Street to Home: The Key to Room 27

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01/21/2009 11:55 AM |

In this report, the fifth (and last?) 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.

It’s not even a room, it’s true. It’s a cubicle just large enough for a single bed and a small bedside table. The walls, which don’t extend all the way to the ceiling, are thin. But there is a lock on the door.

The Prince Safe Haven on the Bowery used to be a flophouse. The tiny wainscoted cubicles are now painted a fresh and cheery yellow. Whatever the reputation of flophouses on the Bowery, this place is safe and clean. Its purpose is to provide a transitional residence for chronically homeless men.

J was familiar with the options available to him, and he specifically requested The Prince. It became immediately clear to me that if J were to succeed in fulfilling the requirements, he needed to have a phone. Having fulfilled the TB test requirement, he still had to be sighted five times on the street by the outreach worker, and have an interview with a psychiatrist, within three weeks. We went to K-Mart, where I purchased a $10 phone with two hours of minutes. J wanted me to be with him at the "sightings". J’s ten-plus years on the street combined with his radical past and run-ins with police resulted in his deep distrust of any perceived authority. A mediating influence, in this case myself, was required.

It was cold and windy waiting in the park for the outreach worker, P, to come along. He was very happy to conduct the intake in my office, also known as Odessa, a Polish diner on Avenue A where I often bring people for their interviews. P has been working as an outreach worker for over 20 years. I found him to initially be a bit inscrutable, but he definitely knows his work. He was never put off by J’s somewhat acerbic attitude. At the same time, J’s impatience was understandable; he’d been through this before.

Finally J was interviewed by the psychiatrist, the last hoop he had to jump through, and he put on a good show. As helicopter flew low overhead mid-interview, J went into a detailed description of police surveillance, of himself in particular.

Having completed the sightings and interviews, J was put on a list for a transitional residence. A couple of weeks later P called to say a space had opened up at a transitional residence in mid-town. We arranged to meet J in the park to go see it.

I huddled alone in the bitter cold at our spot outside the men’s bathroom, watching the homeless men traipse in and out with their bags and carts and bottles. I eagerly scanned the park for J’s dreadlocked and hooded figure to emerge. I called J, he didn’t pick up. This was what I was afraid of all along. What if he just wasn’t ready or able to make this transition? On the streets he is king, leader of the pack, the go-to guy. He can get you a sandwich, hot coffee or an extra pair of pants in a blink of an eye. He’s well known as an Avenue A pundit, hanging out till the wee hours of the morning talking politics and history with an eclectic group of East Village veterans.

But J called me back and P showed up on the scene with his partner, who drove the warm SUV that took us over to the residence. We completed the paperwork along the way. P had a surprise: a space had come up at The Prince.

"Woman on the floor!" The guard shouted into the large open loft with its rectangular rows of tiny cubicles. The director of The Prince was giving us a tour of J’s new place. There were a few men on the floor, all of them black. They didn’t acknowledge us. The sounds of a radio, bad reception and blues, floated over from the far end of the room. "Here’s your key, room 27," said the Director, handing J the key. J unlocked the door. followed him in and we sat side by side on the bed.

"Pretty great," I said, patting the mattress. "Not too bad at all." J was silent.

It’s not even a room, it’s true, but the residents have access to laundry services and three meals a day. Poor people paid more — three cents a night, in fact — to sleep in a filthy unlit hallway in this very same neighborhood at the turn of the century. Here, the residents live for free, and can come and go as they please. ll they have to do is leave their key with the guard and not be absent from the premises more than 72 hours at a time. As we left the residence that first day J said to me, "I feel like a puppy left at the pound. Don’t be a chimera and disappear on me."

It soon became apparent that situating J at The Prince did not end my involvement. The on-site social worker whose assistance is key to J completing his transition to an apartment immediately expressed to me that she didn’t like his attitude, and so was reluctant to begin the paperwork. "It’s a lot of work," she said to me, "and he’s not being cooperative."

"I promise there will be no problems with J, I’ll come with him to complete the paperwork." I know it’s very challenging for J to stay at The Prince, in spite of the obvious benefits. I’ve been very grateful for this last cold spell, as it increased the likelihood of J staying inside.

"I’m not going to disappear," I reassured J. "In fact, let’s plan a dinner party at my place to celebrate."

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