In this report, the fourth 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, to apply for food stamps, and returned to Common Ground, where they told her the next step was for J. to have (another) TB test.
The first thing we set out to do was get J. a TB test at the public hospital. He’d done this within the past year, but the drop-in center didn’t have it on file. In fact, they couldn’t find his files at all.
The public hospital looked to be a relic of the FDR years, probably a public works project. It was set back from the avenue, buffered by a small park consisting of a series of benches arranged in a circle. It was a solid, square, brick building, with an entrance designed to be grand: big granite steps, a pillar on either side, elaborate decorations over the door, but with the columns and details painted a shiny black. The double front doors were painted the same way, with small square windows. Inside was a small lobby — no reception desk or signs — with scuffed tiled floors and fluorescent lighting. The walls were painted a baby blue, their high gloss dulled by accumulated dirt. A woman poked her head out of a side door, raising one eyebrow questioningly. "We need a TB test, a chest X-ray," I explained. "Third floor. There’s an elevator through those doors."
We walked across the room and entered a narrow and even dirtier vestibule. J opened a door across from the elevator. "Up- The- Stairs," he announced, emphatically. "I’m taking the elevator," I said, as the brown doors creaked open. I got into the impossibly tiny elevator, its once shiny silver walls dented and dulled.
I exited the elevator into what appeared to be an empty office just as J appeared through the stairway door. We stood together facing a deserted reception area, with a counter and computers. Beyond it we could see a waiting area on the other side where a TV was loudly broadcasting the news to rows of empty seats. A large blue arrow was taped on the counter, about a foot long; written under, it in large letters, were instructions to STAND HERE. So we did.
"Come around!" An irritated voice, from the other side of the reception area. We walked around and faced him. He was the only person in the entire room.
"What do you want?"
"My friend needs a chest X-ray."
"Who are you?"
"I’m his friend."
"Do you have a referral," he asked, eyes twitching between J and myself.
"No, the drop-in center told us we could just walk in here."
"How do we get a referral? My friend doesn’t have a doctor."
"Has he had a TB test before?"
"Yes, andâ€¦" J was getting irritated and restless. I looked at him. "I’ll be over here;" he said, sitting down in the waiting area and watching TV.
"He can’t have the prick test," I explained. "He’ll test positive. He’s been through this before. He needs a chest X-ray."
"You need a referral."
"Where can we get one?"
"Go to Saint Vincent’s."
"That’s where I had my chest X-ray before," J told me, after.
"Maybe they still have a record of it."
At Saint Vincent’s we followed a series of signs that lead us through a labyrinth of brown wallpapered hallways to a small room with a TV blaring. Several people sat slumped in their chairs, as if waiting for a delayed flight. The receptionist directed us to wait for a nurse. When she poked her head into the waiting room, she instantly recognized J. She also spent a day a week at the drop-in center, and had known him for 3 years. "They have your X-ray on file," she told him, in a tone that added you stupid ass. "But they say they can’t find it," I said, "and he needs to have one to get a home. What should he do?"
"I’ll be there tomorrow, I’ll ask them to look for it."
The next day I called the drop-in center and the director of outreach told me that he had found J’s chest X-ray, so there was no need for him to get one after all.