(Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless said a supporter named Tem Feavel submitted this photo to the Coalition in 2007; there is no record of where it was taken.)
I’m a paycheck or two away from being homeless. With the next round of layoffs looming, it could be any day. The New Normal. I know I’m luckier than most: 610,042 people “experience” homelessness on any given night in the United States. About 9% percent of homeless adults—57, 849—are veterans. Last week I spoke with a homeless marine vet who sits on the subway grating at the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue and sleeps outside Strawberry at night. Veteran’s Day was the first day I noticed him with his cardboard sign. He told me he was shot up in Afghanistan, his family died in a car accident and he has been homeless for 9 weeks. I never give money to “panhandlers,” but I found him to be genuine, and I wanted to help.
According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, one in 45 children in the U.S. is homeless. One in five children live in poverty, according to recent findings by the U.S. Census Bureau. In spite of this, it is now illegal to distribute food to the homeless in 21 cities.
In September 1987, my mother joined the ranks of the homeless. She lived at a women’s shelter on the Upper East Side for six months. I was a student at Hunter College. She visited me in the afternoon, and we’d have coffee in Styrofoam cups at the lobby café. I was afraid someone would figure out she was homeless or that she’d cause a scene. But she didn’t. She told me she went there on her own sometimes for coffee. It was the highlight of her day. It was a time I’d rather forget.
Mental illness was a stepping stone to her homeless odyssey. She always seemed to be on the brink of homelessness; she would be evicted from numerous apartments both in North Carolina, where her sister lived, and in New York. She got herself kicked out of apartments due to her irrational and sometimes hysterical behavior. Why? The Puerto Ricans were trying to kill her. They were poisoning her by spilling toxins down the pipes. Death from above.
As time wore on, in addition to the Puerto Ricans, the air turned bad; it had different sources–the generators in the parking lot, the rose bush outside the window, toxic mold. She called the Fire Department to investigate mysterious “stains” on her ceiling, and the EPA to come and examine the toxic mold and test the air. Needless to say, this behavior made her less than an ideal tenant. She complained repeatedly to the landlord or building manager, or they’d get wind of her ravings from other tenants or the Fire Department.. Eventually, she made herself more trouble than she was worth, and the management would boot her out.
Once she even lit a newspaper on fire in front of her tormentor’s door. This did not go over well.
She lived with me and my then-boyfriend “Doug” for over 3 months, and we couldn’t take it anymore. One night I saw her shadow outside the curtained French doors leading to our bedroom. She was holding a steak knife. She didn’t enter our room, but her presence was chilling. I assumed she had plans to hurt Doug (and not me). Doug had recently told her she had to find another place to live.
* * *
Some events pre-dating her homelessness.
Mom in a house dress and flip flops chasing me with scissors out of my Bronx basement apartment. I run into the elevator. The elevator door slams shut, and she stands there screaming, veins popping out of her petite, muscular arms. It gives “running with scissors” a whole new meaning.
She shrieks, “It’s my apartment. You’re my daughter. Doug has to leave!”
We call the police who have to remove her bodily from the apartment. An ambulance delivers her to Jacobi Hospital for a psych evaluation. I take out an order of protection against her. I want her to disappear and stop ruining my life.
The hospital releases her (thank you, President Reagan) onto the streets. Now she is homeless.
I don’t feel good about not being able to provide shelter for her, but I have to preserve my own sanity.
Mom finds her way to a shelter.
* * *
When Mom came to visit me at Hunter, I felt ashamed. Ashamed that a fellow student might see her with me, ashamed of the state she was in. Somehow she maintained her hygiene: she was always fastidious about her appearance. It was frightening to see how much weight she’d lost: she was thin to begin with. I didn’t know how she was eating.
Sometimes we met for dinner at a coffee shop on 86th and Lexington. One night she had a black eye.
“I got into a row with Rosie O’Grady,” she said.
Rosie O’Grady wasn’t the woman’s real name. Mom pled innocence, but I knew she must have pushed the lady’s buttons to get that shiner–not that it made it okay.
I asked if she wanted a chocolate milkshake to go with her hamburger, and she said no.
I said, “I can pay for it, get whatever you want.”
Her face contorted with rage, “You think you can buy me off with a hamburger and a chocolate shake?!”
Her powerful voice resonated throughout the diner, and my cheeks burned. Shame.
“I’m going to find a place by Christmas. I’ve saved the money,” she said. “Remember our Christmases in Jackson Heights? Midnight Mass and your beautiful plum coat.”
“They slashed my suede boots,” she said.
I looked down at my food, unable to eat.
How could this happen? How could I allow this to happen to my own mother?
When I heard that legislation has been enacted to prevent our homeless citizens from receiving food, it touched a nerve. Mom was homeless almost 30 years ago, but it could have been yesterday. Every time I see someone on the streets, I think, it could be her, or it could be me. She has not been homeless since, but I will never forget.