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Life on the edge

Stories from the invisible homeless


Edith clearly remembers the night she was reunited with her ex-husband. After having no contact for 10 years, he discovered where she lived and traveled a few hundred miles to let her know how he still felt about her.

"I didn't know he had shown up at my house," she says, "and then, 'pop, pop, pop.' There were gunshots. The windows were smashed out and he was standing outside. He shot out every window in the place. I called 911 and the police found him." And Edith (not her real name) found herself homeless.

Monroe County Homeless Services handled 8,553 cases in 2002, which included 3,660 children. According to a recent report released by the Women's Foundation of Western New York, 10 percent of the households in Western New York live at the federal poverty level. The foundation further found, however, that 62 percent of families headed by a woman don't have incomes sufficient to cover basic expenses.

The homeless people I spent several days talking with and photographing aren't the kind most of us see. They don't live on heat grates or in cardboard boxes or under bridges, although there may have been times when those places seemed like their only options. They don't have substance abuse or chronic psychological problems. They don't panhandle. They're all women who have worked or have partners who worked and then one thing too many went wrong and the life they'd patched together fell apart.

For Edith, it was an abusive husband who tracked her down, sending her into hiding once again. For Tanya Santiago, it was moving to Florida with her husband when he was promised a job, only to learn when they got there that the job had fallen through, leaving them with just enough money for rent and food for three months. For Eva Pugh, it was getting laid off from her job and losing the house she'd rented for 13 years. Three different women with three very different lives, all winding up homeless.

I met with these women over the course of several days through the Rochester Area Interfaith Hospitality Network (RAIHN), a collection of host and support congregations that help homeless families.

Edith married young to a gang member. "When you get married into the gang, it's for life," she says. "The only way out is through death or retirement." Divorce, she later found out, isn't an option.

They were married 13 years and had three children but, she says, "we were really only together three, with him going in and out of jail." She finally had enough of his criminal lifestyle and, especially, the physical abuse.

"We were terrorized by him," she says. "When I left him I called the domestic violence hotline and they came at 3 a.m. We slipped out of the house fearing for our lives, me and the children." They were taken to a different city where Edith filed for divorce and soon got a job working, ironically enough, in shelters. "I have an associate's in human services. It's kind of hard to be here. I kind of worked in the field."

Although she had worked for most of her life, she's been diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease and is now unable to work.

"Usually people think you're homeless because you're taking drugs or drinking," she says. "But it can be an illness or Bushanomics." She's been engaged for several years but even with her fiancé working, they're struggling. "Everything's too high. It's economics, right? I have no substance abuse problem. I have too many other problems as it is. For me right now, all I need is low-income housing."

The last time I saw Edith, it looked as if she'd get an apartment. When I spoke with Erica Vera, the RAIHN director, she told me that Edith had moved into a house.

Tanya Santiago moved to the US from Bolivia four years ago. She originally went to Las Vegas just to visit her sister but met, fell in love with, and married Jorge. They later moved to Virginia.

Santiago has a degree in accounting and worked as an accountant in Bolivia. She can't work in the US because she doesn't yet have working papers. Although she's married to an American, and here legally, she needs a working permit. And she doesn't have the $700 required to pay the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the necessary documentation.

Santiago's husband, a forklift driver, had always been able to find work. "My husband worked for about a year in Virginia and then we wanted to move to Florida," she says. "This corporation he worked for has places all over the US. We went to Florida, got an apartment, moved, and then the company didn't have any work for him. We stayed three months and my husband had no job. We lost everything." The birth of their first child, Ashley, further complicated things.

The family made its way back north and stayed for three days with relatives. It was there where Santiago learned about RAIHN. "I didn't want to come here," she says. "I'd heard about people in the street; that they were dirty, using drugs. But this is different. Here, it's families."

Santiago's story is typical for a homeless family in RAIHN. "Eviction because of unemployment is the primary reason they're here," Vera says. "A loss of income leads to eviction. These are families who are living paycheck to paycheck, and the lack of employment or a good education really hurts them."

