In this report, the first in a series, Jessical Hall, our regular Street Stories NY interviewier, documents her attempts to navigate government and nonprofit bureaucracy in an effort to secure housing for a homeless friend.
As the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, I find myself increasingly thinking about my homeless friends. How must they feel as the leaves fall from the trees, the landscape becomes more barren, and they are facing another winter without a home?
I had been talking with my homeless friend J about securing housing for him before winter. He agreed that it would be a good idea for me to contact Common Ground, the housing organization that created the model currently being used by the city to help the homeless. J is a perfect candidate for their Street to Home program. The Common Ground website states, "We identify and house the most vulnerable: those who have been homeless the longest, have the most disabling conditions, and are least likely to access housing resources." I know that J has been homeless for over ten years, and that he has a distrust of institutions that may interfere with him getting help.
I spoke with at least three different staff there before I was finally given the number of an outreach worker with Street to Home. There is no process at Common Ground for a homeless person to walk in and apply for housing. The system is set up to operate via the shelter and drop-in center system. Usually, the city directs concerned citizens who want to help a homeless person to call 311, where the caller is transferred to DHS, which then calls the local agency, which sends out a van to find that person and ask them if they want to go to a shelter. As I had already done the first step by identifying the "most vulnerable"," it didn’t make any sense to call people who didn’t know J and that he would not talk to anyway. I called the outreach worker hoping that we might come up with another approach.
"I have called 311 on numerous occasions, I know about 311, but it’s not appropriate inâ€¦"
"If you don’t want to listen to what I have to say then I am not going to talk to you."
"I just thought you might be interested in why I think that 311 is not the best way to go with this individual, because I know him. Are you at all interested in what I have to say?"
"No. I am not."
"Why do you think I was given your number?"
"Because you wouldn’t listen to anyone else."
"Ok, well, I guess you are not the right person for me to be speaking with."
I was shaking when I hung up the phone, and completely perplexed. Then I remembered J telling me that he felt like "a little scrap of nothing" after his interactions with various outreach workers.
I called the intake person who gave me his number to relate this strange conversation. "He’s probably just frustrated," she said. "I’ll look into it and get back to you."
To her credit, she did call me back. She was very pleased to tell me that if J wanted help he should go to the drop-in center he has been going to for ten years.
I put the word out on the street that I was looking for J, and, sure enough, one day I came home and he was sitting on my front steps. I told him about my frustrating experience. It’s difficult enough to interface with a bureaucracy when you have a house and a phone at your disposal, how is a person whose home is a piece of cardboard expected to successfully navigate these systems?
I decided to talk with J about collaborating to secure housing for him before winter. I thought maybe if he had some personal support, and the housing organizations had a witness— who happened to be a middle-class professional (-looking) white woman — he might actually be able to get some housing before spring.
J and I made a date to meet up to go to the drop-in center together. J arrived promptly at my house at 10am on the appointed Saturday, and I made us some omelets. As we ate, J regaled me with his usual stories — this time he expounded on the life and rituals of African tribes and Native Americans, which he spoke about in anthropological detail. When we got to the topic of our pursuit of housing, I told J that I anticipated the drop-in center would most likely send me away, as I have no official role in the process. J considered this problem and decided to draft a letter stating that he wanted me to represent him. He wanted to get the letter notarized to make it official, so we went to Commerce Bank where they have free notaries.
The notary was visibly stunned when she saw us. She looked at us, looked at the handwritten note, and called security. A man from the bank came over and stood behind her protectively during our exchange. She asked for ID; J provided state and federal ID, including a photo ID, but they refused to notarize our letter. We decided to try another Commerce Bank, where the same scenario ensued. I don’t know if they were befuddled by our appearance together, or if they thought we were running some kind of scam, but they did not respond well to us. J and I decided to take our letter, un-notarized, to the drop in center to see what we could accomplish.
The drop-in center is in the basement of a building on Beaver Street. The entrance is through an unmarked door that opens to a dimly lit stairway leading down into the basement. There are no signs, no directions, just a dark stairway leading to a wall at the bottom of the stairs. When we entered there was a tall man in a motorcycle jacket standing like a sentinel next to a trashcan at the top of the stairs. J and I began to descend the stairs, but then J remembered that he had on his person some items that are not allowed in the drop-in center. He pulled his lighter and a corkscrew out of his jacket and stashed them behind the trashcan.
At the bottom of the stairs was a room partitioned off by thick glass. We entered the room via a small, wired glass vestibule with a metal detector; through the glass there was a uniformed guard behind a chewed-up desk. J and the guard greeted each other warmly, like old friends. The room was much like another other drop-in center I had been in, painted the same industrial off-white with an accumulation of gray film. The same scuffed and dirty linoleum floors. The air was stale and sour. The dimly lit room was filled with long tables where people sat either passed out, slumped over , or slouched in metal folding chairs, watching a huge flatscreen TV in the middle of the room. Some people were talking to themselves; others were engaged in animated arguments. I noticed that although the room was not cold, most people had their coats on.
We spoke briefly with the room supervisor, who told us that J’s caseworker had been in that morning, but usually didn’t work on weekends. The supervisor gave me a card with a number to call on Monday. I put our letter with an additional note introducing myself into an envelope with my card and left it for the caseworker.