The Long Road Home

Posted on 01. Oct, 2002 by in Uncategorized

Poppo is standing barefoot in the tiny kitchen,
flipping mealy Bisquik pancakes. He is used to cooking for his family; his
mother Mary Anne is blind in one eye and reeling from respiratory disease.
Poppo drenches three half-cooked pancakes in syrup for Mary Anne, who is
sitting on a sunken couch, the only item of furniture in their stark living
room. His sister Anna sleeps on a mattress on the floor rather than share
a barracks-style bunk-bed with her two brothers in the bedroom.

Mary Anne needs some luck right now. She lives with three of her four children
at Christian Community Action (cca), a homeless shelter in New Haven. Unless
she can find an affordable apartment by October 15, her shelter cut-off
date, her family will disintegrate. The Department of Children and Families
(dcf) will seize her two youngest children and send them to live with strangers
in foster homes. The arrangement would be temporary-if Mary Anne could find
an apartment, she would regain custody-but she dreads the prospect of losing
her kids. To pay for an apartment and keep her children, she needs a Section
8 voucher, a bond that the state pays to a landlord in place of rent. But
the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers is more than 500 names long. Securing
a voucher, though possible, could take several years.

Down the street, Jennifer and Jubi are fighting over green apple lip gloss.
They are four and five years old respectively, and homeless. But their lives
are more cheerful and comfortable than Mary Anne’s. Jennifer got the lip
gloss for her fourth birthday, along with a Monsters Inc. video, which she
and her six brothers and sisters have watched three times in two days. They
live at another cca shelter with their mother Didi. Didi found a job last
week: She is now a manager at Sam’s Club, and her kids rave about her accomplishment.
Money is obviously tight, but her family went to Chuck E. Cheese last weekend,
and the job will help Didi provide her children with food and shelter.

Both of these families, mired deep in poverty, are reaching on their tiptoes
for the bottom rung of the economic ladder. But their stories will likely
diverge. While Didi is on her way up, Mary Anne has little hope of escape.
This is the story of two families struggling to find homes, and the obstacles
in their way.

The most prominent feature in Mary Anne’s
living room is a cylindrical oxygen tank with a breathing tube that she
inserts in her nostrils. She removes it to yell at 15-year-old Anna and
13-year-old Joey, who are alternately hiding in the closet and chasing each
other around the house. "What are you doing? Why are you doing that?
Stupid assholes!" Her voice is dry and grating, and yelling seems like
it hurts. Mary Anne was in the hospital with pneumonia for three weeks in
May and had to return several times in June. She cannot work, and though
Anna plans to find a job when she turns 16 next month, their only source
of income at the moment is welfare.

Mary Anne’s eldest child Ginger is 25 and slightly mentally retarded, or,
in her mother’s words, "slow." She lives in an institution down
the road but comes home to visit regularly. Ginger calls Mary Anne "Mommy,"
and Mary Anne dotes on her. They were "hospital buddies" this
summer, when Ginger had a shunt put in her liver. The shunt makes her constantly
nauseated. As she shovels pancakes into her mouth, she suddenly gags. Mashed
pancake bits, stuck in her teeth, threaten to explode out of her mouth.
"Do you have to throw up, Ginger? Try to get to the toilet," her
mother tells her. Still chewing, she turns towards the bathroom, pauses,
and sits back down. "I’m okay."

Today, if Ginger’s feet don’t hurt, they will walk to a local church soup
kitchen, as they do on most Sunday afternoons. Sometimes they walk to Store
24, where the kids buy slurpees and Mary Anne relaxes with a cup of coffee.
She hates going down there when she doesn’t have money, "cause you
can’t buy anything and it’s all there." Today she didn’t have money
for the New Haven Register, which Poppo reads to her. He looks through the
classifieds for housing and a job for himself, since he just turned 18 and
got his GED.

Mary Anne was evicted from her last apartment, on Chapel Street in Fair
Haven, when the building was condemned. Her apartment alone had 45 code
violations, and the 82-year old landlord never touched the building. The
family moved out less than 24 hours after receiving an eviction notice and
dragged their belongings to a park. They stayed there all day, from 7 am
to 6 pm, until their social worker put them up in a motel. Anna had to leave
behind two beloved cats and a guinea pig she had owned for four years. "She
couldn’t part with them. She was very depressed, and dcf made her leave
them in the park," Mary Anne recalls.

