The Return of Hooverville: The Deepening Crisis of Family Homelessness

Anne Pierre doesn’t have a jet or a limousine. It was hard for her to rouse the boys on their first day at the new shelter, but the morning was full of promise. There was hot water, Ms. Pierre had a plan to try to get them eligible for shelter again, and she had heard about a home health aide service that might be hiring.

There were those little frustrations that can threaten to bring down a day—a late departure, unfamiliar streets, several people’s detailed though utterly unhelpful directions to the bus stop, and Tyler, impish even on a few hours of sleep, dropping Ms. Pierre’s hand and jogging backward down the sidewalk for a half block. But just as easily, the morning righted itself.

Having set off hesitantly toward the rumored bus stop, Ms. Pierre recognized a park, its pocked red running track dotted with figures in tracksuits. The park was not only familiar, it was just a few blocks from Jordan’s school—the school, she declared with amazement, was walkable. “Thank you God, his school is walkable,” she said, an exclamation she repeated in a tone of happy disbelief several times on the walk over.

For the rest of the journey, Tyler was charged with telling the family which way to turn at intersections and when it was safe to cross the streets. Though he is notorious for clowning and for a tendency to blurt out whatever he is thinking despite the social consequences, he went about the task obediently enough.

“Tyler has all of me,” Ms. Pierre says. “He’s like me when I was a kid. Don’t care if you get in trouble. Jordan is different. Jordan, Jordan watch everything. He talk around people if he like you. He plays with other kids, but he like to be by himself too. He needs time by himself and Tyler doesn’t want to give it to him, and they end up fighting.”

Anne Pierre rides the subway home. She spends much of her day in transit.

Anne Pierre rides the subway home. She spends much of her day in transit.

At a corner store across from Jordan’s school, P.S. 631, they stopped to buy breakfast sandwiches. Jordan fidgeted as they waited for the sandwiches. “It’s 9:05,” he said, looking at Ms. Pierre.

“I know,” she said.

School had started at 8:30, his third-grade regents exams were the following week, and he had missed school the day before because children need to be present when their parents reapply for shelter. As soon as Ms. Pierre had paid, he bolted out of the store, but not without hugging her goodbye. She watched until he disappeared behind the door.
“I have to see him go inside, in front of my eyes, or I worry,” she said. She meets him after school, too. “I’m one of those—I’m not going to say crazy mothers, I’m going to say worried mothers.”

Ms. Pierre worries a lot. She worries about where they’ll be living next, she worries about Jordan’s asthma and she worries about her 19-year-old daughter, Anna. Anna, who Ms. Pierre brought to the U.S. from Haiti as a 1-month-old infant when she herself was only 17, was living with them on Legion Street before they lost the apartment. She is now living with a girlfriend whom Ms. Pierre says is abusive and lies about whether Anna is home when the boys try to visit. Most of all, she worries on the days when she has to go to the intake center, the days when everything seems impossible and she has to plead for a new placement in a system that she doesn’t want to be in and whose rules she only half understands.

She did not, for example, understand that she could lose her Section 8 voucher for not finding a new apartment quickly enough after the last one was disqualified. Nor did she understand that, having lost it, she could not get it back (with more than 100,000 families, the waiting list is now closed). She had not understood how difficult it would be to find a new apartment by herself (the first broker she approached demanded a month up front as a deposit before showing her anything), and she had not understood that having a 4-year-old would be a problem.

(Photo by Kim Velsey)

Jordan and Anne studying a house in Brownsville.

But working 40 or more hours a week had meant little time to conduct an apartment hunt, which meant that she especially resented being shown decrepit one-bedrooms passed off as two-bedrooms by landlords taking advantage of the short supply of Section 8 housing. She was passed over for all the apartments she did apply for. One landlord explained that if she just had older kids, it wouldn’t be a problem, but a 4-year-old meant window grates and radiator covers and other modifications that he wasn’t willing to spend extra money on.

