There are some problems even bunk beds can’t solve

16 07 2012

Housing is a massive issue in New York City. You might not know that if most of your NYC knowledge comes from TV and movies, where a struggling waitress/fashion intern/unemployed homosexual who gives straight girls love advice/dog walker lives in an apartment large enough to roller skate in. But it is. It’s not easy to afford things like food, clothes, or an occasional $14 movie, if you also want to pay rent.

Paying a lot of money for a tiny amount of space is a New York institution. It’s just what’s done. The things we brag about are kind of hilarious as a result. “Did I tell you we got a pullout couch? We even have enough space to pull it out. Eh?” “My kitchen isn’t an eat-in, but it fits a dishwasher. No big deal.” “I don’t even have to loft my bed anymore.”

That last one was a pick-up line.

For young twenty-somethings trying to make it in the big city (otherwise known as The Insufferables) there is a sense of adventure in all this. Cramming in with your best buds, staggering home from the bar together, having impromptu roomie sleepovers…it’s the stuff dreams are made of.

Once you have a family, the magic is sort of gone.

I’m sort of the Queen of Icebreakers when it comes to groups. One of my favorite icebreakers is Human Bingo. That sounds like medieval torture, but it’s actually delightful and straightforward. The deal is that everyone gets a bingo form with different characteristics, like “I read a book this month,” “I love to dance,” or “I’m an aunt.” Out of sheer stubbornness, I’ve included “I have my own room.” That one has never gotten checked off. As I am also the Duchess of Home Visits, this doesn’t shock me.

In our family assessments, we always have to include a description of the family’s living conditions. It’s very rare that I don’t have to mention that there’s “some overcrowding.” My families have kids. Lots of kids. The largest family I ever worked with had ten children. The current average is five.

When I conducted my first home visit with a family with three children, I was under the mistaken impression that a closet door led to a second bedroom. (Significantly less embarrassing than the times that I’ve thought a closet door was the exit.) The family showed me that no, the apartment was actually a one bedroom. There was a double bed, bunk beds, and a toddler bed all in one room. I think they were trying to avoid giving the two year old milk, in hopes that she’d stay small enough for the toddler bed as long as possible.

The family wanted to move. When we talked about the tension in the household, and how to alleviate this, the parents consistently said that everyone being on top of each other is a big part of what leads to issues. They were far from the first family to say this. Another family I worked with had six children, including newborn twins. Yes, there’s plenty of room for two cribs in a one bedroom apartment! Oh wait, that’s ridiculous. So they had to switch in and out, one in the crib, one in the carseat or being held. Ask any parent of twins-you want them on entirely opposite sleep schedules.

Then there are the brothers and sisters who have been sharing for years, and are getting a bit older and it’s becoming an issue. So many of the teen girls I work with just want to be able to get dressed in their own bedrooms. Or the moms who want to have a boyfriend spend the night (for a game of Sorry, I think) but sharing a room with two children isn’t terribly conducive to this.

It feels like the kind of thing we should disagree with, at least somewhat. I can’t counsel you into a bigger apartment! But obviously, it makes sense. Who wants their bedroom to look like a Dickensian orphanage? Who couldn’t do with a little time to themselves? How do you put a child in timeout when there’s nowhere for him to go? And how do you keep having kids…you know what, never mind.

You might not be familiar with the process of getting an apartment with more than four bedrooms in the city. Allow me to share: first, be fabulously wealthy. If this is not feasible, continue to try. Play the lottery. Borrow eleventy billion dollars from a friend.

If this doesn’t work out, get yourself on the waiting list for a NYCHA apartment. NYCHA is the New York City housing authority. Their buildings are otherwise known as the projects. These are invaluably important to low income families. They also don’t maintain their elevators in twenty story buildings, and the crime rates are shockingly offensive, but we take what we can get.