When we first spoke, Santiago said her husband had just gotten a job. "Now that he's working, we can pay rent and pay for other things," she says. They've since moved out of RAIHN and into their own apartment. But not all of the stories at RAIHN end happily.

The twin problems of a lack of jobs that pay a living wage and affordable housing put many families on the edge of homelessness. "There needs to be a match between what people are paid and housing costs," Vera says. "These are families that want to escape the culture of poverty. They don't want crime, they want good schools. They say, 'We don't want to be on DSS.'" Vera quotes some statistics that show how difficult life can be for a parent with a low-paying job. "A two-bedroom averages $600 a month. Minimum wage pays $800 a month." Even with some government assistance like food stamps, it's virtually impossible to stay afloat.

Eva Pugh has lived in Rochester since moving here with her family from Florida about 40 years ago. She didn't enter a degree-granting program but has a certificate in job readiness from Monroe Community College. "I've been a cab driver, a teacher's aide, a cashier at a bunch of places," Pugh says. "I worked for BlueCross BlueShield, Flower City Printing. I worked a 40-hour week with no benefits."

She has three children between the ages of 17 and 29. She never married, and struggled to keep her family together. "It was hard, depressing," Pugh says. "I worked and raised them alone. I held down a job and was raising three kids. I had good kids to work with. They knew the rules. They stayed in the house until I got there. I had to get to work at 7, leave at 6. I called to make sure they were ready for school. Then I'd call at lunch to see if they missed the bus."

Pugh kept her family intact, but was barely eking out a living. "There never was really enough money," she says. "The most I ever made was $8 an hour. I had to stretch and save. I had to pay RG&E and the rent. Sometimes I had to decide rent versus RG&E. Common sense tells you that you have to pay the rent. So I paid the rent and they cut the RG&E twice because I didn't have enough money. We stayed for four or five days in the cold. I put extra blankets on to keep warm."

Pugh's youngest son, Jonté, just graduated from John Marshall High School and will be attending Finger Lakes Community College in the fall. At the time of our interviews, he was living with Pugh at RAIHN. "If a program accepts me and won't take my son, I'll sleep on the streets," she says. "We're going be together, the streets, the shelter, whatever. He doesn't understand why we're living like this. 'When are we moving?' he asks. I tell him to hold on, bear with mommy for a little while. Everyday he asks if I found a job. 'Did they call you?' It seems like I'm letting him down."

Pugh lost her job a year ago May and then her house, which she'd rented for 13 years, in December. "I stayed with relatives for four months, back and forth between houses," Pugh says. "You know what it's like living with family. Social Services set us up in a Days Inn for 10 days, but they couldn't extend that. They gave me a piece of paper for the Salvation Army and they sent me here."

Pugh's day is pretty structured, and each one is basically the same. She and the other families staying with RAIHN get up at six. A van takes them to the Day Center by 7. There, they shower and do laundry. If there's school, buses take the kids. Parents stay at the Day Center trying to get their lives back on track.

The first thing Pugh does in the morning is scrutinize the want ads.

"I spend my day looking for jobs," she says. "Anything. I put applications in at the Hyatt, Ramada, Econo Lodge, Wegmans. I put applications in at Dollar General, Family Dollar, Aldi's. Say I'm going to fill out an application for an apartment and I see a 'Help Wanted' sign. I stop in there and fill out an application. Or if I'm walking to meet Jonté and I see a sign, I stop in there too. So far no one's called me back. If there was a job shoveling manure at the zoo, I'd do it."

Getting around the city isn't easy since she has no car. "I have to take the bus or walk wherever I go," Pugh says. More often than not, she walks. "I walk downtown looking for stores that are hiring, look for temp places," she says. "I just fill out applications all the time. I'm pounding the concrete looking for work and an apartment. Someone said to me, 'Look at how strong your arms and legs are.' I said, 'You'd have strong arms and legs too if you did as much walking as I do.'"

