In this report, the third 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. She’s been with J. to Common Ground, and to apply for food stamps, and returns to Common Ground this week.
The temperature was supposed to go down into the 20s. I had no way to get in touch with J unless we had a specific arrangement to meet, and sometimes that didn’t work — if either of us were late, or unable to make the appointment for some reason, we had no way to tell each other.
So J rang my buzzer around 5pm. He wanted me to go to Kmart with him to get a sleeping bag. A friend of his had lent him his credit card, an Amex platinum, to purchase one, but he didn’t want to go get it alone. He moved through the store like a ghost or a spirit. I followed him to where the sleeping bags were; he pulled one off the shelf without stopping and whisked it up to the register. "I scoped it out already," he explained. On the way back to my place we planned our next step. We would meet again in a couple days. I had to go to work and school every day, but I would skip school one day to go to the drop-in center with him. We would try again to get our letter notarized to add to the food stamp application in our efforts to establish myself as his official representative so that I could access his files. It was my hope that those files would present the evidence necessary to establish J as chronically homeless. After all, he had been living in a doorway directly around the corner from the drop-in center for several years. In addition, he told me that just last year he’d been "observed" regularly by an outreach worker throughout the winter. The outreach worker asked him if he was interested in housing. J said yes. Nothing ever happened, but at the end of the winter the man said to him, "Looks like you made it through the winter ok."
Armed with copies of the food stamp application, we decided to try once again to notarize our letter. I had passed by a funeral parlor in the neighborhood that had a sign âNotary’ in the window. We stopped by and an elderly gentleman in a dark suit called upstairs for the notary. A young man in sweats came down, as if just out of bed, and happily notarized our letter, no questions asked, for $2.
I managed to convince J to take the bus this time. On the ride downtown we passed by a spot where J used to sleep. As we approached the seaport he pointed to a red brick building.
"That spot right there is where I was sleeping when I was ambushed by the homeless count."
"What do you mean, ambushed?"
"I was sleeping there and I get woke up by a reporter, âExcuse me sir, I’m from the New York Times‘, and there’s about seven people staring at me, they got lights, a cameraman, there’s the folks from DHS and the volunteer. I was fast asleep, dog!" J quickly found the largest object he could put his hands on and chased them away.
Every year the city, with the help of over 2000 volunteers, strives to count all of the homeless in NYC in one night. The next count is coming up at the end of January. The count is conducted during the coldest time of the year, because that is when people are least likely to be on the street. Called "point in time" counts, this method of counting the homeless tends to overestimate the number of chronically homeless while underestimating the total number of homeless people. This is because for most people, homelessness is a temporary condition, so the people counted on the street in one night will include many who are temporarily homeless. At the same time, the count will miss a lot of the hidden homeless. The volunteers don’t have the training and support to venture into the out-of-the-way-places in the city where many of the homeless "throw down" for the night.
Luck seemed with us at the drop in center: J immediately recognized the executive director, an older man with a gleaming cross earring in one ear, who happened to walk in, as if on cue, as we were looking for J’s caseworker. I introduced myself to him and he directed me to speak with the director of outreach. J was already showing signs of frustration and agitation, in spite of what seemed to me to be a promising situation. I suggested he wait outside while I met with the director of outreach, a pale, soft-spoken man, who took some notes and copied J’s ID. He said that he didn’t know if he would be able to locate J’s files, but that J would have to start at the beginning anyway — all of the past sightings that were on file were now "stale." In order to be considered chronically homeless, he would have to be observed on the street, with bedding, on five separate occasions within a three-week period. He would have to undergo two evaluations, one with the caseworker and one with a psychiatrist. Finally, he would have to have a TB test. I made a detailed to-do list, with days, times and locations where J could undergo the various tests, but I was concerned about the sightings.
"So he has to stand on the corner with a blanket and wait for the van to drive by?"
"The workers know all the hotspots."
I told him where J was; he said he was familiar with the area and said he could send the van around the next day. Usually they go early in the morning and catch people getting up.I knew that J slept in a well-hidden spot. I was skeptical, but I didn’t tell J that.
"We can do it. If we do all of this then they’ve got to give you housing this time."
"I done did all that already. I seen the psychiatrist two times already. I had a TB test. And I can’t have that skin prick test. I been exposed to TB, when I was working on the inside of the shelter system, they was like TB factories. I was on Ward’s Island, the Elephant Graveyard, way uptown. That’s when I was working for the coalition for the homeless, I was going in and getting the real story of what the shelters was like."
"So what do you want to do?"
"I had a chest X-ray. They should have that on file."
"They can’t find your files, but the director of outreach says we can just go to the public hospital on the west side and get it done. I understand it’s exasperating, I know you did all this already, but times are getting really bad in the city now, there’s already reports that there’s more homeless, and it’s going to get worse. We’re not going to change this system in time to get you housed for the winter. We just gotta jump through all these hoops, and hopefully this time it will be different. That’s what I’m here for, the follow- through."