So get yourself on that waiting list. And wait. Wait. Wait. A year from now you’ll get an appointment! Oh never mind, that was an error. Go back to waiting. The larger the family, the longer the wait. Public housing has regulations regarding how many people can live in a certain size apartments, and five bedroom units are harder to come by than Cadbury creme eggs in July. (Side note: anyone, help me out.)

There’s been some controversy about requiring people to leave NYCHA apartments that they’ve lived in for years. You see, there are some older people who were given large apartments twenty or thirty years ago, whose children have since moved out and now have space for a gift wrapping room. Some of my fellow do-gooders don’t like the idea of them being transferred to another apartment that will likely be outside of their community. I don’t like it either, but come on. I will show up with a U-Haul myself if it will get one of my cramped eight member families in faster.

You can try to get an apartment on your own. Again, not easy in New York, even in the less desirable areas. You need to have some savings–in some cases, first AND last month’s rent, and a security deposit. If your rent is over $1000 a month, that’s not easy. You might get a voucher program to help out, but as I’ve written about previously, that’s even harder.

If all else fails, go into a shelter. Depending on a somewhat mysterious set of factors, you’ll be placed in a shelter apartment. It’s private and has a bathroom, and may or may not have a kitchen. There are curfews and often one bedroom for the entire family, so not exactly a fun option. Some people think that by entering the shelter system they’ll be helped in getting their own, stable housing, but this is less and less often the case.

Really, your only hope is to be willing to move to Staten Island. Sure you’ll have to take a boat home, and your social worker will be a bit put off by a the two and a half hour trek to see you until your case is transferred, and you might never see your friends and family again. But there is a very real possibility that you’ll get a backyard.

There are so many housing issues, but so few solutions. Well, I can think of plenty of solutions, the problem is that I can’t pay for them. It would seem that for the moment, all I can do is keep supporting my families and advocating like hell at the NYCHA office.

And also continue saving for SJ’s Utopian Public Housing (complete with free child care, job opportunities, and a community garden.)

How clean is your house? Can we use scaling?

5 06 2012

As we social workers know, all problems can be solved by red wine more paperwork. Are we not addressing culture enough? Ok, we’ll do a special cultural note once a quarter. Is there a problem getting kids’ attendance records every marking period? Add a checklist to each file! It’s never failed. (Except for all those times it’s failed.)

At some point, it was decided, probably by a cranky auditor, that we weren’t focusing enough on safety in the home. As in, the physical environment. Food in the home? Appropriate place for everyone to sleep? Any rooms on fire routinely? That should be addressed.

As a result, we got a checklist.

It looks pretty straightforward. At first. But is anything straightforward in social work? No. (Ok, just that question.)

I have a bit of experience in this area, from when I interned working with homebound senior citizens. We always had to assess the home for safety, to ensure that these people really were all right to be living on their own. You would note that they had rails in their shower, one of those toilet booster-seat-type-things that meant that I could never use my Gram’s bathroom, and things like that. If we thought they were at a point when they really ought not be living on their own, there wasn’t all that much we could do, but dammit if we didn’t document.

Some of the same safety factors carry over. There are the standard things we look for, starting with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Isn’t it great that carbon monoxide detectors are expected now? I mean, my family always had one, because I watched an episode of Rescue 911 when I was eight in which an entire family nearly died, and I camped in the backyard until my dad bought it.

Anyway, these are things that landlords and managment companies are supposed to provide. In my entirely correct and unbiased opinion, landlords and management companies are terrible and seek to do ill, so this isn’t always done. We might need to note that the detectors aren’t present, or aren’t working. Did the family request a new one? Did they check the battery? Well, the ceilings are high and the don’t have a twelve foot ladder. Whose responsibility is this? Wasn’t this just supposed to be a checkmark!?

We move on. Is there adequate space and privacy for everyone?

The short answer, especially if you talk to the teenagers, is no. (Personally, I bitched about my room being too small from the time I could talk until I moved out to share a much smaller college dorm room which I loved.) Most of our kids share rooms. I’ve worked with multiple families who have lived in a one bedroom apartment. So no, space isn’t adequate, and many of the girls I work with lock themselves in the bathroom for a few minutes of privacy.

