Homeless and Struggling in Brooklyn

“Rosie” wasn’t always homeless – there was a time when she was living ‘the American Dream’ – husband, two kids, a house, a car, a good job, and money in the bank. But then the bottom fell out – she got divorced, lost her job, lost her house, and then, to ensure her children’s fiscal security, gave custody  to her ex-husband. He turned around and sued her for child support, bankrupting her. She found herself homeless, living on the streets in New York City.

*Please note: Audio is a bit sketchy, it was very crowded and windy at the park; a transcript can be found at the end of this blog*

Rosie is very resourceful, a trait that has held her in good stead during her time as a homeless person. She quickly learned how to find public and private charities that provide various services to the homeless, and how to make a few dollars here and there to supplement her food stamps, which are her only income. Since her background was in the medical field, it was easy for her to find part-time gigs providing services to some of the seedier doctors in town.

She shares stories of an extensive underground network that relies on poverty-stricken patients to generate billings to insurance companies, paying a small portion of the profits to the patients and keeping the rest. Whether it is sleep studies or pharmaceuticals, there are plenty of willing participants, and plenty of doctors who have found easy ways to milk the system.

Rosie turned to recruiting fellow homeless New Yorkers for these studies, earning herself a small underground income. To that she added visits to a dentist who would pay her $20 per unnecessary filling, pocketing the rest of the payment from the insurance company. This same dentist connected her with a denture manufacturer who extracted two of her teeth to use in new dentures, paying her $600 apiece – healthy human teeth are at a premium for patients who can afford them.

Rosie’s story, at least for now, has a happy ending. She has recently married, and knows that if her disability application is denied again (she is bi-polar and has been trying to get into the SSI disability program) she still has her husband, who has vowed to take care of her. Finally, she is off the streets, and his wedding gift to her was two false teeth, to replace the ones she sold.

Is this the best we can hope for for Rosie? Here is a woman who by all accounts is a hard worker who wants to work, and continued to piece together an income even after losing everything. It seems to me we would all be better off if Rosie got a hand up, instead of struggling through her days in the shadow economy. She has ambition, a strong work ethic, and a desire for a good life.  As she says, the system sets you up to fail, and leaves you in a constant struggle to survive. It would appear that the best welfare system in the world is incapable of providing anything but the bare means of subsistence. There must be a better way forward.


What is your background?

Well, both my mom and dad are on public assistance, we didn’t have the luxury to not be on welfare.

What about your parents?

Well, my mom got a job so they took her off welfare, she got a job in a factory, and my dad got odd jobs.

Have you worked in the past?

I had my kids, well, I was 19 when I had my daughter, she’s 16 now, and my son, he’s 13. So I mean, I did start on public assistance, and gradually I went to school, and I graduated as a medical assistant, so I went off of it, and I went to work at Sacred Heart Hospital.

You and your boyfriend moved to New York, then what happened?

I didn’t work out, so I went to Al Camino, that’s a couples shelter…so then the couples shelter, we were there for 18 months. Went back and forth, everyone denied us, we even went to hearings in the courts, they denied us, so …

They wouldn’t let you in?

They wouldn’t. Because they couldn’t verify one address…because it was a lot of moves, and the landlord would change, you know, so just because they couldn’t verify that one address, they couldn’t give help.

So how do you verify an address when you are homeless?

They needed…they wanted to people to see, like say if I was sleeping on a bench, they wanted me to get signatures of people actually seeing me on the bench, like sleeping and things like that, I mean, that’s not possible, so I couldn’t do that. So, um, his mother, my ex’s mother, she lived in Florida. She gave us…we went over there, she gave us a start. He got lazy, I left him, and I went to Philadelphia by myself.

In the last few years you have been homeless and in and out of mental facilities, but now you have a husband and a new home?

It’s been a struggle, you know, when you don’t have no family, you’re just into it, it’s a struggle. And recently I met my husband, we’re newlyweds, and that’s um, that’s the best thing that’s happened to me with my housing and everything, and he’s a good guy and he doesn’t dope or anything, and I recently to converted to Muslim. I didn’t get dressed today [wear a scarf], because some people are racist and don’t know who I am.

So… but, my life now, is turning out for the better, and I thank God that, you know, I could have got raped so many times, or turned to drugs, but I didn’t go down that path, I chose the path to do right.

What was it like living on the streets?

It was tough. You know, guys, you’re walking down the street, they’re hollering at you, it becomes so easy to become…you know, to sell your body, but I never went down that route. I just had self dignity for myself. Some women do take that route, and I have run into women in that way, and they’re young women, too, but me, I look the other way..I mean, it’s… I kept myself clean, and well groomed, and people didn’t believe that I was homeless, they said “You’re not homeless” and I said “Yeah, I am”.

I have my sisters, and they say like that, one time they took me home, do stuff like that, it’s, you know, I mean…God sent you on a path, and He knows how much to give you, before he pulls you out.

Is working for a living important to you?