Other rejections were more vague, but they amounted to the same thing: by June, she didn’t have a place to live, and without a Section 8 voucher, she didn’t have the money to pay for one anyway. She was making $9 an hour—a step up from the $7.25 an hour she made when she started four years earlier, but her income was less than $20,000 a year even when she worked 48 hours a week, which she did as often as she could.

When Ms. Pierre and the boys entered the shelter system, she thought it would be temporary and even turned down an offer for public housing because it was far from Jordan’s school. But things went quickly downhill. The one-bedroom apartment she was assigned to in a dingy building on Clarkson and Nostrand was not ideal, but things would have been okay if Anna, who had just graduated from high school—one of the few in her class to graduate with a Regents diploma, Ms. Pierre noted proudly—had not moved out.

This was a problem because Anna watched Tyler when Ms. Pierre was at work. Not having anyone to watch Tyler meant that Ms. Pierre couldn’t start the next assignment her job offered her, and they gave it to someone else, which meant that she didn’t have any income for several weeks. She applied for public assistance, but before it came through her phone got cut off, which meant that she couldn’t get another work assignment because they wouldn’t give her one without a contact number.

It was simple and complicated at the same time. In a matter of months, she lost her house, her job and, it sometimes seemed, her daughter, who had dropped out of her college classes—she wanted to become a police detective someday—and moved in with the girlfriend, a woman Ms. Pierre described as a “bad influencer” who discouraged Anna from going out or talking to other people. With limited contact, Ms. Pierre and the boys have taken to walking past the girlfriend’s apartment on a regular basis, hoping to catch a glimpse of Anna.

“The last time I see her, her face has changed,” said Ms. Pierre. “Jordan is telling me we have to do something. I just keep waiting for her, but I’m afraid if she stay much longer, it will be too much damage. She’ll become someone else.”
Now everything Ms. Pierre wanted or needed seemed to rest on something else that she wasn’t able to do. When she reapplied for shelter, she was told she would not be eligible for a long-term placement without documentation of where she’d been living for the previous two weeks. She had been staying at Anna’s girlfriend’s place, but the girlfriend, whose name the apartment was under, refused to write the letter.

(Photo by Kim Velsey)

PS 631

Without a stable place to live, it had been hard to apply for jobs, but without a job, it seemed unlikely that they’d ever get a stable place to live. She misses her job, or at least the life it gave her.
“It’s freedom. When you work, it’s freedom,” she said. “You have money. When I worked, if I wanted something, I could buy it.”
Ms. Pierre’s plan, if she can “fix the house,” as she puts it, is to become a certified nursing aide, which she sees as more stable than being a home health aide, and ultimately to become a licensed practical nurse.

“From CNA you could go to an LPN. By the time I’m 40, I want to do it,” said Ms. Pierre, who is 37 now. “I would love to be a nurse, and I know I can do it. I know if I be a nurse, I could put my kids in a better school, a Catholic school.”
There is a class that she is planning to take as soon as they become at least eligible for long-term shelter again, because, she explained, it’s rumored to be difficult and “the head is supposed to be on the shoulders when you’re studying to be a nurse.”

She just wasn’t sure how she’d fix the housing situation beyond getting the letter and a long-term shelter placement, an improvement over their current itinerant state, but one that would still leave them homeless and at the mercy of the system, the bag searches, nightly sign-ins and strange rules (at Amboy, no blenders or TVs larger than 19 inches). But if she could get her Section 8 back, she’d move to Staten Island and start over, as much as a thing like starting over is possible.

“I’m tired of the same things over and over again,” she said. “I want to change things. I’ve been here so long, going through the same ups and downs so long. I want to go where I could work, pay my bills, take care of my kids. Maybe Staten Island—the boys and I went there and we liked it. It’s different than Brooklyn; it’s quiet, the spaces are bigger. I thought I was going to be afraid of the boat, but I just sit on the boat and I enjoy it.”