[Hpn] NYC, NY - When Shelter Feels Like a Prison........ - New York Times - August 18, 2002

Homeless Daily News Homeless Daily News <hccjr@bellsouth.net>
Sun, 18 Aug 2002 08:51:09 -0500


When Shelter Feels Like a Prison........
At least the city is calling a homeless shelter what it really is.

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By CHARMION BROWNE - New York Times - August 18, 2002

During my early childhood I lived in four or five different homeless
shelters in New York City.

It's a good thing my mother found employment when she did;
otherwise I, too, might have been like one of the homeless
children in the city today, left without even a shelter to live
in because of overcrowding.

Last week some of these children were sent to an unused jail in
the Bronx  and then removed when lead paint was found there 
because the city could find nowhere else for them to live.

>From a house to a shelter to a former jail  not the most
desirable pathway to take in life.

I only had to deal with having to write down an address in school
that was never going to be my own, living in a "house" where I
had an extended family of 100 strangers, being cramped in a room
as small as a bathroom with three other families besides my own,
with no sense of privacy  ever.

Some homeless children in New York can now add to their childhood
memories the time they had no place else to live but a former jail.

My mother had financial difficulties as a single mother taking
care of my brother and me on her own. She worked very hard to
move us from a small one-bedroom apartment to a two-bedroom
apartment.

We finally did move into that bigger apartment when I was around
8, but after living there a week we discovered that the place was
infested with centipedes and we had to move out before my mother
could find us another apartment.

So we ended up in a shelter. I think my mother thought it was
only going to be a temporary situation until she could find
someplace else to go.

On that first night without a home, I fell asleep as we waited in
line at the department of homeless services to find out which
shelter would take us.

There were no more seats available and we were there for over
five hours before my mother even got to talk to someone.

We then had to wait another two hours before a van came to pick
us up and take us to the shelter in downtown Manhattan where we
would be spending the next two months.

It still puzzles me how so many beds could fit in the room we stayed
in. There were four bunk beds crammed into one tiny room. I shared
a top bunk with my brother, with my mother sleeping below.

Every time we wanted to get to our bed, we had to jump across
someone else's bed. Since we had been the last to arrive at the
shelter, we had no choice; we got the bed farthest back in the
room.

My brother and I learned quickly that there were unspoken rules
for living in these places. In a way, living there was like
living in a kind of prison.

You had to fit in fast or someone would take advantage of you.
There weren't any curtains in the bathrooms and everyone on the
floor  100 or more people  had to use the same facility.

My mother quickly picked up the habit of waking us at 4 a.m. to
make sure we took a shower before anyone else awakened.

Later, we learned that if you didn't start lining up for meals at
least two hours before the kitchen was open, you might as well
forget about eating.

We had to watch our things at all times, because if you weren't careful
someone might take your things and you'd never see them again.

I was in high school when I finally accepted the fact that I was
homeless. Until that point I was in complete denial.

During those miserable times, my brother and I learned how to
become expert liars. We never let our friends in school know where
we were living. In some cases we were lucky enough not to be
going to the local school, so no one ever walked home with us.

If the shelter was near our school or one of our friends caught
us coming out of the "bums" building, as the kids in the
neighborhood used to call it, then we would tell them our mother
worked there and we had to meet her there after school.

It is difficult enough to fit in when you are a kid, and worse yet
when you can never invite anyone home to visit because you
don't have a home.

Being in those shelters, though, helped me to see that the biggest
cause of homelessness is not lack of money to pay rent.

There were a lot of broken families in these shelters: broken by
drugs, alcohol abuse, divorce, AIDS, early pregnancy, lack of
education and, most important, lack of information about how to
get out of these troubles.

Many of the kids I knew at the shelter really wanted to change
their circumstances but few of them did  few of them knew how.

There weren't many social workers around, and even when they were
around and noticed a problem, they rarely followed up.

The children in these situations need a listening ear, someone to
turn to consistently.

Sure, having a bed to sleep on is better than having no bed at
all. But sleeping on a bed in a shelter that was once a jail
doesn't help ease the psychological burden of being homeless in
the first place.

I understand that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration is
trying to make sure that the new shelter in the Bronx is safe,
but is it working to make it seem less prison-like?

A line for food, cramped space, no privacy  sounds a lot like a
prison to me.

The only difference now is that the city is calling a homeless
shelter what it really is.



Charmion Browne is a senior at Cornell University.
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