Tag Archives: Homeless

What’s Wrong With This System? Larry Knows.

The best thing about about visiting Seattle’s Tent City #3 is getting to talk to people like “Larry”. He’s the kind of guy you run across at city bus stops and food banks, sometimes talking passionately to passers-by about whatever strikes his fancy, sometimes just talking to himself.  I hope you will take the time to listen to him in the video below – it turns out there’s a wealth of  knowledge inside his gruff exterior. Listen to what he has to say about bouncing benefits, and being kept in poverty by the system – if only our legislators could hear him!

Larry chose not to talk about how he landed at Tent City, or where he came from, but he was comfortable talking about his life since.  He is a longtime fixture in Seattle’s Tent City #3. Single, childless and unemployed, he qualifies for SNAP (food stamps), medical care, the free phone available to people on food stamps (though as you heard he chooses not to use it), and for a daily bus pass on Seattle’s Metrobus system.

As I mentioned in my introductory post about the tent cities, they exist in Seattle through agreements with the city and the churches that host them, and hosts are only allowed to host for three to six months, so the homeless are always on the move. Larry, and most homeless people I met, would prefer more permanent locations on city or state land, but Washington state, like most states, has ordinances preventing permanent homeless encampments on public property.

What this means for the homeless is a complete tear-down of their city every few months, and relocation to another part of the city, where they have to orient themselves to yet another neighborhood with different bus routes, food sources, social services and so on, adding more chaos to already chaotic lives. When Larry talks about asking the homeless what they need, instead of creating yet another committee to study them, this is one of the issues he means.

The most poignant moment in our talk came when he talked about how the system keeps people from getting ahead – he described how through the perverse logic of the system, getting any job means losing all your benefits – even he could see the impetus that creates, to just stay on welfare.  As he so eloquently says, the welfare system would prefer you stay in your donated apartment and eat your donated food, than make any progress towards self sufficiency.

Since embarking on this journey one of the thoughts that keeps popping in to my head is this: if our stated goal is lifting people out of poverty, why is the system actually designed to keep people IN poverty? Why do we cut off benefits the minute recipients make a dime over the poverty line, or whatever the means test is for that benefit? Why don’t we incentivize progress towards self-sufficiency instead?

Everyone I have talked to so far wants to work, and wants to be supporting themselves. Yet everyone is also aware that the minute they make any money they’ll lose their benefits, so they can’t save up for a deposit on an apartment, or to buy a car (which they can’t own anyway), even though those two things would get them on the path to self sufficiency. Even our friend friend knows how ridiculous the system is; and the sad thing is, he’s stuck in it.

New Orleans: Katrina, Isaac, and Disaster Relief

Next on my schedule: Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast – I was looking forward to hearing the southern perspective on poverty and living on the dole. New York had opened my eyes to a level of welfare abuse I was still struggling to wrap my head around, and I was wondering what I would find in a gentler, calmer, and more rural part of the country, though an area with some of the highest poverty rates nationwide.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Isaac, much bigger and meaner than me, called dibs, so my trip ended up being a thirty-six hour layover in New Orleans before catching one of the last flights out before Isaac hit.

It was quite fitting that I ended up in New Orleans as it braced for the coming onslaught, because much of what makes New Orleans the New Orleans it is today is its devastation from Hurricane Katrina. Seven years seems like a long time ago, until you take a walk through the city, as I did, and see all the boarded up houses, all the houses with new siding along the bottom five to ten feet of their foundations, all the piles of rubble and new construction. This city is not now, nor will it ever be in the future, the city it once was. From all accounts, while it is rebuilding, it will carry permanent physical and psychic scars. Some parts of the city remain vacant, piles of rubble slowly being hauled off to dumps, soggy and rotting piles of detritus ample testament to the destruction wreaked when Katrina slammed in.

Talking to residents, especially on that day, knowing that another hurricane would soon descend upon them, you could sense the collective post-traumatic stress disorder, and it made the topic of this project take on a whole new dimension. For many in New Orleans, the hurricane took everything they had, and people who couldn’t fathom circumstances that would lead to ending up on public assistance found themselves completely dependent for the first time in their lives. Unfortunately, for too many this has become a permanent condition.

I met John while he was panhandling on a park bench on the riverside near the French Quarter. John is homeless, and has the kind of life story that will break your heart, and yet he was cheerful, upbeat, and so full of “God blessed me” and “I am so lucky” sentiments I couldn’t help thinking I could learn a lot about counting my blessings if I hung out with him for the day. Never married, John nonetheless had three children; his daughter lives outside the city, and his eldest son is in jail for life because he arranged for his younger brother’s murder in a botched scheme to collect his life insurance money. John himself was shot in the head several years ago, accidentally, during a hunting accident, and his speech remains impaired as a result.

