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.)

Doritos for breakfast? Only if they’re Cool Ranch!

29 03 2012

When I was thirteen, way back in November of 1997, (side note: remember Hanson? Good times.) my family was hosting Thanksgiving. Among other things, like gratitude, the warmth and love of my family, and lots of football, this meant that there was a rather large, very dead bird on our kitchen table.

It had never bothered me before, that dinner was a dead animal. But for some reason, it suddenly struck me. Perhaps because my mother insisted on calling the turkey “the carcass.” Why would anyone do that? But for some reason, she did, and my vegetarianism was born.

Something interesting happens when you become a vegetarian–meat eaters feel threatened. You might think that this is ridiculous. Who cares what anyone else eats? Yet I’m consistently surprised. When I turn down meat, I’m typically asked, after a little while, if I’m a vegetarian. I’m then asked for how long, why, do I eat fish, do I get enough protein, am I a vegan, do I miss meat, no seriously why, and other logistical concerns.  (Fifteen years, I don’t want to eat meat, no, all Americans do, don’t get between me and my cheese, seriously I don’t like meat.)

Then the questions get challenging. “But why do you think it’s ok to eat eggs?” “I bet your shoes are made with leather!” “What if the animals are treated well?” “Then why do vegetarians eat replacement meat, if they don’t like it?” To which I pretty much always have to answer, please shut up, I just want to enjoy my falafel in peace.

Obviously, this has nothing to do with social work. Right? Silly, everything does. That’s pretty much my life this blog’s thesis statement.

Participants have a way of finding out that I don’t eat meat. It comes up. It’s not something I consider relevant, but it’s also not particularly personal, and I don’t mind sharing. At Anonymous Youth Center this point was often raised when we gave the kids snacks, and they wished for burgers or chicken nuggets. At Anonymous Agency, it’s usually at agency celebrations when I don’t partake in the spare ribs, or when we’re discussing holiday traditions. It’s interesting, because my kids are often shocked and appalled. They don’t know vegetarians. They didn’t know this was even an option. What’s wrong with you, SJ?!

Not long ago, a family session wrapped up thusly:

Mom: “You ever been to the wings place down the street?”
SJ: “I actually haven’t.”
Mom: “But it’s right there!”
SJ: “It is, but I haven’t been there.”
14 y/o: “What, you too good for chicken wings?”
SJ: “Too good for…I don’t eat meat.”
10 y/o: “You’re a veterinarian?!”
13 y/o: “She’s a vegetarian, idiot.”
10 y/o: “So no chicken?”
SJ: “No. Chicken is meat.”
Mom: “What about fish?”
SJ: “Still no.”
13 y/o” “Gimme a pound, fish is gross. Crabmeat?”
SJ: “Nothing that was alive.”
14 y/o: “Oh, so it’s like that.”

I’m still not sure what it’s like.

It starts to drive me a little crazy that people I barely know, at work or elsewhere, are so concerned with what I eat. I honestly do not care if others are vegetarians or not. I have woken up on more than one occasion, while visiting family, to find that my uncle had slaughtered a goat in the night. Hey, mutton stew comes from somewhere. It doesn’t faze me.

Until it starts to.

I have no interest in converting others to vegetarianism. I don’t think parents who don’t feed their children a purely organic diet and keep only dried fruits and fresh angel tears in the house as snacks are neglectful. When I grew up, McDonald’s was a sometimes food (you couldn’t pay me to eat it now…wait you could pay me, but I wouldn’t enjoy it) and we had soda at parties. We played sports and went through normal cycles of packing on a few pounds and then growing six inches in seemingly a week. I hope I would be similar as a parent, and resist the terror of the “obesity epidemic” type stuff that prompts some parents to think this is ok. (Free social work advice: it’s not.)

But then I have my moments with my families. If you listen to NPR, you hear about “food deserts.” It’s true, there are many more options for grocery shopping in wealthier areas than there are in the Bronx. But honestly? It’s not bad. There is a major grocery store right by my office. A third of the street is taken up by bodegas, most of which sell fruit and vegetables and accept food stamps.

Every day the kids come to us after school with chips and candy. Not a twenty five cent bag. The kind you get when all your friends are coming over and you’re trying to entertain. They then leave, plotting if they have enough money for more chips and candy. I once thought I was going to have to rescue an infant because his grandmother was feeding him Windex from a bottle. It turned out it was some unnatural blue “beverage,” so I didn’t have to make a call. More toddlers than I can count eat Doritos in the office for breakfast. And then when they start day care, they don’t want to eat the oatmeal that’s provided…it’s so strange!

While it’s not good for the kids to eat this crap and develop these habits, it’s not what you’d call a risk factor, though I know some people think it should be. (For the record, I’m not one of them.) But it’s frustrating. We hear all the reasons and explanations–people don’t have access to fresh, healthy groceries in low income areas, food stamps won’t pay for some healthy items, people aren’t educated in terms of what is good for them, working-poor parents are too stressed and busy to prepare a home-cooked meal regularly, some of these things are cultural. These are certainly factors, but at some point and in many scenarios we’re just making excuses.