But you don’t just say that. You talk about how the family makes “good use of their space” and throw in the magic words “bunk beds.” The place looks a bit like a Dickensian orphanage, but everyone has a place to sleep, and what else are they supposed to do?

Then we get on the the trickiest question. “Is the home neat and clean?”

Well, by whose standards? If my boyfriend were judging, the answer would just be yes. Every time. Perhaps a “maybe” if there the dishwasher was overflowing with dirty clothes. If it were my grandmother, it would be “absolutely not,” every time, because she would just know that you hadn’t really vacuumed under the furniture.

For me, it depends on the day. I usually think if how my apartment looks. If I’ve just gone on a cleaning spree, I might judge a bit more harshly. Why didn’t you dust your TV screen, eh? Mine is positively shiny. If I’m in that phase where I’m trying and failing to maintain the cleaning spree, I’m more sympathetic. Yeah, I know how annoying it is to keep putting every single thing in its place, every single time. If I’m at a point where I keep coming up with excuses not to put away my clean laundry, or turn on the vacuum, I write that the client’s home looks lovely, hoping to hide my shame.

It’s always relative, and it’s always about how people manage. When I worked with seniors, we had some borderline hoarders. This was before that horrible TV show where they’re always finding dead roosters in people’s homes, but I did encounter stacks of newspapers that I’m fortunate I wasn’t crushed beneath. If a person was really unsafe, then of course we’d do what we could to address that. But a lot of our job was to figure out how they made it work. They set up pathways that they stuck to, their kids came over once a week and left with garbage bags full of old junk, and the elderly parents allowed it on the condition that they weren’t told what was taken.

It’s all about the story. Maybe the home is super clean, with nothing out of place. You can’t even tell kids live here! Oh, maybe that’s not the best. One of the moms I worked with prided herself on keeping up her apartment, until one week it was such a disaster that even I judged. It got us talking about what was going on with her, and the fact that she was having a hard time with her depression again. That’s the thing–it was about what a messy house meant to her, rather than what it meant to me.

“Is the home neat and clean?” is a loaded question that I’ll never be able to answer properly, at least not by ticking one of two boxes. Filling out a checklist like that makes a lot of us feel judgmental, or like we’ve been handed a copy of “Social Work for Dummies.” And it can be this way, if you let it. Those kind of forms, lame as they are, really are not the worst starting off point, though. Everything in social work is about drawing out that narrative. I’m not just going to count how many bedrooms you have. The kids and I will talk about what sharing is like and how they manage it. I’m not just going to check for window guards, we’re also going to talk about what safety means to you and if your landlord is as big a jerk as mine.

Yeah, it takes me a long time to get those assessment forms done.

I’m back, but only because I don’t know where I live.

12 01 2012

I remember first learning my phone number and address as a child. I was four years old, in kindergarten (I’m very advanced, but please stop asking about it) when the music teacher asked for everyone who knew their address and phone number to raise their hands. I was about to (I always raised my hand–advanced you know, but please let’s talk about something else) when I realized, actually, I had no idea where I lived. I didn’t know how to contact the people there, otherwise known as my parents, if I wanted to find out.

It’s a bit of an unsettling feeling, when you think about it.

I went home that night and related the story to my parents. It seemed to have slipped their minds, and since I was being chauffeured around constantly in the late ’80s, it hadn’t really come up. So they taught it to me then. I still remember that phone number and address. It was my family’s from just before the time I was born until I was a junior in college.

I also still remember my aunt’s phone number, as she set it to a cheerful tune to ensure that my little cousin would remember it if he were ever kidnapped  by pedophiles and held against his will. That was following a viewing of I Know My First Name is Steven on Lifetime.

