Ending Homelessness Benefits Everyone

How do you get people to care about homelessness? 

My cursor blinks, indefinitely, upon a blank white screen. That’s a hard question.

I began writing extensively about this topic, the homeless crisis, many years before this blog was born. I’ve cared about homelessness for a very long time.

At the age of 16, I started writing and submitting journal entries discussing homelessness to my high school English teacher.

Over a decade ago, after the sudden death of my husband’s father, he and his younger siblings lost their home. He slept in a park across the street from the insurance company my mother worked at. I’d often find him, at 6:30 am, washing up in the public restroom, in the dark, alone. After a few months, he was taken off the street by a social worker and brought to a youth shelter.

As a child, I had friends and peers who lived out of cars, in parks, with their often working parents barely making ends meet.

Then, a decade later, we find ourselves reentering a distant memory, as our on-site caseworker reminds us that he is only a paycheck away from switching places with us.

Today, I am housed. Again. But, let’s be honest for a second. My chances of becoming homeless again are far greater than, say, suddenly becoming rich. Landing a book deal. Winning the lottery. None of those things are going to happen, but I could very well become homeless again.

Both my husband and I are employed. We’re college educated. We live in a middle class neighborhood. I have a kind and generous landlord. I have a fantastic union job. My husband has steady hours. Most of the time, we eat well too. But in the event of an emergency? I’m not sure.

Today, I find myself in a peculiar place, when it comes to the topic of homelessness.

I am privileged.

I am a young, able-bodied, light-skinned, well-spoken, and college educated.

I am both your author and my audience — it’s discourse community, and it’s stakeholder.

And, in a way, you kind of are too!

In the brilliant article Why It’s So Hard to Stop Being Homeless in New York, written in New York Magazine, we learn that the homeless are not “an anomaly: 71 percent of the shelter population is made up of families, a third of whom have a head of household who is working. ‘The new working poor are homeless,’ says Christine Quinn, the former City Council Speaker who now serves as chief executive for Win, a shelter provider for women and families.

A lot of them work for the city or not-for-profits. I can’t tell you I don’t have a Win employee living in a shelter somewhere.’”

Many homeless citizens are serving their communities much like the rest of us. Homeless families are serving their communities and are vital parts of their communities, and yet, that same community, that some society — us, all of us — we not serving them in return.

Additionally, “Between 2000 and 2014, the median New York City rent increased 19 percent while household income decreased by 6.3 percent.

In that same period, the city’s homeless population more than doubled from 22,972 to 51,470. There are now around 60,000 people in the city’s shelter  system, an all-time peak.”

What does that say about us, as a collective? We must all do our part, right?

I believe that humanizing the homeless, as we often fail to do, is the real key to solving such a devastating and growing problem. Invisible People does just that, and does it incredibly well.

We have to talk to the homeless and get their side of the story.

We have to write about it — make room for the difficult and otherwise painful dialogue.

This is the only way we can truly help anyone, by communicating the many unseen and unheard truths. This is the only way we can avoid assumptions and biases, and finally move forward and impact real, sustainable change.

And, you know, ending homelessness doesn’t only help homeless people. Ending homelessness is good for all of us. Reform to the New York City shelter system, homeless rights, and tenant and landlord relations will have many direct effects on many different stakeholders.

For a homeless individual, this could mean better shelter conditions, as well as better access to services needed to the mentally or physically ill, LGBTQ youth, families, or the elderly.

It means more people housed — and that’s a good thing. More people housed means more more people employed, more people educated, and more families taken care of. And that’s just the tip of iceberg! In fact, it’s well understood by experts that homelessness, in many cases, can lead to an increase in emergency room visits, ambulance calls and other associated costs too.

So, how do you get people to care about homelessness? 

I’d like to think that the very existence of such an atrocity would be enough to get people to care. But due to reasons I’ve yet to understand — it’s just not enough.