I asked John what he lives on, and he acknowledged that he is on food stamps and has the free phone as well. In addition, there is a vast social service network that exists in New Orleans, and John has a hot meal every night if he wants one, knows where to shower and wash clothes, where he can stash a bag of clothes for a few days, and where to go to get medical care for the indigent. Homelessness in New Orleans is endemic, and vastly increased after Katrina. The number of homeless families is enormous, and on any given day the lines outside shelters and foods banks wrap the block. I had noticed many people sleeping under one of the underpasses in another area of the city, and John confirmed that that particular parking area is a gathering place to sleep at night, and if I went there after dinner had been served at the nearby soup kitchen I would see the whole parking area filled with people camping out for the night.

While talking to John, I couldn’t help thinking what a complicated maze he lives in, and what a challenge it must be to get through each day, and I also wondered how he will fare through Hurricane Isaac, though he seemed to have it all figured out, and knew exactly where he would sit out the storm. As we wrapped up our chat I asked him how he would describe his life, and  with the first sad look I had seen cross his face he looked me in the eye and said “I’m just surviving…just, surviving, that’s all. I’m not living, this isn’t a life…I’m just surviving, ma’am.”

And for me, this is the essence of  the critical, essential distinction that must be made, about what we are talking about when we talk about the role of economic aid, versus economic dependence. I think all Americans would agree that no one should ever have to face disaster alone – we certainly should lend a hand to fellow citizens who find themselves in the dire straits those who survived Katrina found themselves in. But what we should not do is relegate those people to a lifetime on public assistance – what we should do is give them a hand up, NOT a hand out for life. While what happened is god-awful, what it has spawned is much worse, and we must find a way to do better.

“Welfare is the Last Thing I Want for My Child”

“Tammy” and I met at a Safeway in Everett, Washington, a small town an hour north of Seattle, home to one of Boeing’s largest plants and a local military base. When she finished shopping she agreed to sit and enjoy some rare Washington sunshine and tell me her story.

Aside from her prominent lip piercing, Tammy comes across as the small town Missouri girl that she is – shocked and dismayed at the turn her life has taken, and brimming with Midwestern work ethic.

At twenty years old, Tammy has already had more than her fair share of hardship, from homelessness, to spousal abuse, to marriage to a drug addicted male prostitute, to domestic violence from her brother-in-law. She presently lives in a homeless shelter for victims of domestic violence, where she can stay for at least the next 30 days, out of the weather and away from the threats of violence. Her husband, the father of her son, has returned to the streets of San Francisco and a life of meth addiction and prostitution.

Listening to Tammy, I was struck by her tenacity; though she claims that she has given up her dreams and simply wants to provide for her son, and would be ‘thrilled’ with a job at McDonalds, underneath that defeated exterior lies the heart of a young woman who would love to have a brighter future, and is not willing to accept that she just can’t get there from here.

Happy, she is not – more than once she burst into tears, only to gather herself together and carry on with her story. Yet what brings out the rage and the anger more than anything is not her past, sad as it has been, but her future, and the fact that she is now dependent on the government, a concept she loathes, not just because of the scorn she feels directed towards her, but the scorn she heaps on herself.

So what do we do with a young mother on welfare, who has a small child to raise and support? For Tammy, the answer is simple: she wants a job, and with it the self satisfaction that comes from providing for herself and her son.

Does TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) help? It could. It gives her cash support, but it only really works if the second component of the program is in place as well – job training and placement, so that she can move off of welfare and into work.

As for food stamps, housing, and medical care, all of them are bureaucracies that create dependencies that Tammy wants to get away from, and she knows that if she just had a job, she could get off of all those programs as well.

I met Tammy the same month that news came out about the Obama administration’s decision to grant waivers to 26 states, easing the work training and placement requirements in the TANF program – the keystone of TANF when it was introduced during the welfare reforms of the 1990s.

I couldn’t help thinking as I listened to Tammy talk that if someone like Tammy could make the connection between work and getting off welfare, and could see the benefits of work training and placement, why can’t our government see the same thing? And why would we gut the one program that seems to be working for young mothers and children nationwide? As Tammy said “The last thing I want is to be dependent on the government”.


I Want My Kids to Say “Mommy Took Care of Me”.