After their last apartment, the cca shelter, with its back porch and open
spaces, was a welcome relief. Sometimes the churches down the street have
services in Spanish, and Mary Anne likes to sit on the back porch and listen
to the music. She is worried about her impending deadline, though. "The
people are great, and I love being here, but I need to get my own apartment.
I would take anything right now. I’m pretty depressed," she says. Her
blind eye is always watery, but now her good eye tears up as well.

Both CCA and the city’s social services agency are trying to help. "I
have two good social workers on my side," she says; they are doing
what they can. The dcf can make special arrangements to find her a voucher,
but that may take months. Depending on cca’s assessment of the situation,
Mary Anne may be granted an extension to stay two more weeks in the shelter.

New Haven has taken heat in recent weeks from homeless advocates and protesters
camped out in the tent city on the New Haven Green for imposing 90-day length-of-stay
requirements in city-run shelters. But family shelters have had cut-off
dates for years. "For individuals whose lives are unstable, sometimes
in the shelter a complacency or a comfort level sets in," Bonita Grubbs,
executive director of cca, tells me. "The cut-off dates are not intended
to be punitive. If we don’t give them some benchmarks, they’d be perfectly
content to stay here. There’s no rent, no electricity or gas bills, none
of the economic strains that come with renting an apartment. This is a really
comfortable environment where a family can catch its breath."

But Mary Anne needs to do more than catch her breath. I mention the tenacity
of the protesters on the Green; cold weather is coming soon, I say, and
they will still be out there. "I might be one of them," Mary Anne
jokes. But then she laughs and waves the thought away.

CCA provides 60-day temporary shelter for
17 families in buildings on Sylvan Avenue and Davenport Street. As family
shelters in New Haven always are, these 17 cca apartments are full. Shelter
caseworkers turn away many more families than they are able to accept. Life
Haven, Inc., a shelter for women and children, turned down 28 families in
August alone. The state has no legal obligation to provide for them. Unlike
other state constitutions-New York’s, for example-Connecticut’s constitution
does not guarantee the right to housing. The state’s homeless population
has risen significantly in the past year, and shelters are running out of
resources. Most shelters in New Haven do receive money from the state, but
they still have to stay on their toes. Earlier this summer, the state cut
a chunk of its social services budget, which includes shelter funding. At
the last minute, someone discovered extra money and restored funds, but
cca was up to lose $20,000. "This problem has been coming for awhile,"
says Grubbs. "In 1980 the state supported affordable housing to the
tune of $125 million. Now it’s like $5 million, and the freight train is
going down the hill. I think we’re going to be in this crunch for a while."

No one can definitively explain the increase in homelessness. The factors
overlap, forming a complex web of stories that eventually sound the same:
they foreclosed on my apartment, slumlords let my building go to hell, minimum
wage isn’t enough for New Haven rents, I can’t find a job, I can’t feed
my kids and pay rent too. And welfare reform, for its part, has knocked
several thousand Connecticut families off the dole and onto the street in
the past year alone. Many of them are tired of imposing-dumping their kids
on friends’ couches, crashing at a brother’s house. Unlike the city’s single
homeless population, homeless families tend to be lifelong New Haven residents.
"Some families may never have been to a shelter before, but maybe they
haven’t had a permanent address in two years," explains Rachel Heerema,
executive director of Life Haven.

The phenomenon of the working homeless is more common than one might think.
Jose, Didi’s boyfriend, has had the same job for eight years but does not
make nearly enough to provide for the nine people his wages need to support.
18-year-old Michael lives with his mother, Valerie, down the hall from Didi
at cca. "You’re not looking for a job. You’re looking for a career,"
he says. "I don’t see any moms over here with careers. I see moms working
at Dunkin Donuts, Kentucky Fried Chicken -those are teenager jobs. They’re
busting their asses, doing it the best they can, but they can’t keep up."

