were more likely to lose their homes than whites.”

Shanice’s Story

I first met Shanice in 2003 at one of the larger Black churches in Decatur, IL – a church known for its strong fellowship and advocacy on behalf of the community. She was happy to share her story with me:

“When I was 18 I worked a job, it was right after coming out of high school. No insurance and they said I wasn’t eligible for Medicaid. My doctor said that I needed to get my tonsils taken out cause they were so swollen it was almost causing me not to be able to breathe. … And so I had to go on like a payment plan with the doctor. … The whole surgery, the surgeon, the day at the hospital and then I had a setback and had to go back into the hospital cost $15,000. During the following year collection agencies called day and night, often making threats. They’d [especially] call on Sunday nights. Said that I would be going to jail if I didn’t pay them.” At age 20, Shanice filed for bankruptcy.

A few years later Shanice gave birth to her daughter. By this time Shanice was working for a storefront loan company that provided health insurance for her, but not for her daughter (she would have had to pay a premium that she could not afford on her salary.) A few years later their statuses reversed: When Illinois expanded Medicaid for children (Kid Care) her daughter became covered but Shanice, having made the decision to go back to school and learn a skill, became uninsured. Shanice was well aware of the risk she was taking was determined to build a better future for herself and her daughter. “It wasn’t just me living this carefree don’t worry about tomorrow life. Now I have someone that was dependent on me so I had to make decisions for the future. … We moved into a nice apartment, we got power, cable, phone and I got a new car.” During that time Shanice began to eat healthier meals and lost over one hundred pounds. In order to pay tuition, “I got Pell grants and student loans.” I asked Shanice how she was able to get credit to buy a car so soon after declaring bankruptcy. “Oh, they go after bankruptcy people like crazy [to sell them stuff]. I was getting credit cards in the mail every night.”

In 2003, after spending time with Shanice and her daughter at the church where they sang in the choirs, participated in groups and clubs that helped them focus on making good decisions, and volunteered helping out the poor in their community, I described Shanice in my notes as “a young woman on the way up.” She was working part-time at her church with youth and looking for her first professional job. “I just completed 1540 hours of cosmetology school and I just graduated last Friday.”

When Shanice and I walked out of the small room where the church choir stored its robes, I asked her if as a cosmetologist she would get health insurance. She answered, “I can get a job but in this field they don’t give insurance. You have to arrange that yourself.”

….

A year or so later I spoke with Shanice again. With a sense of resignation, she told me that medical and credit card debt had piled up and she was preparing to declare bankruptcy a second time.

….

Fast forward twelve years. I returned to the address at which Shanice was living when I initially met her. She had moved on and none of the current neighbors even knew her name. On USSearch I found six other addresses for her and visited each one of them. Two of the addresses did not exist. One was in a decrepit housing project that had been shut down for several years, though some people continued to squat in the apartments. (I was warned that mostly gang members were there and that it wouldn’t be safe for me to go poking around.) One address was in a middle-class, white neighborhood – none of the neighbors whom I could find knew of anyone named Shanice. Two were inhabited by other Black families who had moved in recently. Stopping by her church, I was told that, “Shanice is no longer a member of this church. She’s moved.” No one at the church knew where.

Health and Housing

It’s not hard to understand the devastating health consequences of homelessness. Living on the streets exposes people to cold, rain and assault. Without a home it’s a challenge to eat proper meals, get enough sleep and keep oneself and one’s clothing clean. The stress of not knowing where one can lay one’s head contributes to misuse of drugs and alcohol. And infections of various sorts tend to spread quickly in crowded homeless shelters. Like the people in the shelters, these health consequences are easily identified and counted.

The health consequences of moving around are less immediately visible to the casual eye. But at a community health center in Decatur Illinois, nurse administrators Karen Schneller and Tanya Andricks elaborated on ways in which churn in housing is related to churn in healthcare. Different states and even different counties and towns have different healthcare resources available to residents. Different providers have different medication preferences and treatment protocols so people stop and start treatments. Even with dedicated staff efforts, it is impossible to provide follow-up care for patients who can’t be reached – whose phones are turned off and whose mail is returned “addressee unknown.”

Jenny Trimmell, public health administrator and Melissa Rome, community liaison at the Vermilion County (Illinois) Health Department explained that children like Shanice’s daughter particularly suffer from frequent moves. “When the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago was closed to pave the way for gentrification former residents were offered vouchers by the Housing Authority and promised housing and jobs in towns in central Illinois. But there was not enough housing and not enough jobs, so people go back and forth to Chicago. There was a cultural adjustment for many moving from Chicago to more rural downstate.  People were unaware that services outside of the city of Chicago may be limited, such as access to health care providers; bus services that do not run 24/7, etc.  Everyone is frustrated. The kids are in and out of schools and medical records kept by parents are incomplete or non-existent. It is difficult for the Health Department to determine immunization status for these children and frequently immunization series have to be started over due to the unknown immunization status.” Trimmell and Rome went on to explain that without the kinds of community support children develop when they stay put in one school, “there are high drop-out rates, teen pregnancies and drug use.”

