My Experience Without a Home
Some years back I was asked to write a little bit about my experience with homelessness. I had completely forgotten about this until I stumbled across it on an old hard drive. After reading through it I decided to slightly edit and publish it. Enjoy...
In order to give you the real experience of being in a shelter, I have to first tell you what happens before you can make it there. There is a very rare occasion where you will find a shelter in NJ that you can get into without a referral. Many people may not even know where to get a referral, so they end up doing dangerous things like sleeping in their cars or abandoned buildings. I slept in my vehicle for months before figuring out how to get into a shelter. Many times when you get to the proper places for help shelters don't have space left for you, or they try to send you to Newark where absolutely nobody wants to go.
Eventually I was directed to social services, who informed me that they needed proof of my homelessness before they could help me. Tell me if I'm wrong, but how could a person possibly prove homelessness? It has never made sense to me to ask a person to prove that they have absolutely nothing left. I don't think someone would face the embarrassment of going to ask another human being for food and shelter if they didn't actually need the help. I would have done anything to not be sitting in front of her at that moment. Thinking that I was finally in the right place just to be told they needed the impossible in order to help me. I left the office in tears. Feeling desolate and dejected. What was I actually supposed to do next?
Well I eventually ended up forging a letter stating that I was living with someone, but couldn’t anymore because their landlord saw me there and threatened to evict them. I told the intake worker that I was no longer on speaking terms with the person but they could call and verify themselves that I’m not allowed to live there. I’m not sure if she did but she finally directed me to a shelter in Dunellen, NJ that accepted women and families. I entered the program with my two children. This is the beginning of my first experience in a shelter.
This was not the typical type of place people think of when they hear the word shelter. There weren’t rooms or real beds because we moved from church to church every Sunday. There was never really a reason to unpack or get too comfortable. Members of the church would donate their time and cooking skills to us during that week which was greatly appreciated. Temporary walls were put up to separate the families and attempt to provide a little privacy. We all slept on cots and were provided with sheets and sometimes a pillow. We were not allowed to stay at the church during the day because they always had programs going on during the day in the spaces that we slept in. They paid an older man to provide transportation assistance to the people in the program, so early in the morning he would pick everyone up and either drop us off at the “day shelter” in Middlesex and/or take us to work and important appointments. It was up to us to either look for work or find something to do so we wouldn’t go crazy during the day. The van also took school age children to school in all the respective towns they were from. There were women that in charge of the shelter that directed me to get foodstamps and WIC so that I wouldn’t have to worry about food when the shelter of the week couldn't provide it. Being in this type of shelter really made me want to make the changes necessary in my life so that I could come back and provide help to women that are in the same position. I really wanted to be someone that could show them the way through and out.
I eventually made it out of that situation but I wouldn't say that I survived it. I was out of the shelter but never really stopped being homeless. I spent a lot of time sleeping on people's couches, in school buses and in my car. Then something happened that made me realize that I couldn't live another day like that and I got myself into another shelter. This time I was pregnant. Being pregnant and homeless is one of the worst possible situations to be in, but it also gets you more assistance at a faster pace. I was sent to the YMCA of Elizabeth, NJ. This was in my opinion a more typical type of shelter. It was women only and we all stayed in one building together. There was always someone on staff that had to stay overnight with us, and anywhere from 2-6 workers in and out during the day. We were in a state funded facility in one of the many hoods in Elizabeth...needless to say we weren't people at that point. We were the monthly stipend they received for having us in their building that month.When you go into the program they explain that you aren't allowed to be there for more than a few months, but on my first day I met women that had been there for a year or more. You learn very quickly that many women, of all colors and shapes, ended up there for many different reasons. Once we got there we were all looked at the same way. As trash.
We were given refrigerators to share and space to put our food and other products that we purchased. These items were stolen on a daily and nightly basis and the staff “was not responsible” for replacing them. We also were not allowed to keep things in our rooms (which were randomly checked for “contraband” whether we were present or not). All of the rooms had bunkbeds, but some were for singles and others were for families. We were not allowed to be in each others rooms for any reason at all. My room had four people assigned to it. The room was split into two rooms with one bunk bed in each room, a bathroom in one, a closet in that same one, and a dresser in the other. A door separated the two rooms and it had to be kept unlocked so that we could go to the bathroom at night. I had to be assigned the bottom bunk because I was pregnant. My room ended up being the one with the most people in and out of it because it just happened to be the one to get the most crazy people. I would say that's just my opinion, but if you could ask someone that was there with me they would agree. The women that were repeatedly assigned to my top bunk talked to themselves, were violent, plugged the electrical sockets with bubble gum, and did various other things that often made me afraid for the life of my unborn child. I woke up one morning feeling discomfort in my belly and I woke up to one of my many roommates sitting on my twin sized bed practically on top of my belly. She wasn't in my room much longer after that. One thing that wasn't tolerated in the shelter was violence or the threat of violence. A very good friend of mine was actually kicked out of the shelter because she ended up defending me from one of those very roommates.
It was bad enough that the women in the shelter with me made me constantly uncomfortable and on guard, but the staff ended up being untrustworthy, liars, and never actually wanted to help any of us. They had jobs that could have been really fulfilling for them, but instead they just treated it like a paycheck. We were stories for them to go home and tell their families at night. Probably laughing at our misfortune and poverty stricken lives. The really terrible thing is most of the women were of color with an opportunity to look out for other women coming from the same background as them. Instead of realizing the unique situation they had to make a difference in people's lives they sat back and whispered about us, ate our food and took every opportunity possible to create drama among the residents.
Being there as long as I was I obviously made some friends along the way. Together we stumbled across another program right around the corner that secretly helped us get out of the shelter and into our own apartments within two months of meeting them. We ended up being the support system for each other that we all needed to be strong enough to take the next steps in all of our lives. Sometimes being there didn’t seem as stressful and insane as it really was because of the friendships that I created and still value to this day, but looking back on it I know that I will never go back if I can help it. I have learned many valuable lessons in this life, most of them probably during my streak of homelessness. One of them is that the only person that can truly change your life is you. I could have been in that shelter for years doing the same things everyday but never truly living. Instead I decided that my newborn and I deserved better and more. I got up when I didn't want to and walked on swollen feet and ankles through the blistering cold and snow while my belly grew to outrageous proportions, but I never quit. I couldn't. We only get one life and I was not ready for mine to be over that quick.
Once again thank you for taking the time to get another glimpse into my life. Until next time...