My parents both remember their phone numbers from childhood. These are extra fun, as they start with words like “Cloverfield” and “Neptune” rather than numbers. I mean, can you get more olden-timey than that? I feel like they must have had to use both hands to hold the separate ear and mouth pieces, and then they would retire to the sitting room to discuss the fact that Warren Sheffield called long distance! (Meet Me in St. Louis jokes are the best, aren’t they? Everyone gets them.)

One of the things that struck me upon getting into social work–because I swear, this is about social work–is that none of the kids I work with have similar memories. Most cannot count the number of apartments they’ve lived in. Phone numbers are kind of hopeless.

SJ: “I have your mom’s number, right?”
Kid: “The house number? That got shut off.”
SJ: “Is that the 646 number?”
Kid: “No, that’s the 347 one. The 646 might still work.”
SJ: “This 646 number?”
Kid: “Oh no, that was my step-dad’s. Mom has a new one now.”
SJ: “I’ll just dial numbers at random and hope for the best.”

Everyone knows that children in foster care typically move many times. As do kids with a parent in the military. But it’s also true for low income families.

One four year old I worked with, over the course of a year, moved with her mother from a home for young mothers, to a shelter, to a rented bedroom, to her aunt’s home, to her grandfather’s home, and finally to her grandmother’s home. Last I saw them, the mother was considering moving in with her boyfriend, if she couldn’t get into public housing.

When I worked at Anonymous Youth Center, we collected information forms from each child when they came to program for the first time. These forms included their address, telephone number, and emergency contact, so that we could reach someone if we needed to.

We didn’t set fire to these information forms immediately upon collecting them, but we might as well have. They were entirely useless. A week after the child first came to program, they would inevitably injure themselves or attempt to sass the Great and Powerful SJ. We would try to call their homes, only to be confronted by the most irritating sound known to man. Immediately followed by, “If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again.”

A bit of my soul is murdered, every time I hear those three screechy notes.

It’s constant, and slightly varied. Just this morning, I received a message from a participant whom I have been desperately trying to reach. She asked me to call her back. Unfortunately, she didn’t leave a number.

I tried her home line. A man whose voice I didn’t recognize answered, and told me I had the wrong number.

I think. I don’t speak Urdu, but that’s what I gathered.

I tried the most recent cell phone number, only to be informed that the number or code I had dialed was incorrect. I was supposed to check the number or code and try again. This is fancy phone speak for “disconnected.”

Next, I tried both teenagers’ cell phones. One was not receiving calls. That’s pretty much the point of a phone. “This cup has a giant hole in the bottom, and is not holding liquids.” So useful. The other girl’s phone went straight to voicemail. I like to think that this is because she was in class, but I have my doubts.

I always think about how this makes my job more difficult. How am I supposed to find people, how am I supposed to talk with them, however will I schedule their appointment?! And it’s true. It really is all about me.

But then I think of how stressful it is for those parents and kids. Ah, home sweet home! For now. Don’t get too comfortable. Just deal with sharing a bed for now, we won’t be here too long. You can’t use tacks to put up that Justin Bieber poster! We can’t leave holes in the wall or your uncle will kick us out! (Also, Bieber? Gross.)

To not even be able to do something so simple as call your mom when you need to. If I can’t track down a working number for her, neither can the school. Very often, neither can the child.

It’s got to be disconcerting.

I was fortunate to grow up with a sense of stability in my life. It helps to bear that in mind when I’m shouting obscenities and punching the phone after being urged to hang up and try again for the sixth time that day.

Not that I’ve ever done that.

Same old woman, different shoe: The housing saga continues

23 03 2011

Monday, March 21st was a rough day in this office. Phones were ringing off the hook. There was also a surge in people being directed to my blog (OK, so it wasn’t all bad) by search terms including the words “Advantage voucher” and “FEPS,” or “Family Eviction Prevention Supplement.”

That’s because letters went out the previous week, informing clients that the Advantage voucher program was ending. No more rent checks would be issued after April 1st. The Advantage program is a program that helped people to move out of shelters and into their own apartments. The idea is that the program pays your rent for two years, then either ends or tapers off, converting into a Section 8 subsidy.