Is anyone surprised to hear that broccoli is healthy? I think we’re all educated on that point. Food stamps aren’t perfect, but in New York they can be used at farmer’s markets, and they do cover many healthy choices. Water is cheaper than soda, yes? Toast or cereal are fairly straightforward, and don’t require the family sitting together at the table after hours of someone slaving away. My aunt, a public health nurse, is always fighting the idea that frying everything and eschewing diet soda is a traditional Navajo way.

I don’t want to make myself any more of the crazy white lady than I already am. I don’t want this to be another thing my families think I just don’t get. There’s no way I’m going to pretend that orange soda for a four month old is just another choice. But when we’re already asking a family to do some much, getting critical over how they feed their children, the most basic way that they provide care, is just too much. All I can do is model another way, provide some other options, remember how annoying it is when people don’t mind their own damn business about how I eat, and let my heart be warmed when my girls’ group requests celery with peanut butter over pizza.

All while remembering how much joy a blue raspberry Slush Puppy brought me as an eight year old.

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.

Just because you didn’t say “welfare queen” doesn’t mean you’re not a jerk.

28 12 2010

Those of you following my constant whining tweets will be aware that I was a bit stranded for the past few days. We had a bit of snowfall in the northeast, and it looked for a while like we all might have to wait for spring thaw to get to where we were going. (Things got really strange when these seven brothers and their brides showed up at my parents’ house…but I digress.)

Being stuck in Queens for longer than I expected was a bit inconvenient. Some things that I thought I was going to get done had to wait. And it got me thinking about privilege.

My life is not bad.  I don’t make tons of money, but I get by. I have some money saved, and I have parents to go home to for Christmas. Even the things that I have to complain about are not such a big deal. I live in a nice enough place that my super had the job of shoveling our front walk, and this actually got done. Sure I had to help my parents shovel their car out when I was home, but that’s because my parents own a car and a house. More than a lot of people can say.

We all like to focus so much on how hard we work. When we have extras, we want people to know that we’ve earned them. Think about it–when was the last time someone running for public office came out to say, “I am where I am because of my last name. My parents’ money opened a lot of doors for me.” No. It’s all about pulling on one’s bootstraps, for some reason.

There’s a sense of competition. Who had it the roughest? We can rarely agree on this, but we can all unite in being judgmental of people on public assistance.

Those of us who work with people on public assistance (I’m including programs like cash assistance, Section 8, food stamps, Medicaid, etc.) know that it’s not an easy or pleasant way to get through life. It’s tough. Benefits, especially cash, are meager. No one is really getting money handed to them anymore. At least in New York, housing programs are unreliable. Many of my clients are facing eviction because their voucher programs stopped paying the rent. (Just saying, a letter or something would have been nice. Cutting them off with no notice? How about some manners?)

Food stamps and Medicaid are a bit more reliable and generous, but my goodness–could they be a little more complicated? I think that people are being asked to jump through actual hoops at their appointments now. Recipients are given random appointments, with little notice, where they have to wait in line, often for hours, usually with children.

But the sunny disposition of the workers really makes up for it.

Miss one appointment, and your benefits are sanctioned. Show up at your appointments…you still might get sanctioned. Better get documentation.

Keeping up with all this is like a full time job. Hmm. Makes going to school or, you know, getting a full time job, a little difficult.

And yet, we still like to see the people benefitting from these programs as less than. They’re lazy, poorly motivated, often unintelligent.

Hey, if you aren’t getting public assistance, you have every right to say it.

It’s not like you benefit from government assistance. I mean, it’s not like the rest of us are driving on paved roads or sending our kids to public schools. We don’t intend to collect unemployment or Social Security when the time comes.

Oh, wait.

Back to my point. The poor. They spend unwisely, that’s the real reason they’re in need.

They all have these fancy cars. Their kids have iPhones and the latest video games. They buy gourmet food, cigarettes and booze with those food stamps. They have tattoos, those are expensive!

I mean, if someone is going to rely on government assistance to provide for their children, they could at least have the decency to allow taxpaying citizens to vote on their every purchase. It’s the most sensible option.

It’s strange. Everyone sees these wasteful, greedy people every time they leave the house. I work exclusively with people receiving public assistance, and yet I don’t know anyone like this.

Sure, I don’t agree with exactly how everyone spends their money. But I also have a sense of humility and realize it’s none of my business.

Most of my clients have cell phones. A lot of them have a concerned parent or other family member who buys them a decent phone. They are usually cheap, Metro PCS phones that don’t work outside of the five boroughs. When they can’t afford minutes, they don’t have working phones. Those video games are used, from Game Stop, and surprisingly affordable.

As for cigarettes and booze–how wealthy does one have to be to be entitled to a vice? I have plenty of nights when I just need a drink, and, like I said, my life is pretty good. If I was a single mother, raising a couple of kids with almost no support and no money…I’d probably have to just go ahead and change my name to Bailey Irishcream.

If you’re a resolution person, maybe 2011 can be the year when we all agree to give people a break. Cut those who are already struggling a bit of slack. I’ll just be over here, preaching to the choir.