Musings

Getting to know and then losing track of Shanice and others in similar situations has made me more attuned to the health privileges of stable and secure housing. My home allows me to accumulate the material objects that anchor and enhance my life, both in immediate ways by giving me space to store medication and in less tangible ways by grounding me in the photos, books and furnishings that tie me to my past and to the people I love. My home provides a hidey-hole for times when the outside world feels overwhelming. It gives me a familiar bed and private bathroom when I am sick, and a kitchen in which I can cook the food that I want to eat when I want to eat it. My home allows me to cultivate neighbors who can lend a hand at times of need and offers me the space to nurture those special bonds with the family that looks out for my well-being. In my own home I have the power to keep out rats, roaches, mold and the dust and down that I am allergic to. I am not dependent on the vagaries of landlords or property management companies. No less important, my home gives me an address at which I receive and retain the paperwork that helps keep my financial, medical and legal life in order as well as reminders of when and where to exercise my right to vote (yes – for candidates who support legislation that makes my community healthier).

I plan to return to Decatur next week and resume my search for Shanice. Maybe she has found another supportive church community somewhere else in the area. Maybe she finally has her healthcare coverage straightened out. Maybe her daughter has escaped being one of the kids who’s been subjected to multiple rounds of vaccinations. Maybe she’s become the star of her high school marching band or debate team. I hope so.

 

 

[i] In each community I began with the contact information people had given me when we first met. Only a minority still lived at the same address or had the same phone number. Then I turned to phone books, social media, Google and other public-access online search engines, including USSearch that listed multiple address histories for many of the people. In each community, if my initial attempts to make contact failed, I then called on common acquaintances, knocked on doors of neighboring houses, and asked at local grocery stores, libraries and churches.

For more on this project:”The State(s) of the Affordable Care Act”

For more on housing struggles, take a look at this article about “Carly”

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.”

 

 

 

 

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.

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

October 9, 2014 marked the end of an era for Boston’s homeless, ill and marginalized residents when the sole bridge to Long Island was closed after a state inspection declared it too unstable for vehicles. One of several small islands (“Harbor Islands”) of the Massachusetts Bay, Long Island’s geographic separation from the mainland has made it a prime location for isolating social outcasts over the years. In 1882, the City of Boston purchased property on Long Island for an almshouse, a residence for unwed mothers, a chronic disease hospital, a nursing school and a “Home for the Indigent.” In subsequent decades, a treatment center for alcoholics was added. Recently, it’s the site of homeless shelters, Boston Public Health residential facilities and a variety of residential programs for “recovering” addicts and people involved with the Courts.

According to reports in the Boston Globe, the decrepit state of the bridge was well-known to government officials. But it’s been years since the City or State has invested resources in replacing or fundamentally repairing the bridge to the metaphorical “nowhere” of shelters for the homeless and other social undesirables. Reachable only by limited shuttles, Long Island effectively served to keep homeless and sick people out of sight and out of mind for over a century.

Isolated from the mainland, people who stay at the various shelters cannot get to the Island before 2 PM or after 9 PM; once there, they cannot leave after the shuttles are finished running for the day; and (except on rare occasions such as blizzards) shelter residents must depart the Island no later than by the 9 AM mainland-bound shuttle.

Elizabeth, a woman who has navigated what she calls “the homeless life” for ten years explains, “Everyone knew the bridge was dangerous. I always went on the bus [that crosses the bridge to the shelter] with my heart in my throat and just prayed to God that we’d get across. But I had nowhere else to go.” Francesca, insecurely housed for nearly as long as Elizabeth, declares, “I hate that bridge. I always felt that if it went, I’m gonna be swimming with the fishes.” Continue reading

freeimage-4692086-webYou can read more on the problems of the bail system here: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Last Saturday evening I woman I’ve come to know – I’ll call her Ginger — called me up in tears. She was at the police station in my suburban home town and she needed $40 (cash only) for bail. Homeless and disabled since her teenage years, she didn’t know anyone who had money or a car to drive to the suburban station. Feeling desperate, she called me, explaining that because of the long Memorial Day weekend she would be held in jail until Tuesday if she couldn’t come up with bail.

At the station a cordial police offer asked to see the cash and then told me to sit and relax on chairs in the station vestibule while waiting for the clerk to come. After about an hour the clerk arrived and, still in the vestibule, I handed over the $40 in a transaction that seemed weirdly informal. (I’ve never bailed anyone out before, but this is not what expected from years of watching Law and Order.) Half an hour later the police officer beckoned me to come inside and said, “There’s a problem.” It turns out that my friend didn’t have any identification on her so there was no way of knowing if Ginger was indeed Ginger. He asked if I could vouch for Ginger. I said yes. He asked how I know Ginger. I said I’m a Suffolk University professor and that for the past six years Ginger has been in a study I’ve been conducting among homeless and criminalized women. He jotted a few words down on a piece of scrap paper and then asked if there are other ways I can verify Ginger’s identity. Puzzled that my university credentials and a six year relationship were not sufficient, I managed to come up with that I was introduced to Ginger by a caseworker at a Boston shelter.

