In a six month period in New York City I immersed myself in a new world, a world of the urban homeless. What better place to research the roots of homelessness than in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country?
It's a great sacrifice people make for the privilege of living in the city known as the "Capital of the World." With a population of 8 million, NYC draws talented artists, writers, performers and gifted people from every part of the world. Some stay, finding the trade offs worth it. Others don't.
To live here is to struggle. People go to great creative lengths to devise shelter. Some sleep in renovated bread trucks. Some sleep in the subway stations, or in parks. Some pay $800 or more a month for a room, with a shared bathroom and kitchen, if there is a kitchen at all. Some long term shelter dwellers pay rent on storage units where they keep their stuff.
In Manhattan, $1,200 for a one bedroom apartment is cheap rent, if you can find it. Would be renters pay real estate brokers a non refundable finder's fee equal to one month's rent for an apartment, and they're happy to do it. That's in addition to the standard first month's rent, last month's rent, and security deposit.
Here, on the street you can find all kinds of designer leather bags, shoes, clothes, and accessories for sale for pennies on the dollar. It's the necessities of life that are expensive. Housing is number one. It's scarce and it's costly. Necessity number two is food. Food here is expensive: restaurant food, grocery store food. A jar of peanut butter that costs $1.69 at WalMart is $3 here. Bottled water, 64 cents at WalMart versus more than $1 in New York grocery stores. New York pizza is possibly the best in the world. If you have to live on street food, pizza is the way to go, at $2-$4 a slice. Health food grocery/delis like Whole Foods are just too pricey to seriously consider. There are many supermarkets with take out buffets, but take out adds up. If you don't have a desk/office you work out of, you eat your lunch in the park, whatever the weather. A lot of freelancers carry their laptops around the city, connecting to the internet in a library branch to type their stories, do their work. A surprisingly high number of jobs involve working outside: street vendors, canvassers for political and charitable organizations, leafleteers, doormen, street cleaners, subway maintenance workers, messengers. Better to cook at home if you can, and brown bag your lunch.
The question of how and why people become homeless has haunted me since I became homeless in 2001 after I was sacked from my job for health reasons. It was a low wage job, and I was living paycheck to paycheck, so there was nothing to cushion the fall. I hit the ground almost immediately, and like hourly employees everywhere I had no golden parachute, just two week's vacation pay and an unemployment check. During this time, a lot of people gave me a place to sleep and shower, which kept me off the street at night. Some for a small rent, some for free.
In August, with my latest lease at an end and my apartment building up for sale, I went to NYC, the Big Apple, the high rent leader, to see what I could learn; and I did learn.
In the shelter and in the drop in center, on the street, and in the parks, I talked to homeless people. Older people, young people, white people, people of color, men and women. Some used drugs, or lived in the bottle. Some did not. Some were forced out by new landlords who jacked up the rents, some were chased out by abusive spouses, or thrown out by parents. One women, whose longtime trucker boyfriend died suddenly from a heart attack, was locked out of the apartment they'd shared by his relatives who grabbed everything, including all her personal belongings. A year later, still mourning the loss of a man she obviously loved deeply, she continues to struggle to rebuild her life.
Nobody in the shelters wanted to be there. Some, who stayed outside said they preferred the street to shelter life. Dawn stayed outside because her dog Tabitha was not allowed in any shelter, and she wouldn't abandon the nine-year old Boxer to the pound and probable death.
If there's any common thread here that explains the cause of homelessness it's this: the long term homeless, for whatever reason, have no family or close ties willing or able to help them. Whether that's because their family members are so mired in their own problems they have nothing left to give, or because family just doesn't care. In the matter of familial relations, the long term homeless very often drew bad cards.
There was a time when section 8 subsidized rent was available, after a period of waiting, for virtually any low income person or family, young or senior, working or disabled. That all began to change with the Reagan Revolution. At the same time, in the early 1980's rents started to explode in New York City. The rest of the country followed New York's lead. With the changes begun by Reagan and continued by George W. Bush, no longer could those without strong family ties or close friends look to their government for help.
In contrast, a CEO who mismanages a company badly enough to be canned, is cut loose with a million plus compensation package. I guess that's what people mean when they say the private sector pays better. It sure does--if you're a CEO.
For the rest of you working stiffs, and disabled poor: if you make wrong moves, if you draw bad cards, you lose.