In this report, the second 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. Last week, she and J went to Common Ground, with uncertain results.
J rang my buzzer one day with an application for food stamps. On the application, he pointed out, was a place for a representative to sign. In light of our challenges getting the letter J wrote to establish me as his representative in his search for housing notarized, J decided to establish precedent by having me as his representative in acquiring food stamps. This seemed a sensible strategic move, and so I agreed. Looking back, I also think that he needed some help in apply for his food stamps. Not from a lack of understanding — he is the one teaching me about these systems — but because after years of interacting with the beauracratic process his tolerance for is almost non-existent.
We arranged to meet on a Thursday morning to go to the food stamp office on West 14th Street. It was a rainy cold morning when J rang my buzzer. I tried to make an argument for the bus, but J wanted to walk across town. He’s a dedicated walker, and will often glide ahead of me, disappear into a crowd, then reappear before me, waiting with his hands in his pockets, smiling broadly at my confusion.
The food stamp office is in a large building with a flat and featureless gray front.
When you enter through the double glass doors and small vestibule, you find yourself in a wide hallway with cinderblock walls and linoleum floors, a bank of elevators to the left and glass doors leading to an office to the right, with a guard posted on either side.
We passed through the guards and into the large room, which was barren with the exception of a labyrinth of the kind of barricades that keep people in line at banks and such. There was no seating in this windowless room, and along the sides were plexiglass partitions. As there was no one else in the room, we approached one of the windows. An woman scowled at us and pointed to a sign at the end of the non-existent line that read, â€˜Please wait here until you are called’. J and I looked at each other, shrugged, and went over and stood next to the sign. "Next," said the woman. We approached the window again. "We’re here to apply for food stamps," I explained. She handed us a green sheet of paper with a number on it in large black print, F 1079 and directed us to take the elevator to the 4th floor.
Across a hallway identical to the one downstairs was another office, the same size as the one on the first floor, also with a guard, but lined with chairs that were filled with people, many of whom were sleeping. It was standing-room only.
We showed our ticket to the guard, who directed us to "have a seat." I noticed one vacant chair along the wall by the windows. Suddenly I was very hungry. There were signs on all the walls: "No Eating or Drinking." There must have been at least 70 people in the room. Some of them looked downright destitute, some a bit off their rocker — the man next to us kept getting up and pacing around the room, to the extent that the guard told him to sit down. There were African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and white people. Mothers and fathers with children and babies. In spite of the variety and volume of people in the room, it was strangely quiet and still. The wall across from us was half plexiglass windows, just like downstairs. Behind the glass, employees, mostly women, were bustling and shuffling papers, their busyness a stark contrast to the entropy on our side of the glass. There was also one door, from which a woman would occasionally emerge to call out a number. Other numbers were displayed on two large screens hanging high on the walls. I took off my coat, folded it and put it on the chair. As usual, X kept his coat on. We examined our ticket to see if it corresponded to any of the numbers on the screen.
"Let me go ask," I said to J.
"If you say so."
As I approached the door I felt a kind of subtle panic and deep cynicism. Would they even answer a question without our waiting for our turn? And how would we know when it would be our turn if we couldn’t make sense of our ticket? Fortunately, when the door next flung open and the woman emerged calling a number, she explained that our ticket corresponded the numbers she was calling, not the numbers on the screen. She was around 1020. I returned to J with the bad news, my stomach growling. He took a pack of peanuts from his pocket. I greedily scarfed them down.
I had thought that if we went to the office early it might take a few hours, but it now became apparent that this was a day-long endeavor. Still, I didn’t imagine that five hours later I would be worrying that the office would close before our number was called.
But I never have to worry about being bored when I’m with J. He told me that his mother died when he was three, and that he was raised by "big-legged women" in gin houses. He described sitting on their laps as a young boy, his head nestled between their generous bosoms, sipping on an orange soda. Bliss.
From this story he jumped ahead to a time he was in solitary confinement. "There’s a law that they gotta let you up for air once every 30 days. When you’re in solitary, it’s total sensory deprivation. You’re in a tiny room, with no color, no nothing, and they push some bread and water in to you, there’s no flavor, no color, no sight, no sound. When they brought me up for air, you know, my hands and feet shackled, I come up into the light, and there’s a little radio playing, and I just started bopping and smiling. I was overwhelmed. Them guards there, they didn’t get it. They thought, man, this guy is crazy."
Finally our number was called, and we were escorted through the door into an enormous room of vomit-colored cubicles. We were directed to a cubicle against a back wall where we sat with a Hispanic woman who sat pushing herself restlessly around on the wheels of her chair, madly clicking the mouse on her computer. J wanted me to sit and conduct the meeting, but she wanted to talk to him. I introduced myself as his representative, handing her the application as evidence. J had thought that he would be able to get his card in this one visit, and became agitated when she explained that he would have to return the next day to get the card. J was muttering under his breath and making lewd gestures when her back was to him. She spun around in her chair "But why you don’t do this yourself?" she asked J. "What you need her for?"
"Dear lady," explained J, "she is my representative." As we sat there I examined the papers stapled to the wall. "Hey, you know what? I qualify for food stamps," I said. The woman gave me an application. "Is it always this busy here?" I asked her. "Oh, my God, no, it’s been so busy lately. I come in at 8am every day and leave at 9. There’s so many people applying the past few months. We’re overwhelmed." A single mother of three, she was looking forward to maybe getting off at 7pm so she could go home and make dinner a little earlier for a change.
Finally J accepted that he would not get his card that day and agreed to return the following morning. The woman made copies of his birth certificate and Social Security card. J asked me to keep them in a file for him. As it was a rainy week, I was worried that he wouldn’t make the 9am appointment the next day. The rain is very disruptive to the life and routine of a homeless person. When it rains for days it’s difficult, if not impossible to keep dry. The rain finds its way into every hidden spot, driven by the wind under the protection of scaffolding, accumulating into tiny rivers that flow into all the dry places. When all your belongings get soaked, it can take several days for them to dry them out.
To my delight, J kept the appointment, and acquired his card. Now we were ready to return to the drop-in center. It had now been almost a month since I left the note for the caseworker. Once I was established as his legal representative I would be able to request his files, which hopefully would establish him as one of the chronically homeless that Common Ground claims to prioritize.