Except, Section 8 is no longer available. OK. And the waiting list for public housing is still years long. Oh, and rent in NYC, even in the Bronx, is still just a bit high.

Did I mention that people were informed of this March 21st? That their rent would no longer be paid as of April 1st? Not, “Oh, we won’t be honoring your two-for-one yogurt coupon.” We won’t be paying for the place that you and your children live.

We had a bit of a heads up at the office. The New York Times (let’s face it, all struggling parents have the time and energy to read the Times cover to cover, daily) ran this article explaining that this was happening due to the city’s financial crisis.

It’s cool. We’re short on funds, so we’re making people homeless.

In case you’re wondering, this is not SocialJerk being dramatic. It’s not my style. (Not entirely true, I was a fierce Little Engine that Could in 1989, but I digress.) The NYC Department of Homelessness website explains that if you have an active public assistance case, and are receiving cash assistance, you might qualify for a rental allowance. It might not be enough to cover your current rent; in fact, it almost definitely will not be enough. But it will be something. If you have sanctions, due to missing a recertification date, or skipping a Back to Work program in favor of attending college, or you only receive food stamps, too bad. Not happening. You are responsible for your rent, and you have a week to come up with it.

Now, SocialJerk, these are adults. Shouldn’t they be responsible for their own rent? I mean, is that asking so much? I certainly pay my own rent!

Shut up. Hear me out. Certainly, independence and self-reliance is the goal. But that’s not what our public assistance system is set up for. It’s set up to give people the least amount of help and comfort for a limited amount of time before cutting them loose. The Advantage program helped a lot of my clients get out of shelters. That’s great. And it paid their rent for a while. Also great. But their excessive public assistance appointments, the constant sanctions and fair hearings, the difficulty getting themselves enrolled in school (b-t-dubs, higher education is actively discouraged) in favor of attending pointless “work programs,” and the hoops they have to jump through just to get their kids into day care? Shockingly, none of this gets people educated and into a job that will pay their rent.

Maybe you don’t care. Maybe you think people deserve this, because their poor women minorities lazy. But a vast majority of these people have kids. And all that money the city doesn’t have? Is being spent on building new shelters. Very cost effective, I foresee no issues with this plan.

I spent a lot of time on the phone yesterday with a 22 year old mother of two. She wound up in a shelter after leaving the abusive father of her children. She got out with the help of the Advantage program. This woman described herself as being “on top of the world” when she moved into a one bedroom apartment with faulty plumbing and broken windows.

She was at her local PA office all day yesterday, missing a day of college classes, trying to figure out what to do. She knows that this is going to interfere with her completing her education, and with her daughters continuing at their current day care. She doesn’t want to return to the shelter, but she doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

This woman doesn’t have until April 1st, because, due to budget issues, the Department of Homeless Services started missing rent payments for her a few months ago. Now the arrears are her responsibility. She’s missing school, and almost forgot that it was her youngest child’s third birthday today, because of all the stress.

But really, the mom is irresponsible. That toddler doesn’t deserve presents or cake.

You can think what you want about these types of programs. But to tell people that they’ll be helped, to promise them a service, to provide them with something as basic as a place to live, and then yank that away with minimal warning, is cruel and inhumane. To go after people who are too busy, too overwhelmed, to wrapped up in struggling to survive to protest and call attention to their plight, is wrong.

New York social workers are now in the position of receiving these calls, and having to tell people that there’s nothing to be done. I knew the system was broken before, but it never hit me in this way.

It’s our job to fight this.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, until her rental assistance was terminated.

13 01 2011

I’m a preventive worker. We’re supposed to prevent families from being separated.

We do that by providing the family with counseling, approaching them from a strengths-based perspective and utilizing the family systems approach. This way we can reorganize their dysfunction, create appropriate boundaries and subsystems, and send them on their merry way.

And that’s exactly what everyone comes into our office hoping for.

Well, that and a place to live.