“Kate” and I met outside a subway stop near the Nike store in downtown Manhattan; she was on her way to a job doing hair and makeup for an off-Broadway show. Kate is a single mom with two kids; a seven year old son and five year old daughter. After living in a homeless shelter for two years, they all recently moved back in with her mother, who  found an apartment big enough for the four of them.

My interview with Kate is a fitting end to this summer’s journey, embodying everything I’ve come to expect from those I’ve met along the way. Though she is grateful for the help she has had from the TANF and SNAP programs, and medical assistance and housing, she clearly doesn’t want to be a ‘welfare mom’. Her most telling moments are when she talks about what she wants her children to remember about her when they grow up.

“I want them to rely on me if they need something, not the system, so when they grow up they’ll say ‘Mommy took care of me’, not the government.” She is currently planning to enroll in college and work 2-3 jobs, so that when her TANF runs out she is in a position to support herself and her kids. One impediment is the current job market, which is especially challenging in New York City.

Kate has the determination and drive to make it out of the system, and I would like to imagine her five years down the line, off of TANF for good, with a living wage job and a college degree under her belt. If anything holds her back, it certainly won’t be a lack of determination or work ethic on her part. What may hold her back is being on welfare in the first place.

As a TANF recipient, employers will find out she is on welfare and either offer her lower wages, or not hire her at all because they think she’ll be unreliable and unprofessional.

The stigma of welfare is real in the job market. First, when applying for jobs, because welfare case workers get involved, discussing their clients with prospective employers, thus tipping the hand of applicants and making employers aware of their background. Second, when negotiating for wages; employers know that welfare recipients need to take the jobs they are offered, and there is little incentive to offer them high wages. Third, since welfare recipients are able to qualify for continued housing and medical assistance and food stamps if their wages stay low, there is an incentive on the part of employers to forgo offers of benefits such as health plans and retirement funds that will push welfare recipients over the poverty line. The result is a pool of disadvantaged applicants at the mercy of employers.

Looking back on all the people I’ve met this summer who are struggling and surviving on welfare while wishing and dreaming of a better life for themselves and their families, I’ve given a lot of thought to what our country could do differently for its poorer citizens. For the disabled, for the elderly, for the children, a safety net is clearly called for. But for the rest, who just want a chance at a better life, and who just need a little help to get back on their feet after setbacks, layoffs, unexpected pregnancies, and the like, I can’t help wondering whether our current safety net isn’t in fact a safety ‘trap’ that becomes difficult if not impossible to escape. I’d like to believe we can do better.

“They Keep You In Poverty – Where They Want You”

“Brittany” and her father, both unemployed, are currently living in an extended stay hotel in Georgia; rent is paid in part by Brittany’s boyfriend Drew, and partly by whatever odd jobs Brittany can scrounge up on Craigslist and other job posting sites. She also works occasional day labor on a construction site.

Brittany’s story starts when she was thrown out of high school for taking the fall for a fellow classmate who brought a weapon to school. She developed agoraphobia and became housebound. Not only were her benefits cut off when she didn’t show up personally to renew her food stamp benefits, she and her father were told they had to repay the previous month’s benefits because they hadn’t renewed. She has been without food assistance since, and is afraid to re-apply because they don’t have the $300 to pay back the California debt.

Now twenty, with her agoraphobia under control, Brittany and her father have relocated to Georgia to be closer to her boyfriend, Drew. the two met online,  in a role playing game (RPG), and are now trying to make a life for themselves, starting with this move. Her father used to be a machinist and mechanic, but a series of injuries and an allergic reaction to industrial chemicals have left him out of the full time labor force for years.

Brittany recently tried to sign up for benefits in Georgia, through the state and then through United Way, which has a contract to process welfare applications using contracted ‘case managers’. The biggest shock came when the case manager told her the best thing she could do is become homeless, get rid of everything, live on the streets for six months, and then come in and apply. The message: any success would count against her, and help is only available once you have hit absolute bottom.

Brittany is a bright, thoughtful and articulate young woman who has given a lot of thought to the reasons welfare programs fail, and she is also very realistic about what happens to people who end up trapped within them. As determined as she obviously is, we find ourselves convinced that she will find success and work her way out of poverty, and yet even she admits that her odds are slim.

Is this the best we can do? Here is a young woman whose whole life lies ahead of her – young, ambitious, bright, and hardworking, it is hard to understand how it makes any sense to put obstacles in her path and drag her into further poverty. Better to reach out and give her a hand up so she can take care of herself and her ailing father. She knows what that hand looks like – it’s the hand of an employer welcoming her aboard, not the hand of a social worker.

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.