Camp Refugee of America

Catherine was living in New Orleans when Katrina hit, and she lost everything, which wasn't much to begin with. A history of low wage jobs, family far away in London. It's a familiar script here, but each player brings her own unique qualities.

My friend from London has been in this country for thirty years, currently residing in a New York City homeless women's shelter known as Olivieri Drop-in Center. Or "Homeless Lane," as Cynthia calls it. Catherine doesn't have a strong social support network--not locally anyway-- and this is another common factor that brings women here, that creates refugees in America; but by no means is it the only one. Assumptions, as someone once said, make an ass of u and me.

Mental illness is another assumption assigned to the homeless, and she is not mentally ill. She is intelligent, articulate, compassionate, and funny-- and like too many of the women living as refugees in America, her life has been shattered by childhood abuse. To save herself-- to survive--she fled. Fleeing abuse is one of the most mentally healthy things you can do.

Neither does she fit the other convenient assumption made about homeless people: "drug user." Though she admits she drank in her younger days, those days are far behind her. An invitation from another friend to share some vodka holds nothing of interest for Catherine. She wants to keep her head straight, focused. She understands the enormity of the task before her, if she is going to reclaim her life.

By day three or four in this place, even the most organized, the most focused, begin to unravel. Nerves stretch thin-- from the daily uncertainty, the physical discomfort, the apparent lack of control over one's own destiny.

And there's the stigma. The homeless are everywhere in NYC, as they are in virtually every US city, dragging luggage on wheels, toting plastic bags and duffels and backpacks. Some are ragged, some are so stylish and well groomed, you'd never know they have no permanent dwelling. They are everywhere, but not everywhere are they welcomed.

A woman relates a story about a homeless man at a newstand, waiting to buy a newspaper, and told to wait outside. She was angry. Why should he wait outside when he was spending his money in that place? Why, indeed.

Here in this refugee camp of America, in a city sometimes referred to as "The capital of the world," the social workers are hard at work, five days a week, trying to fix broken lives. For each woman, a different mission. For Catherine, the mission is a ticket home to London. There, she believes she can get the help she needs to get on her feet again. And reconnect with her family.

To look at Catherine, you might think she is an office worker or a teacher on her way to a 9 to 5 job somewhere in Manhattan. And ideally, maybe that's what her life would be. Idealism is in short supply for many in this place. Anger simmering just below the surface, erupts sporadically. Step carefully: there are land mines buried here.

In this city, the capital of the world, you can find anything. You can buy fresh fruits and vegetables, hotdogs and fresh pretzels on the street for a pittance. Here there are great universities, museums and cathedrals. The performing arts flourish here. Talent gravitates here, from the musicians in the subway tunnels to the actors on Broadway. Everywhere there are 99 cent stores bursting with everything you'll ever need, and maybe a few things you want. The one basic need that's lacking is housing. Affordable, adequate shelter for all. It is the common denominator that underscores the dilemna of all who become domestic refugees.

You need an address to apply for a job, to apply for benefits. You need a home, with a closet to hang your clothes, or at the very least a locker. You need a place to take a shower. You need a phone to arrange interviews, appointments. Without this most basic foundation, moving forward, climbing up, is hard. Not impossible, but very, very hard.

In America, some people have three homes. In America, some people live in houses with more rooms than they'll ever use. And some people live in housing where many share one room, and many share one bathroom. Many of these are working people, paying taxes. Is it a housing shortage we have here, or a distribution failure?

Is it hopelessly idealistic to believe that every person living in America could have adequate, safe shelter with rent based on income? Is it really "socialistic" to believe that every person living here could have access to basic quality health care based on medical need, not personal wealth? Or is it simply democratic? What is democracy, anyway?

If you read this, Catherine, I want to tell you: hold on. You are stronger than you think. All of you are. Because the truth is, when people bad mouth the homeless, what they're expressing is their own uncertainty, their own fear that they couldn't survive the hardship you are living through today. I'm not sure how long I could survive, and because of that I'm in awe of you all.

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