Substance abuse prevents much of the single homeless population from escaping
their situation, but none of the parents I met had a drug or alcohol problem.
"With families, it’s a different kettle of fish. Parents have an amazing
capacity to keep it together for their kids, and children are an incredible
motivator," says Heerema. When addiction does become a problem, shelters
call the state child welfare agency to intervene, and children are put in
foster care. Parents then have to move out of the family shelter. But the
incidence of addiction is low among homeless families with children. The
causes of their homelessness are much broader.

When minimum wage won’t pay the rent, people turn to the government. "The
city bears the major responsibility to house its own folks. Do they have
the funds for that? Not really. Who does?" asks Grubbs. Grubbs is clearly
frustrated with the city’s impotence. "Maybe the city’s trying to do
something about it with their initiatives. But my fear is, with all the
attempts to stabilize the city, we might lose sight of individuals that
are looked upon as a drain on the city’s resources. Someone has to take
care of them. What is being done to make living in this city affordable?"
The homeless mothers I have met tend to lash out at the government in urgent,
immediate anger. Mayor DeStefano’s recent salary increase has been fodder
for protesters on the Green. Grubbs, however, seems torn, unwilling to point
fingers but overwhelmed by the scope of the problem.

Money helps, of course. But no one, anywhere, seems to know what to do
with homeless families. New Yorkers shook their fists this summer when Mayor
Bloomberg, faced with the specter of 300 families sleeping on the floor
at the city’s homeless intake center, herded them into an abandoned jail.
Inspectors found lead paint in the jail a few days later, and officials
hastily moved families with children under seven back to the intake center.
Bloomberg was pummeled for his handling of the situation, but even after
the public outrage, a better solution was hard to come by.

124 Sylvan Avenue, where Didi’s family lives,
is a nondescript building, across the street from an empty lot, with two
security doors and a faded "No Loitering" sign. The block, littered
with candy wrappers washed up from the sewer, is especially ugly on rainy
days. Inside, apartment numbers are handwritten in permanent marker on sour
green doors. The building hums with the sound of tv-sets, hairdryers, and
thumping hip-hop music. Downstairs, a bulletin board is covered with Christian
inspirational messages, including a letter from Satan thanking readers for
succumbing to his temptations.

"Jennifer, let me do your hair," Didi calls. She begins to wrestle
Jennifer’s hair into a little afro puff-a long, difficultprocess that involves
a lot of gel. Angel, Didi’s oldest boy at 11, lets out a whoop from the
couch as he beats his younger brother aj at a Sega game yet again. Didi
calls Angel an "old soul." Under long eyelashes his brown eyes
seem to be pondering measures of weighty importance. He has a collection
of about 20 cds, all hip-hop, and spends every spare moment dancing to Ja
Rule and Bubba Sparxx. Angel takes pride in running errands for his mom,
bringing her the phone and borrowing eggs when she asks. When he thinks
no one is looking, he combs back his hair with a pick he carries in his
pocket.

Angel wants to be a "child doctor," like Benjamin Carson, whom
he heard speak at Yale last year. Didi brags that aj and Angel both get
straight a’s in school. aj is visibly embarrassed and tells her he hates
when she says that, but he smiles. Angel mentions several times that he
reads at a ninth grade level.

The amount of food this family consumes is astonishing. aj has made himself
a sandwich with bologna, cheese, and the heel of a loaf of bread. Sandwich
bread, among other things, disappears quickly in a family of nine. Didi
lets Jubi sip from her coffee mug. "I need my coffee," she confesses.
In an apartment this chaotic, I can see why. "I tell people I have
seven kids. Everybody asks me, ‘Are you crazy?’ But they keep me going,"
she says.

Though he says none of his friends care that he lives in a homeless shelter,
Angel hates staying at cca. "The shelter sucks. It’s annoying. There’s
no privacy," he says. But it is clean and well-maintained. Didi’s last
apartment was much like Mary Anne’s. "I was living on the Boulevard
in a three bedroom apartment. There’s rats the size of raccoons in our apartment,
and they see this, and they say it’s liveable. Roaches crawling in your
refrigerator. The judge said it’s not worth it to be condemned, and there’s
much more they could be doing to that apartment. But the landlord’s not
doing anything! Why don’t you take it away from him?" she asks, her
voice rising in frustration. Didi fought with her landlord for four months
and withheld rent until he threatened to evict her. Unable to find another
apartment, she left on her own terms and moved in with her brother until
she found space in a shelter. "The beautiful places, they’re boarded
up. And if they’re not, they want $1,500 for a 4 bedroom. How are we going
to afford that on a $6.50 an hour salary?"