So maybe,

if I make it about them,

if I make it about you,

you’ll start to care.

 

Photo by: Taufiq Klinkenborg

 

What to read more about my story? Go here.

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Breaking News! Rompers are in; Homelessness is trending

(aren’t I a hoot?)

Social media does a lot of weird and downright frightening things. If you haven’t already guessed, rompers are indeed in. What’s a romper you might ask? Well, it’s basically a very short jumpsuit. In the occasion where you have to urinate, you’re in for a disaster. The entire ensemble drops to your ankles and you’re totally naked while sitting on the toilet. It’s fun. And kind of chilly.

So, what’s trending on social media these days? Weird stuff. Lots and lots of weird and shitty stuff.

My favorites include:

The “homeless challenge” where people pitch tents in the backyard of their expensive homes to simulate homelessness. Because that’s apparently comparable to real homelessness? No, in fact, it’s not. It’s so *not* that it’s kind of offense that you’d think it is!

That’s hardly the tip of the iceberg, either. I’ve noticed a lot of these supposed feel good “social experiments” on the rise, where it’s purpose is to “share positive and heartwarming messages”. Whom exactly are at the center of these experiments? Homeless people. More often than not, at the expense of homeless people. I’ve seen several videos of young men going around dropping their wallets in front of panhandlers and camping sites. It’s become kind of an internet sensation. Here is an example of this type of experiment.

Well, I don’t see a problem with that, Jocelyn! Think again. See, in the event that the homeless person is “morally good” and returns the wallet, they’re “rewarded for their good actions”. That — that right there is extremely problematic. A homeless person deserves dignity and respect, regardless of where you’d like to place them upon your moral compass. Even more so, homeless people deserve our help, regardless if whether or not they would have returned that wallet or not.

I’ve seen tons of these videos, and they all have millions of views. This is not the first (and probably won’t be the last) highly-problematic messaging I’ve witnessed about homeless people — especially in regards to this sort of “good” vs “bad” act. Is this really a surprise though, considering it isn’t a new concept that poor people are seen as morally bad? It’s actually quite common, in fact, and, not to mention, a massive roadblock to much needed social and economic change.

In short, everything about these so-called “experiments” is awful. Not only does a video like this do nothing to end homelessness, but can you imagine how damaging this can be on the public’s perception of homeless people?

Breaking News! It’s actually kind of shitty to exploit a homeless person for views. Don’t do it.

Know Your Rights! What to Do If You’re Being Evicted (NYC)

I Know This Is Terrifying

But, don’t panic just yet. As a New Yorker, the first thing you should know is your rights. Thanks to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, tenants have many rights and privileges, even more so if they live in a rent controlled or rent stabilized apartment. Regardless if you’re being evicted, or you’ve just moved in, it is important to know your rights. It is your landlord’s responsibility to keep your apartment safe, clean, and well-maintained, for starters. To learn more, see the HPD’s Tenant Rights FAQ

 

First Things First, Talk to Your Landlord

If you’re having difficulty paying your rent, let them know as soon as possible. There is a chance that you may be able to work out a payment plan before things get out of hand.

At this point, if you foresee long term, or even short term financial difficulty, consider going to the Human Resources Administration. Here you can apply for benefits such as food stamps, or even cash assistance to help with your living costs. You can also apply for some benefits online through ACCESS NYC, and screen for eligibility for many other benefit programs!

Most New York City residents are taken to housing court because of a non-payment case. Keep in mind that, more often than not, your landlord is not seeking to evict you, they’re seeking to collect rent – from one source or another. Luckily, New York City residents have many resources in order to help with back rent such as CITYFEPS Rent Supplement Program, Rental Arrears Grants through the HRA, and the Homeless Prevention Fund.

In order to access the Homeless Prevention Fund, you must first get in touch with one of these organizations listed below:

Coalition for the Homeless
129 Fulton Street
New York, NY 10038
Eviction Prevention Hotline: (212) 776-2039

The Bridge Fund
105 East 22nd Street, Suite 621 E
New York, NY 10010
Phone: (212) 674-0812

Community Service Society
105 East 22nd Street, Room 409
New York, NY 10010
Phone: (212) 614-5375

Additionally, the best thing for you to do is to simply call 311, or visit 311 Online.

 

Do you Need Repairs? Help with Back Rent? Seek Help Immediately

Of course, it is often much more complicated than simply non-payment. If you feel your landlord is overcharging you, or harassing you, or, they’re simply not providing you with needed repairs, it is important to seek legal assistance as soon as possible.

A great resource to get started is Housing Court Answers. They offer a great deal of insight into the legal process of being in housing court. Give them a call several weeks before your first court date – they can provide numerous referrals to where you can receive financial or legal assistance regarding your unique situation.

Additionally, you may want to consider finding a lawyer to represent you in court. If anything at all, seek legal consultation. If you can’t afford a lawyer, you can receive free legal help through the Legal Aid Society and Legal Services NYC, just to name a few! To find a lawyer that services your area, go to LawHelpNY.org

 

I Still Have to Leave, now What?

Unfortunately, sometimes this happens, and it may even seem unavoidable. If you must vacate your apartment, according to your court stipulation, first note how much time you have left.

In most cases, if you settle to vacate the apartment, you will have at least 30 days to do so. If your case goes to trial, and you lose, you may need to leave in as little as 5 days.

In any case, your landlord cannot lock you out without a marshal’s notice. Additionally, your landlord also cannot turn off your basic utilities, such as water, heat, electricity, or gas, for as long as you inhabit the apartment. This is very important to keep in mind. If this does occur, you can return to court and contact the police department.

At this point, you will need to start looking for another place to live. Are you able to move in with family or friends in the meantime, while you get back on your feet?

In the case where that isn’t an option, seek community action organizations – many of which receive funding through the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP). These folks offer homeless prevention or relocation services.

There are several other housing and support services including:

  • Solutions to End Homelessness Program (STEHP)
  • New York State Supportive Housing Program (NYSSHP)
  • Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA)
  • Operational Support for AIDS Housing (OSAH)
  • Emergency Needs for the Homeless Program (ENHP)

You can search for housing services by region here.

 

Help! I Received a Marshal’s Notice in the Mail

If you’re reading this with a marshal’s notice already in hand, I know that this is unimaginably stressful for you. I’m sorry that you and your family are going through this right now. Don’t give up. Be strong.

I urge you at this point to consider any options you may have missed earlier – a resource, family member, or a friend.

Your biggest concern at this point is your safety (and your family’s safety), as well as the safety of your belongings. Consider looking into storage spaces. If you can not afford a storage unit, you can still seek many, if not all of the resources mentioned above for financial assistance with securing your belongings.

And, lastly, get in touch with the Department of Homeless Services for instructions on how to enter the city’s shelter system.

Shelter in-take locations are listed here.

 

Go to a Shelter Today.

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Anti-Homeless Rhetoric Doesn’t Make Homelessness Go Away

It sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? Still, when it comes to tackling homelessness, we’re continuing to see criminalization as the go-to response for eliminating the problem.

Whether that be installing spikes around your business establishment or bars in the middle of public benches, we can see, quite clearly, that our attitudes towards the homeless are far from compassionate.

We cannot solve homelessness with hostility.

We certainly cannot solve homelessness with violence, either. And, yet, the homeless are becoming increasingly at risk of hate crimes, some even resulting in death.

Asking a homeless person to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, when they have no boots… or straps, is not only counter-productive, but it is also cruel and inhumane.

We can’t punish away homelessness, and the more we try, the more at-risk they become, the worse the problem becomes, and the further away from a solution we will be.

Where does this anti-homeless messaging come from?

Humans are just shitty?

People love to be bullies, and there is simply no easier target than a homeless person?

Well, yes, but it’s probably a lot more than that, too.

Anti-Homeless messaging is all around us. More so, this deeply-rooted, negative messaging is very difficult to change. In fact, right now, I can only think of one campaign, Invisible People, whose primary focus is to change what we know and how we think about homelessness. Until we change what we know and how we think, policies will not change.

Re-telling the story of homelessness is no easy task — not while our political leaders are spreading a much more negative, anti-homeless message, and we, although attempting to share our story, and spread a positive message, often do so without a platform, without a following, and without the support from our communities.

Even within homeless services, the angle is very much the same. Discipline and punishment take precedence over much needed empowerment. Even those meant to help us often chastise us. Within the spaces that are meant to be safe, is was not always safe.

Clearly, we all want to make the homeless “go away”, and we’re desperately willing to do anything to make it so.

The question then becomes: when we will finally realize that the only way to “eliminate” the homeless is by uplifting them, supporting them, and housing them? Basically, employing compassion.

 

 

Author’s Note: As a formally homeless person myself, writing about my own experiences and advocating for my homeless peers is not only very important to me, but it’s also a part of my healing process. You can read my story here.

Being Poor Is F*cking Expensive

I’ve noticed that the financial advice given to poor people is not very realistic. They’ll tell you to save, save, save, and more importantly, not spend more than you earn. If you’re a paycheck away from the streets, you’re probably not able to save money. You probably don’t earn a living wage to begin with. You probably don’t have cable to cut, or a contract cellular plan to ditch. You don’t have electronics laying around to pawn. You probably don’t own a car you can sell. Perhaps you don’t even take the bus to work. Perhaps you walk several miles there and back, because that’s the true reality of what it means to be poor. It certainly has nothing to do with filling a piggy bank.

Saving money, while living in poverty, is nearly impossible. This is especially the case if you receive any kind of government benefits. If you can afford to save money, that means you can afford to live without benefits, right? Problem is, saving money is a path out of poverty. Saving money is a path to higher education. Saving money is a path to a better job.

Hell, saving money is a path to saving more money.

Many poor people don’t even have the financial power to purchase products on sale that could potentially save them a lot of money in the long run. If you have more money to spend, that means you now have the opportunity to take advantage of buying in bulk too.

It feels strange to identify as “formally homeless”, but I know that there are things I understand that someone who isn’t or wasn’t homeless simply does not. Just a few months ago, I was jumping from one homeless shelter to the next. My life, then, was unrecognizable. It was difficult, but in many ways, a different kind of difficult. Although I was poor and on the verge of homelessness for a long time, homelessness further removed me from the ability to choose…anything. The threat of homelessness, the threat of no longer having a choice, even today, feels very real.

Being homeless is fucking expensive. I’ve spent more money simply trying to survive in a shelter than at any other time in my life. As my resources drained, my options drained too.

Before my husband and I moved into a shelter, I used to take advantage of grocery delivery services, using coupons, buying in bulk, stockpiling, and filling our pantry with basic goods such as sugar, flour, or rice when they were discounted. I could do this not only because I had the financial power to do so, but also because I had the space.

Homelessness means buying what you can carry. Being poor means buying what you can afford. Homelessness means not being able to cook. Being poor means skipping your gas bill. So, no, we don’t need to make better financial decisions. We need higher wages and affordable housing.

 

 

 

 

The Magic of Mutual Aid: Solidarity and Direct Action in Activism

I was a senior in high school when I first started writing extensively about race relations and income inequality — two things that were very influential in my life. I was a mixed-race kid who fell in love and eventually married another mixed-race kid. I had homeless peers who I went to school with everyday. Now, nearly a decade later, political thought is still a big part of the writing I do.

Like the undercover journalist I am, I have written nearly 100,000 words documenting homelessness in New York City. From the moment my ex-landlord illegally doubled my rent in 2016, until now, 3 months after exiting a Manhattan homeless shelter, I have been documenting my journey.

What was once the butt of a joke, these keyboard-smashing warriors, has evolved into what I believe is the fastest growing political movement.

We’ve entered the age of technology where we can send a stranger $5, in a matter of seconds.

Young people crowdfund first-aid kits through Prime Now to supplement a political march, literally, in real time.

Young people send other young people money to pay off college debts so they can go back to school and finish their degrees.

They pay each other’s co-pays on their anti-depressants.

Think about that for a second.

What makes these young people stand out is how strongly they believe in direct action. They’ve stepped into their power and aren’t afraid to wield it. Through their unwavering dedication towards solidarity, they have entertained the idea that, perhaps, there is another way, a better way, and a quicker way to help other people.

I’ve seen this phenomenon exercised greatly in the homeless community, as well. My dearest friend, Franky, lives it everyday.

No longer do we trust a broken economic and welfare system. Instead, resolutions occur, even in seemingly insignificantly ways, through this newly discovered economic power. There is something very liberating about engaging with other people to reduce the reliance on political and economic machines. There is something phenomenal about admitting that, yes, the system doesn’t always work, and because of that, I have taken up responsibility for my peers.

For me personally, I know it works. Not only does it work, but it’s the right thing to do.

I’ve been on both the giving and receiving end of this phenomenon, and it has now become a huge part of my life. I’ve seen how a few bucks from a handful of generous strangers can turn into a week of meals. Standing in solidarity, with say, the homeless community, or the black community, does not only save lives, but it also changes minds. It changes, not only their circumstances, but also the hearts of all those involved, at risk, and those who wield the power of change.

Honestly, I think we’re on to something here. I think we’re more than capable of shaking things up.

If we stand together, stand up for each other, united, we can change the lives of others.

Through our actions, we can change the way we help one another.

Your Writing Has the Potential to Change the World

My latest ambition, Scar Tissue, has connected me with people from all over the world. Even before the project dropped on WordPress, my story reached thousands of people through various online platforms.

With a little bravery, my words begin to tell a story often untold. With a hunger for justice, my words influence what you know, what you believe, and what you think about extreme poverty, homelessness, and class warfare in America. With a single story, your actions begin to change. You interact with your community differently. You vote differently.

Now the same can be said overseas as well as right here at home. An old friend, and some new, reached out to translate my story into four different languages. Even now, an earlier version of Scar Tissue reaches beyond our borders — in fact,  my story is now being read in Russian and French.

When I consider how far my words have traveled, I realize it is my responsibility to take account for each word, each message, that I am sending.

I wholeheartedly believe you are also responsible for your words too. What will you do with your platform? What ripple will you send out into the ocean?

It takes very little effort to connect with the world.

If you know how to employ a few #tags, delve deep enough into the pits of Twitter or Reddit, you can find anyone, and anyone can find you. As terrifying as that may sound, think about how beautiful that actually is.

In the earliest stages of Scar Tissue, while the storm was still brewing, a dear friend of mine encouraged me to write my story. While barely staying afloat, plunging deeper and deeper into my sinkhole — just weeks after losing everything, he challenged me to write — to write until the story was brought into this world, until it was no longer just my pain, but something tangible, something I could hold, something I could own, then part with — and share with the world. He told me to start and not to stop until I was able to swim to the surface.

And, so, for weeks, I wrote. I wrote and did not stop. And, that is how the foundation of Scar Tissue came to be. Now, we’re breaking far beyond 100,000 words of unedited, unfiltered, pure grit and growth, imagery, narrative, and storytelling. This all began at a Starbucks a few blocks away from the homeless shelter I were sleeping at. Now, I continue to write new chapters, edit old ones, from an apartment in Brooklyn. And, well, the rest is history.

Just one story, that’s all it took, to put me in a position to influence change, both at the keyboard, and in my professional life.

Your words have an audience — your voice, a force strong enough to influence the world. What are you going to do with that power?