The song "Where Did You sleep last Night" sung by Kurt Cobain on the Nirvana Unplugged in New York CD, goes:
"My girl, my girl, don't lie to me; tell me where did you sleep last night?"
In the chairs, in the chairs, hard plastic chairs. Shoulder to shoulder and shivered the whole night through.
It's some kind of government regulation, say the clients of this New York City drop in center for homeless women. Nobody can sleep on the floor, and beds aren't allowed here-- although they are at other shelters-- so here you can sleep in the chairs. They are hard, plastic, the color of gravel. Each "client" gets two. Two chairs and two blankets. The blankets are thin, and rough. They look like the cloth equivalent of particle board. Recycled pieces of blanket marbled together into a whole. These blankets do not keep you warm, and so many of the people here are bundled in coats, sweaters, and long sleeve shirts, despite the summertime temps outside. The air conditioning works well in here at night.
Maybe too well.
Elena, the 85-year-old woman who stayed here recently, shivered all day long.
Over here in the front row, another woman, tall and lanky, with close cut gray hair, barricaded by her luggage on wheels and her guitar case, sleeps in blue jeans, and what appears to be an army jacket. The jacket is olive green. The hood is pulled over her head and face, completly covering all. Her feet are bare. Another woman comments that the hooded one looks like a terror hostage. I think I have seen her before in the 42nd Street subway tunnel, playing her music for donations from appreciative commuters.
Along the back row, a twenty-something woman nods off to sleep, falling side ways, and crashes repeatedly onto the shoulder of the woman next to her. At least once, she falls off her chairs onto the floor. She seems startled to find herself there. Again and again, the fallee gently nudges the sideways faller, guiding her back into her chair. But the sleepfaller continues to nod off and go sideways off her chair. Maybe it's the methadone, or maybe it's just exhaustion. In any case, the one fallen upon, desperately seeking sleep, gets up and moves her two chairs to a space in the next row. She slides an empty chair into the space next to the sleep faller, so she won't hit the floor when she falls again.
In this Hall of Chairs, nobody gets a good night's sleep. You sleep upright on a chair, your feet and legs propped up on another chair facing you. The physical discomfort awakens people all through the night, and they shift and move constantly to get comfortable. Some go through elaborate motions to prepare a comfortable bed for the night, folding extra hoarded blankets into makeshift mattresses on top of chairs, wedging luggage into the gap between the two chairs, so legs will be fully supported.
The movements of the others awaken people; the talkers awaken people. The sounds of coughing through the night, the sounds of retching in the bathroom keep sleep away. Most of the chair women awake exhausted, and thankful for the free coffee, freshly made at 6 A.M..
After mostly sleepless nights, some spend their days in here dozing, heads on the tables. Not much gets accomplished by such tired bodies. Fatigue piles up, night after night, and it becomes harder to focus on what needs to be done to move forward, upward, and out of the chairs. Irritability creeps in, and thinking becomes scattered. Still, there is a human spirit that no hard chair can break. A woman with a voice like a choir angel sings, and those seated near her stop, listen, and applaud when she's finished. There is real talent in this place.
Another woman breaks into song in the dinner line. It is a contemporary hip hop song she sings. The beauty and clarity of her voice is startling. Later, another client meticulously twists the young singer's short hair into tiny dreads.
"This is my therapy," she growls.
You can be transported by van to a church with beds at night, but first you have to have a PPD test to detect the presence of tuberculosis. There's on site testing here once a week. The other option is to make a special trip to the Department of Health to take the TB test, bring the test results back to the center, and be placed on a list for a bed. The thought of trudging through the streets with bags for what is sure to be a lengthy wait in the Health Department puts off a lot of the women. Lockers are hard to come by In NYC. Storage is not free or easy. You are forewarned here: leave your bags unattended at your own risk. Many opt to wait for the on-site TB testing on Mondays.
The women here talk often about their swollen ankles, from blood pooling in their legs all night. The human body was not designed to rest with head higher than legs. One woman, a former writing teacher with aPhD, cannot walk upright. Her back is too bent. She sleeps in a sitting position, feet on floor, face down; resting her head on her backpack in the chair facing her. There are other problems, in addition to her obvious back injuries. All night long she is sick, as evidenced by frequent trips to the bathroom, and the sounds of vomiting from therein. Asked why she doesn't retire, she says she's not "disabled enough." She can still sit in a chair to teach.
I did not come here with an idea of writing a story. I traveled without a road map. It's as if I were drawn here by some force; maybe the same force that in years past led me to a picket line or two. And maybe for the same reasons.
The stories of the women in the chairs need to be told, over and over, until somebody with the power and money to change things gets the message. The world of the homeless is not isolated. This world--whether we choose to accept it or not-- belongs to all of us. There is too much diversity here to assign homelessness to a narrow demographic niche.
Here, you'll find the religious, and the not religious. You'll find young and old, Black, white, Latina, and Asian. You'll find physical illness, mental illness, and youthful good health. You'll find the addicted, and the drug free, college educated and dropouts. Here, in this humble shelter drugs, alcohol, and violence are not welcome.
But in this great and beautiful country, the housing policy we have that denies a basic human right--adequate, safe, affordable shelter for all--is that not violence?
I didn't come here to write, but once here, I knew I had to write about this place, these women. And some of them felt the same: their stories need to get out there. The homeless are literally everywhere, but the stereotypes and myths about them keep them confined, render them almost invisible.
There is a deterioration going on now. A lowering of standards, ravaging of the quality of life, of basic services. It touches the most vulnerable first: the poor, the disabled, the elderly, those without strong social support. It's not going to stop there. There are places in America that are the third world now, and this will spread, and touch more and more of us. Unless we draw a line in the sand. Now.