Didi and her family have lived at cca since mid-August. She quit her job
at Dunkin Donuts in March, when she went to court to gain custody of her
sister’s children, who were destined for foster care. Ana, Tani, and Roy
have lived with them since. Though Jose holds a steady job in landscaping,
the economic strain of one less job in the family and three more mouths
to feed was overwhelming. And now they have to find a home.

Amazingly, though, Didi has found friends in high places. She is constantly
on the phone, calling friends, calling the city, calling anyone willing
to give her a hand. Some of her more creative schemes have been successful.
At the opening of Ashley’s Ice Cream last month, in front of tv cameras,
she told her youngest daughters to ask Mayor DeStefano to read them a book.
The girls’ pictures appeared in the New Haven Register the next day, and
DeStefano called Didi back. He found himself a lifetime supporter: Didi
wants to work for his next reelection campaign.

This morning, she has promised to make breakfast for Ana and Tani, who
have spent the night at a family friend’s apartment. That family friend
is Andrea Pizziconi, a Yale graduate working for Yale University Properties,
and a jackpot connection for Didi and her children. Ana and Tani met Chris
Alexander-who is married to Bruce Alexander, Vice President for New Haven
and State Affairs-as part of the New Haven Reads program, which Chris runs.
In the past few months, she and Andrea have enrolled the kids in Neighborhood
Music School dance classes; introduced them to the Yale Book Bank; helped
six of them switch from their failing neighborhood school to Catherine Brennan
Elementary; and showered them with gifts. The kids have also posed for many
a Yale pr photo. For now, though, the older girls are belting out Nelly
songs in Andrea’s living room, and Didi is frying bacon.

Didi makes sure they are fed. "I’m willing to eat dirt as long as
they have eggs," she vows. She fills plates even for the older children,
making sure they get enough. Bottles of Kool-aid, once opened, must be finished.
Didi prods Roy to finish his pancake, then lifts up Angel’s shirt and pats
his little belly, pronouncing him healthy. Later, she returns from running
errands with a surprise birthday cake for Jennifer, who turned four yesterday.
The older kids, warned to keep Jennifer away from the kitchen while Didi
puts candles on the cake, whisper conspicuously and try not to smile in
anticipation. Didi blindfolds Jennifer with her hands, and they waddle down
the hall together. As soon as Didi uncovers Jennifer’s eyes in front of
the cake, six voices break into a passionate rendition of ‘Happy Birthday.’

Didi and her children-by "the grace of
God," Didi reminds me-are making progress. Didi’s earnings at her new
job will not be enough for most apartments in New Haven, but it’s income
nonetheless. Her kids have practically moved in with Andrea, and she and
Chris are using every resource they have to find Didi housing. A Habitat
for Humanity house, a Yale job for Jose, and the Yale Homebuyer program
are being discussed, and Andrea fields calls daily from people wanting to
help. When their cca cutoff date rolls around, Didi and her family will
certainly have somewhere to go, whether that will be a temporary apartment
or Andrea’s loft. In a few months, they may even have permanent housing.

Mary Anne, on the other hand, does not have Didi’s connections. She might
very well be on the street in two months, depending on her 18-year-old son
for support. Affordable housing is only a distant hope, and an apartment
of her own is probably beyond reach. Mary Anne has tried to follow the traditional
avenues out of poverty-applying for the vouchers they told her to apply
for, scrimping to put food on the table-but those avenues are many miles
longer than she can bear. Mary Anne needs more than motivation and government
aid-she needs people to bend the rules for her. For Mary Anne and Didi the
system has failed. And when a system fails, people like Mary Anne have two
choices: to work outside the system, as Didi has, or to suffer within it.

Victoria Truscheit, a sophomore in Berkeley College, is
circulations and subscriptions manager for TNJ.

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