I got off Welfare by becoming homeless. The reality of life is that when you become poor then things start to unravel pretty fast. You have no good options.
It was 1991. I was too sick to work so I was receiving about $350 a month on Welfare. That only enabled me to rent a furnished room in a house that was owner-occupied. The owner’s wife had left him for another man and taken their children with her. Without her income, he was going to lose the house, so he decided to take in roomers. I was the first one. This is another reality of poverty: the poor are feeding off each other. A broke homeowner relying on a woman on Welfare to pay his mortgage—not exactly a match made in heaven.
He was a homeowner, not an experienced landlord, and his expectations of a tenant were unrealistic. He made my life miserable, treating me as if I was subject to his will in all things including the most personal, like how much toilet paper I used to wipe my butt. (It was not hard for me to imagine why his wife had moved and out and his children had gone with her.) When one is poor, one tries to tolerate the intolerable. You have no good options and you know it. Depression is inevitable.
One day he chased me up the stairs and into my room, screaming that he ought to stab me in the back. I was terrified. I knew nothing of violence. The closest I’d come to violence in my life was my sister slapping me—once. So I called a friendly acquaintance in my church who I knew had something to do with a women’s shelter. I hoped that she might invite me to stay with her for a few days. Wouldn’t a Christian do something like that? “Christian” isn’t what it used to be; she directed me to the shelter.
I knew nothing of the system. For generations, every member of my family either had worked or had been taken care of by relatives. I didn’t even know the language of poverty and despair. I thought I was going to a shelter for abused women but it turned out to be the Salvation Army’s shelter for homeless women.
The shelter was located on West Onondaga Street in Syracuse, NY. It was a large, old, three-story home that had been converted. Everything was in disrepair—flaking paint, torn carpets, broken furniture. I was assigned to a two-bed room. My roommate was an older woman who still had some personal possessions and a car, so every morning she would get up, strip her sheets off the bed and lock them in her car so nobody could steal them.
The plastic covering had been left on the bedsprings and mattress, but the door had been removed from the closet. One day I was sitting on the bed when a large rat shuffled out of the closet, came over to the bed and started to claw its way up the plastic to where I was sitting. I sat there screaming, unable to get away and having no coping skills. Finally a black woman from New York City—whose survival skills in the hard-knock life were considerable—came in with a broom and forced the rat back into the closet. I, thereafter, considered this woman my friend—wouldn’t you?
She had come to Syracuse to go into a drug rehabilitation program but there were no beds available so she was staying at the shelter. Her contract with various people in the system required that she not do drugs. She was supposed to meet twice a week with a counselor who would verify her drug-free status.
The woman, of course, was still doing drugs. A drug addict is a drug addict is a drug addict. A few people do get clean but it’s rare. Getting hooked on drugs is the worst thing that can happen to a person. You will lie; you will cheat; you will steal from your employer, your best friends and your own mother in order to get drugs. If your daughter flunks out of college, gets pregnant and goes to jail for stealing, you should still thank your lucky stars she’s not doing drugs. A person can recover from every other wrong, stupid, bad-ass thing he or she does but once you’re hooked on drugs, you’re on a one-way street to hell.
The woman in the shelter found me, in my naive desire to trust her, to be easy pickings. She stole my socks, my Food Stamps and my Welfare check. The evidence was circumstantial but obvious. She picked me clean. Part of the problem was the staff.
The staff at the shelter consisted almost entirely of young girls. They had no particular training for their jobs nor did they have any life experience. This is another major social problem: the frontline workers for the people with the most problems are young people with the fewest solutions. This is at least true in homeless shelters, among Welfare workers, and on inpatient psychiatry. Older people who have been broken by illness, unemployment, divorce and death are under the control of young people who have never bought a house, birthed a baby or buried a parent. And we—society’s most tormented—are not being served by them. We are being controlled. They hold the keys to locked doors and the access to resources, and the power goes to their heads. (To be continued)
In the biblical story about Job, God lets Satan destroy all Job’s flocks of animals, fields of grain, and even his children. After each destructive act a single servant survives to come to Job and say, “I alone am left to tell you.”
It is incredibly painful to write of the time when I had no authority over my own life but if I don’t tell you these stories, who will? How many other people do you know who have been on Welfare or homeless? Anybody? Do you know what poverty is really like?