‘When the plant closed it was the worse day of my life’

Dave sits at a Rutgers University bus stop with a sign in his hands that reads “Homeless please help god bless thanx!!!”

Dave is currently unemployed and homeless, and is fighting alcoholism and society. He grew up in a middle class family and is working to get his life stabilized. For this article he did not want his last name to be published.

This profile is part of the series, “The New Jersey 37,” which focuses on residents making up the 37 percent of households in state that cannot afford basic needs such as health care, housing, food, child care, and transportation.

Dave begins each of his mornings finding a place where he can get food. He’ll look in a garbage can, implore a local business, or squat on a busy corner with a sign asking for help.

Dave is one of the millions of people in New Jersey with little to no security of his basic needs — food, water, and shelter.

As he tells it, poverty has morphed Dave into a different person then he was 15 years ago.

“I wasn’t always like this,” said Dave, speaking on his current state of poverty. “I had a job. I had a house. I had a life.”

Dave grew up outside of Pittsburgh in the 1970's, in steel country. “I knew at a young age that I was going to be working in a steel mill. It was basically my culture. All my friends growing up had a parent or relative that was working in a plant. It was what you did, it was how you lived,” he said.

Dave got a job at Bethlehem Steel in the 1992. Bethlehem Steel was one of the country’s top producers of metal, producing steel for national landmarks such as the George Washington Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, Madison Square Garden, and the Empire State Building. His jobs at the plant gave him his own sense of worth and provided him with a stable life.

Dave worked at the plant for over 10 years — first as a pipe-fitter then as a welder.

“It was hard work and there was long days, especially in the summer, but I’m not complaining. It was good work and it paid the bills,” Dave said.

“Back then I lived comfortably with my girlfriend. The job helped pay the mortgage and helped me to indulge in my fancies. I liked to drink after work. There never used to be a problem with that. I worked hard and enjoyed getting to drink afterwards.”

‘The worse day of my life’

Dave’s hands still look like he just clocked out of a shift from the steel plant. His fingers are puffier than the rest of his hand, and has a boa constrictor grip. The calluses on his hands are still fresh.

In 2003, after ten years at the plant, Dave lost his job when Bethlehem Steel shut down. Overnight, hundreds of people were unemployed.

Once the country’s second-largest steel producer, the iconic Bethlehem Steel couldn’t compete with globalization and cheap foreign labor. For Dave, unemployment consumed his world and everything in it, and spit him out a different man.

“When the plant closed it was the worse day of my life. I just didn’t know it was right away,” said Dave. “I didn’t handle it well. I got depressed, I started drinking more because I had the time to, and I pushed away Amy [ Dave’s girlfriend].”

“I didn’t know how to bounce back. I felt sorry for myself,” he said.

By late 2004 Dave, he had lost all ties to his former life. He broke up with his girlfriend a week before their six year anniversary, he had to forfeit his house, and began to cope with the reality that his drinking habit was now a problem. An only child of two deceased parents, Dave’s life was ruined by unemployment and he had no one to turn too.

“I had to leave Pennsylvania and go somewhere else you know? I had to start fresh you know? There was nothing keeping me here,” said Dave.

Dave moved to New Jersey in 2004 where he has been living ever since. His financial situation declined as his drinking problem worsened over the following years.

“I honestly can’t recall it all to you. It was bad. Once I was in a homeless shelter in 2010 or 2011,” said Dave.

Since he first entered a homeless shelter Dave has been moving around the state, and currently resides in Middlesex County.

Dave ends his days looking for a place to sleep, sometimes staying in a shelter for the night or sleeping on the streets next to a grate where he can stay warm.

“I hope I can get back to work again, I am still able to work,” said Dave.