That seemed to do the trick and ten minutes later Ginger emerged from jail. She was shaking. My first thought was that it was a bit chilly out so I gave her my jacket, but she continued trembling so hard that she was unable to walk or talk. For a few minutes I couldn’t figure out why she was so upset. Ginger had been arrested before, she knew the drill, and all in all this suburban police station was relatively pleasant. Then, I looked at the paperwork she had in her hand and realized (part of) what was going on: The form telling her to come to Court on Tuesday morning listed her name as George. Though I knew that what she calls her “government name” is George, I’d forgotten how frightening it is for her to be “George” inside of a jail.

How It All Started

Born into one of the working-class Irish neighborhoods in the 1970s, Ginger knew, in her words, that “I was not a regular boy” since age five or six. Like many children who are different from their peers, George was the target of abuse. In neighborhoods like hers people who broke the gender code were beaten up. Ginger recalls that her mother’s house was repeatedly spray painted with the word “faggot,” rocks were thrown through the window, and her family was threatened with violence and ostracism. When she was thirteen, her stepfather, who also beat her mother, molested her. After a few stints in psychiatric hospitals where she was treated for PTSD, her psychiatrists signed the documentation for her to be classified as meeting Social Security’s criteria for disability (SSI) when she was fifteen. After a few particularly horrific attacks she left home in order to protect her family from further violence. She had heard that New York is the place to be “for girls like me,” and so that is where she headed. Young and petite, Ginger quickly found a job in a drag show, was introduced to crack, and started working the streets.

Like Ginger, many transgender women are forced to leave school in the wake of abuse and find it difficult to obtain employment in a society that often is not comfortable with gender diversity. Close to two thirds of transgender women having a history of incarceration, and transgender women are so frequently perceived to be sex workers by the police that the term ‘walking while trans’ was coined. Open and even chatty about almost all parts of her life, Ginger never talks about her experiences in men’s prisons. However, according to national studies over half of LGBT prisoners report having been sexually assaulted in prison – a rate 15 times higher than the general population. In the hypermasculine cauldrons that are men’s prisons, transgender women are particularly likely to be targets of rape. The night I picked Ginger up at the police station her trembling body gave proof to the terror and pain she had experienced in the past.

As Ginger and I sat in my car with the heater blasting she smoked a few cigarettes, the focus came back into her eyes, her slim body quieted down, and eventually she was able to tell me what happened.

After years of homelessness she had been placed by her caseworker into a room in a long-term shelter for men where she shares the bathrooms, kitchen and living room with approximately twenty men, some of whom have lived there for over a decade. Her caseworker told her that if she stays in the shelter, pays her rent on time and doesn’t make any trouble she’ll likely be eligible for a low-income apartment in two years or so.

On the night before the visit to the police station Ginger had made popcorn in the microwave in the communal kitchen. It burned and set off a fire alarm. On Saturday evening a shelter resident who had been harassing her since she moved in (for example, he often stands outside the bathroom and takes pictures of her coming out of the shower) burst into the living room and started screaming at her for waking him up the previous night. “He said he’s going to smash my head, ‘yours and your nigger boyfriend.’” (Ginger is white, her boyfriend is African American. He does not live at the shelter.) As the tirade went on Ginger did two things: She spit at him and she called the police because of the threats he had made.

Listening to Ginger’s account of the evening, I struggled with understanding why she called the police. Quite a few of the homeless and criminalized women I know have been locked up in the wake of turning to the police for help. In this era of mass criminalization, it is not uncommon for women (and men) to have outstanding warrants for a variety of technical reasons. Elizabeth, a rather weepy middle-aged woman whom both Ginger and I know, called the police because a motel she stayed at for a few nights wouldn’t return her room deposit ($50) in a timely manner. When the police came they looked at her ID, saw she owed court fees, and put her in jail for three days over a long weekend.

Aware that both of us know how often this sort of thing occurs – especially to homeless and to transgender people, as well as to sex workers and people of color – I asked her why she called the police. She was truly afraid for herself and for her boyfriend, she said, and she assumed that threatening to smash someone’s head is illegal. However, as it turns out, she explained, when the police came they told her that threatening is not against the law but spitting is.

The police took Ginger to the station in her slippers, t shirt, and draw string pajama bottoms; they cut the string off her pajamas at the jail. That is what she was wearing when I came to pick her up.

The estimated cost to the taxpayers for holding Ginger in jail for three days while waiting for a judge to come to court: $375.

The price of freedom: $40, which seems to be the current going rate for this kind of thing.

It’s time to reform the system.

You can read Part II of my adventures with Ginger here: The Courtroom Was a Circus

More of Ginger’s story appears in my forthcoming book Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility.