Known for its flashy lights and high life, 8 million people inhabit New York City — some come with a dream and others were just born here. However, what people want to ignore are the nearly 63,000 homeless that are the victims of predatory real estate practices. Many of these victims are pushed into homelessness by slum lords, domestic abuse, unemployment, debts, price-gouging landlords, unlivable wages, gentrification, or just plain old bad luck.
I had been living in Virginia and fed up with working deadend jobs that I had no interest in working in the first place. One day I just packed my bags and told myself, I’m going to New York City to look for better opportunities. So, on January 16th, 2016, I just cold turkey hopped on a Penn Station bound Amtrak and checked-in to a homeless shelter.
I lived in New York City’s homeless shelter system for three months and here’s what happened.
I arrived at one of the drop-in centers in East New York, Brooklyn where I had to walk through a security check. They quickly confiscated a weed bowl that I had in my backpack that I had brought with me to return to a friend who lived in the area. I’m pretty sure those security guards “confiscated” that weed bowl for themselves. But nonetheless, it wasn’t mine so I didn’t care. They also confiscated my laptop which I cared a whole lot about, because I work remotely and its all I had to do my work from. Instead, they kept it in a locker behind the security checkpoint, which was probably a good thing once I learned that my roomies were a merry band of prostitutes, drug addicts, and other women who just couldn’t manage to keep themselves out of trouble.
The drop-in centers are temporary facilities where you’re interviewed to assess your situation. You’re only kept for a matter of weeks while they figure out what they want to do with you. But in this time, you quickly go from being treated like a human to a jail inmate because you are no longer your name, but a number and that’s what you are called the entire duration of your stay. Additionally, you have to ask for permission to do anything and you can only be in certain places in certain times of the day. Like a child.
I arrived at about 8pm I think, but I wasn’t given a bed until around midnight. While I waited, I had to sit in a hard chair in a cold hallway (mind you it’s winter) along with other women who had checked in and were waiting for a bed. By the time I got in, everyone was already in bed, so you could only imagine the hateful faces I earned when the guard turned on the light so I could get to my bed. The bed pictured above is the one I was assigned and kept through my time there. The blue blanket was thin and stiff, and I remembered never being able to get comfortable. All I wanted to do was sleep. After I got myself situated, I just stared into the dark ceiling listening to the steam pop and clank through the pipes overhead until I fell asleep.
Meals in the homeless shelter left much to be desired. You’re given a meal card to sign for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as you were given only one plate at that time unless there was enough for seconds. The food comes from food banks, and a few times, the food was molded or bad, so I learned I just had to inspect my food. It was hardly ever seasoned. Although I’m sure everyone was greatful for the food, that graciousness falls short when the food leaves you with the bubbleguts. However, I often times didn’t eat the food at all because I worked and could afford to just buy my meals from halal restaurants nearby. When I did eat from the shelter it was typically just the juice and I would give my plate away for anyone who wanted seconds since I was much more well off than many of the women in there were.
I was born and raised in a pretty hard neighborhood so violence isn’t a new thing to me. You grow numb and accustomed to it and learn when to clear it. So, when a Muslim woman spit in one of the Black security guard’s face and called him a nigger and another girl caught a beat down for snitching and left the shelter on a stretcher, I took one glance over my shoulder to assess the situation and then walked away minding my own business. Because that’s what you do. Minding other peoples’ business can make their business yours pretty quickly. And I don’t have any slots left on my Google Calendar for that. Although petty arguments broke out, they really weren’t that big of a deal. People get mad at each other. They fight. No one has weapons so they can only tough it out with their fists. I’m down for that.
Only once did drama try me and that was one time when a girl came in drunk and she tried to pick fights with people. She looked and started yelling at me “Yo booty big! Yo booty big!” People who do that just do it to try and get a rise out of you and I’m very good at ignoring people. So, she eventually just went away. Or perhaps she left intimidated by my big booty. Who knows. And no, I don’t have a big booty.
The Psycho Ward
The drop-in center houses anyone from normal to the mentally insane. The building was a former school so it had about 5 floors and we were free to roam the building between hours. While roaming, I came across a lounge with a TV on the second floor which wasn’t available on any of the other floors. I thought I had found an oasis! I had a seat on one of the couches and began watching TV, but a few minutes later, a security guard walked in and told me to leave because the entire floor was for the mentally ill. He said he didn’t want to be responsible if one of the nutcases attacked me. Apparently, the only reason they had a lounge on that floor was just to keep the insane, calm. That was enough information for me to gladly leave. He didn’t have to tell me twice.
While seemingly unrelated, Blizzards have a huge effect on New York City’s homeless shelters. A week after I arrived, the second largest blizzard in New York City’s history, with complete white-out conditions hit the area. The city’s law enforcement went into full force, forcing the homeless on the streets and subways into shelters and arresting any that refused.
We weren’t permitted to go outside but people wanted to smoke. So, while a group of women had the exit door open while on a smoke break, I took this picture from the backside of the shelter during a calm moment in the storm.
The shelter was all nice and toasty and had no windows so we really couldn’t see how bad the storm was outside. Until the next morning when the food truck didn’t arrive because the roads were too bad for it to get to us. There was no food in the shelter at all except a couple vending machines, so we went most of the day without anything to eat. Now you know, that if there is ever a zombie apocalypse, to always seek shelter in the grocery store.
The Bathrooms and Gnat Showers
While I know you may be expecting to hear horror stories of the bathrooms, I really didn’t experience any. The bathrooms were a combination of toilets and large showers. For the most part, the facility was kept clean and the only thing that was dirty were peoples’ bad attitudes. But the only real annoyance were gnats which is a phenomenon I can’t really explain other than they liked to group around water. After seeing those things, I was gnat taking a shower in there. You see what I did there?
Midnight Transfer & the Homeless Doctor
One night as I was lying in bed, one of the guards came in, flicked on the light and yelled my number. When I asked what was going on, they told me I was being transferred. No warning or anything, I was just told to grab my things, wait in the lobby and that was that.
I did so and there were other women as well just waiting. There was an elderly white woman who somehow started telling her life story about how her husband had died and she had a PhD in some kind of science. She had been a professer and now in her old age, she was homeless. It was at that moment that reality slapped me in the face. I realized that no matter if you have PhD or a GED, at the end of the day, if you run out of money, anyone of any income bracket can suddenly find themselves homeless. The sytem doesn’t care and your education won’t save you.
At about 1AM a counselor came to me and said I was being transferred to Jamaica. No that’s not the one with palm trees and dreamy beaches where people greet each other with “Ey mon!“. Jamaica is a section of Queens. In the middle of the night, barely awake, and aborted from my sleep, we were piled into an unmarked white bus, careening through questionable parts of the city, unable to really see anything. The whole time I sat there wondering if I was actually being sold and kidnapped to be traffickked to some black market in some shady section of the city, never to be seen or heard from again.
To be continued …