The looking and the walking and the lack of a home is taking its toll. "I do get frustrated," she says. "If you walked as much as I did, you get there, do an application, then they say they're not hiring.... One place said come in Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. I get there and find out I need an appointment to fill out an application. That's frustrating, all that walking and time. Sometimes I feel like I do all this stuff for nothing. I can see why there's so much crime. You're out there trying to work and you ask for help. You try and do the right thing only to get the door slammed in your face. Anybody could get here. I'm not here by choice. All I need is a job. Once I have a job I can get what I want; no hand-outs. Like that saying, 'Don't give me a fish, teach me to fish.' Just give me a job."

On my last night at RAIHN, it looked as if Pugh would be getting an apartment she'd talked about. She was telling Edith about it, and while she was relatively optimistic, she was still nervous. The landlord sounded promising on the phone but nothing was signed.

"You have to trust God," Edith said. "God's a good God. He may close a door but he'll open a window." "I know," replied Pugh, "but I still don't know if I'll get that apartment." "Don't say that," said Edith, her tone becoming part revival meeting. "Give it up to God. You're gonna get that apartment. Say it." "I'm gonna get that apartment," Pugh said. "That's right," said Edith.

Jonté, Pugh's son, walked by and asked if he'd heard her correctly. Were they getting an apartment? She hesitated at first but then at Edith's urging told him, yes: they had an apartment and they'd be moving out that week.

When I saw Pugh a few days later, the apartment had fallen through and she still hadn't gotten a job. A short while later, she left RAIHN and found, according to Vera, "a better living arrangement."

When RAIHN opened in April, there was some concern that there might not be the need for such a program; that perhaps there weren't as many homeless families here as there were in other communities. The fact the program has been running at or near capacity since the beginning shows there is a need.

One reason for the initial uncertainty was that the women profiled here are the invisible homeless. They were living with friends or relatives or patching things together before something went wrong and they ended up with no place to live. No one knew they were out there and no one knows how many other people are living the same way, technically homeless but not counted because they're not seen.

I asked each of the women where they'd be if it weren't for RAIHN. Santiago said she really didn't know, but she'd probably have to move in with relatives. Edith and Pugh didn't hesitate. They both said they'd be on the streets. Not a safe place for anyone, but at least they'd be seen.

Feeling the RAIHN

Erica Vera, RAIHN director, is clearly proud of her organization. "We have the most diverse network in the US," she says. "We have Christians, non-Christians, fundamentalists, all sorts of colors and shapes of faith."

            RAIHN is part of the National Interfaith Hospitality Network (NIHN), which was organized in 1986 as a response to an increase in the number of homeless families nationwide. Within RAIHN, there are 13 host congregations that provide a private living space for homeless families one week every quarter. Fifteen support congregations provide volunteers to help with the day-to-day operations.

            Since April, when RAIHN started, it has served 25 families for a total of 71 individuals, 37 of whom are children. More than half of the families are headed by women.

            RAIHN is unique in a number of ways: first, it's selective in who gets in. "Our criteria is that a child is involved," says Vera. "They can be any age. There can be no active substance abuse or psychological problems. We can see people who are in treatment but we don't admit people with chronic, untreated issues."

            Adults in the program are given help with job and housing searches. The Network also tries to provide people with a better education. "One of the biggest problems is the lack of an education that would get you a better job," Vera says. "RAIHN wants to help people get an education that will get them a better job."

            Families move to a new host church every Sunday. "We were afraid the system of moving from church to church wouldn't be accepted, but families like it," Vera says. "They meet different people, eat different foods. They're being exposed to different volunteers. There are some typical complaints, 'Oh, I don't like this kind of food,' but not many. People in the program get to know different areas, the kids go to different parks, they learn about different communities and can go to different festivals." Although moving weekly may be unsettling, families know there is always a host congregation waiting to receive them with a place to stay.

            Usually, people entering the program had been living paycheck to paycheck, patching enough work together to pay the bills. Then something goes wrong, they're unable to pay the rent, and they end up homeless.