We’re in the midst of a housing crisis. We’ve all heard about the foreclosures (If you haven’t, I will for once suggest going to sources aside from SocialJerk for your news.) People living beyond their means, with mortgages they can’t afford, bubbles finally bursting. I have some friends and family who were only able to afford houses because of those foreclosures.

I mean, not me. I’m a social worker. I’m still paying off the sandwich I’m eating.

I’m not talking about people who were able to buy a home. I’m talking about people for whom that isn’t even a pipe dream.

So many people referred to my office come in asking for help with housing. They’re facing eviction, or they’re in an overcrowded apartment. Five of the families I work with are coming out of or going into the shelter system. I work with one family with six children who live in a one bedroom apartment.

Question: How do you fit three cribs into a one bedroom apartment?
Answer: You can’t!

I think I messed up the punchline.

For these families, the number one goal, greatest hope, is NYCHA. Public housing.

Public housing is important. But it’s rough. You don’t choose it if you can avoid it.

When that’s the dream, you know that the reality is bad.

All of my families who are not currently in a NYCHA apartment are on the waiting list. A waiting list that doesn’t seem to be moving. They wait for a year, and then are overjoyed to get an appointment, only to be crushed when they find out that it’s just an interview.

They have to wait another year to hear about apartments for which they are eligible, and then wait for one to open up. In that time, they might have added children to their family, so they have to wait even longer for a bigger apartment.

Well, in the meantime, there’s always Section 8, right? To help pay the rent on a regular apartment.

Only problem is, there is no Section 8. Not for people who don’t already have it.  But New York is having a little budget problem.

We have no money.

At first, Section 8 was only accepting new applicants who had to move due to domestic violence. Then they were only honoring existing vouchers, for people who hadn’t managed to find an aparment yet.

Shortly after, even people with vouchers were out of luck.

This presented a problem for my clients who had gotten out of the shelter system with the help of Advantage vouchers. Advantage programs are intended to help people coming out of shelters to become self-sufficient, by providing rental assistance for a year. At the end of that year, the voucher program ends, and tenants turn to Section 8.


Because they can’t get Section 8, my clients were told that their vouchers would continue paying their rent. And sometimes this happens. DHS will sometimes send in a few hundred dollars. When the mood strikes.

As a result, one of my young mothers owes $5000 in rent, another owes $4000. Both have received eviction notices, and no one at DHS will even talk to them. They’re far from alone.

One has already decided to return to the shelter system she escaped the previous year. She and her five year old son are less than thrilled.

The other is still fighting to stay in her apartment. I remember when she first moved in with her two and four year old daughters. She told me that having her own place after leaving an abusive boyfriend and spending months in a shelter made her feel like she was, “on top of the world.”

We turned to her former worker back at the shelter, who had helped her a great deal with a program called Homebase.

People are being turned away from Homebase and told to do for themselves, supposedly as a control group in a study, to see if helping people…helps.

But given what I see on a daily basis, it seems like that might be just another excuse.

My client, and her now three and five year old, have to wait for another eviction notice. Then hope that they will qualify for the Family Eviction Prevention Supplement,  better known as FEPS, and formerly Jiggets. (I wish they stuck with Jiggets, because at least that is fun to say.)

We’re hoping that FEPS will help, even though, like everyone, they’re also short on cash.

All these programs and acronyms might have driven me mad.

Everyone I talk to who does not work in this field (there are a few, yes) has no idea things are this bad. There’s still the idea that the government is paying all of these people’s rent, whether they work or not. It just isn’t true.

Is it right, or fair, to tell someone, to promise them, that they’ll be helped? That their rent will be paid, they don’t have to worry? This program is going to help you build your own life?

And then to snatch it away. And not even have to decency (or the balls) to offer an explanation or warning. To pretend like everything’s fine, meanwhile sending hordes of (primarily) women and children into shelters unnecessarily?

I’m not certain what the answer is. But this can’t continue. It is not effective, it is not sustainable.

And it is not right.