….they call the cops, tell them they’re boyfriends are beating on them, you know, it’s a domestic violence shelter…a lot of women do that here [to get housing]. But I’d rather work. I’d rather work.

Me, I developed anxiety, I developed bi-polar, by being on the streets. By being on the streets. And it’s a shame, you know, it really is, because I’ve suffered personally. But you know, little by little, they helped me, social services helped me, they helped me to find a job, they helped me when I went to work and everything, so I’m just here, I’m here waiting to hear from Social Security on the retro money, you know the retro money, [retroactive payments if she ends up on disability for her mental condition] that could be thousands, going back four years, but you know, if they deny me, I’ll go back to the medical field, I’d rather work because, let’s say they give me $50 dollars, in cash, that don’t go a long way.

Does everyone live on that?

Some people, um, some people, cash their food stamps for cash. $100 in food stamps will get you $70 in cash.

Are you allowed to save money while on public assistance?

If they give us the money that we are supposed to have, and even if you put $20 in an account, and leave it… like, we were accumulating, something to fall back on…no, they want to know everything, even if you have a bank account, they won’t give it to you, they won’t give it to you. They won’t give it to you. And I think it’s a set-up, to, it’s, the way they have it, its a set-up to fail, so they, so you can go back on the system. That’s the way I see it.

Like, when I first signed up for housing, for, when I was in the shelter, this one lady, she was living there, I didn’t know, if you give one address, and they verify that, then you’re good. I didn’t know that. I gave them, I was honest, I gave them all the addresses that I was, and I got shut down. This lady sitting next to me, she knows how the system works, and she got in, and I didn’t.

What about medical benefits?

Medical…ok, when welfare gives you medical, the medical card, what they do.. I did it.. I didn’t do it, but I worked for a doctor, that was giving stress tests, and for every patient, for every person that I recruited I was getting paid $70 per person, I was, I was in the shelter. So, I’m like, okay. So what happened, a guy recruited me, so he liked the way I was a bee, and really, you know, determined, so, anyway, and so these doctors  they were outta Jamaica, Queens. I would get up at 5:30 in the morning, I would go to the methadone clinics, where I knew that people need money, to the welfare office, where people need money, so I recruit these people, and out of the $70 the doctor was paying me out of the purse I would pay the people $30 out of my money. So every day I’d recruit seven people to get a stress test. And what happens is that the doctor writes off to the insurance company, and, you know, a stress test costs a lot of money for the insurance company. They pay me $70, I’m giving them $30. So I’d get like seven, eight people. I was holding cash, I had cash like $230 in my pocket every day, and I was in the shelter, you know. And I was living on food stamps, and to live…to live.

One time, and then one time, I was working for this other doctor, and,  this dental doctor, and I didn’t have no food or nothing, and I didn’t know what to do, and this guy recruited me, but he chose me, he would say “We’ll give you a filling, and we’ll give you $20.” So my thing was that, it’s kind of embarrassing, but this is true life, this is what it is…um, I had to sell two of my teeth. They gave me $600. My teeth were perfect. But I had to do that because I needed the money.

How do you feel about selling your teeth?

You know, to this day, I’m not going to forget, because these two teeth, I got $600.

What about drugs?

There’s doctors, they’ll give you whatever medication you want, doesn’t matter what you want. See, in the streets here, Clonapin, a bottle, you can sell a bottle of 90 pills, you can sell them for $200.

What if you get caught?

They’re people walking around, they did these things, they cut you off, the medical program will cut you off the insurance. They won’t give you public assistance, they won’t give you , they’ll never give it to you ever again.

What have you learned living here in New York?

Well it’s just one thing that I’ve learned, you don’t trust, you don’t trust, you don’t trust, you don’t trust a lot of people. There’s always someone watching you here. Even if you think they aren’t watching, they are watching.

Does the welfare system work?

I think that they should give you a little bit more money. Because $150, it doesn’t go a long way. I know people mess it up for other people, but at least they shouldn’t. And, give you the encouragement that you can go to work…like not try to live on that, and on food stamps, knowing that you, that there’s no way possible…I used to make $30,000, $40,000 a year in medical assistance working at a hospital. To this? It’s like, wow…so .

I’ve been on both sides, you know, like, my kids’ father filed for child support, so they basically, I went in front of the judge, and I told the judge, and I brought, I have all my papers since I was homeless, I have all of them, so I brought ’em in front of the judge, the judge put it on hold, because he knows I’m trying to get my life together, I’m not, it’s not I don’t want to pay. He put it on hold, and, and, and, and turned it to, every three months, I have to go in, and, and, he gets my medical papers on me, you know, and so, you know I’ve been doing fine, I think I, I’m proud of myself, and I think I’ve come a long way, and I’ve learned a lot of things along the way, and now I’m more cautious.

Is it possible to be happy on welfare?

Never. Never. Never. Because everything is a struggle. You struggle  for every day. You struggle every day. You struggle every day. You struggle every day. All the time.