A Tale of Landlord and Tenant: Shelter Life, Pt. 4

Have you ever tried writing during an earthquake?

It’s impossible when the walls are crumbling. You might write a few harsh words because there’s a shard of glass stuck in your leg. It won’t necessarily be intentional — your angry words, that is. You’re just upset because your body is covered in rubble, and well, it’s hard to write when you can barely breathe. This is why I waited to begin the next chapter. I wanted to write with a level head, or at the very least, a head unburied. I didn’t want to write under instability. That doesn’t mean I didn’t document everything — every occurrence, every emotion.

Now, I sift through 10 days of echo and choking breath in search of the clearest and most accurate truth. As I rummage through rubble and glass, I find antidotes, data. Evidence.

If I take my findings, sealed in an envelope, who do I ship it to? A person of importance? A journalist? A political leader? Would it matter? What difference would it make? I unable to conjure up even one. Is this why the world is becoming more religious? Because the poor go to God when their fellow brethren have failed them?

Still, I have another story. What do I start? I suppose the best place is always the beginning.

The van came at dusk. This van is special — operated by the Department of Homeless Services, it moves the poor around the city like chess pieces. We found out in less than 24 hours that we were being transferred out of our current shelter and into another one. The evening prior, the Resident Manager on shift says, “I’m sorry — DHS called us about 10 minutes ago and added your room number to the list. Unfortunately, I don’t even know where you’re going.” I didn’t sleep. How do you sleep when you’re life is in such uncertainty; when your future is up in the air?

Our driver drove us to the edge of New York City — from Far Rockaway to smack dab in the middle of Manhattan.

When we found out where he’d be dropping us off, we immediately googled it. The search results include, “Unsafe Haven: Documents Show Pervasive Violence in NYC Homeless Shelter”, and, of course, my absolute favorite, “Landlords Reaps Millions From City Housing Homeless”. How is it that, you can quite literally be society’s biggest irritation, their throw-aways, yet still be a means to an end, a most precious commodity?

We arrived late in the evening, and I was in tears — I couldn’t eat or sleep for days. I adjusted to the sounds of my grumbling abdomen, and the sirens — so many sirens.

Our mattresses are equally old, as they are dirty, with thin white mattress covers to hide the sight. The shared bathroom lacked a toilet seat and the floors were flooded with water. The community kitchen reeked a mixture of booze, weed, and urine. With a dab of rotting food — this is home. We rolled in here on the hottest evening of the year, breaking 100° F, drowning in a pool of our own sweat, without not even a desk fan.

I wake up the following morning disappointed that I am still living in this poorly written dystopian novel.

I often feel like I am the only one who can see the obvious unpleasant and repressive reality we’re living in. I am the only one who sees anything for what is it, yet, I still second guess myself. Am I losing my mind? While my neighbors are living in this brightly painted utopia with their extended curfews, I take cold showers at the quietest hours. Their smiles have short fuses, and their eyes bulge at the end of the evening. They play their music loudly and shuffle around the corridors at 3 am. They call their spouses psychopaths as their cognitive tics slip through their self-conjured rifts — the vortex between the real and the mask.

As I walk through the front doors, before glancing over at the make-shift TSA headquarters on my left, I step through the rift as Alice. Unfortunately, this is not Wonderland. A man, with a Cheshire Cat smile, giggles hysterically.

Our case manager warns us that, “many of your neighbors are off their meds”, and to, “keep your head down — don’t make friends”. He tells us, “in the years I’ve worked in social services, I have never had clients like you — you don’t belong here.” 
“Are there people who *do* belong here?”
He trips over his words, “Well, no — that’s not what I meant. Just that, you know — you’re smart, you’re educated, you don’t need myhelp.” 
You’d think, if I didn’t need his help, we wouldn’t be homeless. The best he could offer us is a meaningless pep-talk. I wouldn’t be surprised if it weren’t scripted. 
He said, “Don’t get comfortable.” It’s his favorite statement — he’s said it at least 10 times over the course of two visits. He adds, “Let all of *this* be your motivation to get out — don’t let it *get inside your head*.”

OK — thanks, Doctor.

It’s become apparent that the staff that work in these facitites aren’t exactly equipt to dealing with the emotional and mental implications of having clients who live in the shelter system. I think we’ve crossed over this invisible line between the needs of having a social worker, and the needs of having a psychiatrist. These people are constantly on edge, they’re stressed, they’re anxious — some are clearly depressed, and you need a professional to address these realities. We’re constantly living in survival mode. And, that alone is a reality that is missed. When you’re constantly in survival mode, violence happens. Substance abuse happens. Mental illness happens. We’re seeking distractions, we’re seeking escape, we’re seeking those rifts in our reality. We’re stepping into the vortex.

Self-preservation never ends.

These people need *just enough* comfort to feel human, to feel normal, and to feel like themselves — to remind them of who they are. My neighbors are slipping away. They don’t believe they’re capable; they don’t believe there is an end to this — that they deserve anything better. They don’t remember what it means to be anything else but a case number. This is it for them. There is no hope. There is no future. They have no self-worth. Everyone here, I’d like to think, at one point in their lives, had dreams, had goals. They have unique talents, they have passions, they have interests which are bigger than themselves, but the light inside has gone away. All of that has been pulled from them by homelessness, by poverty, by class warfare. But, they’re still people. I am still a person. I am more than a case number.

© 2017 Jocelyn Figueroa

If you’d like to help support us by purchasing and reading Chapter One, titled, A Story of Landlord and Tenant: Exploitation, Eviction, and Homelessness, you can buy it here for $2 in either English, French, or Russian. We will profit a little under $1 for each sale. The money we raise will go directly towards helping us transfer out of the homeless shelter into an apartment.