Welcome to Being Homeless in New York
In 2008 I was fortunate enough to see a lifelong dream come true when I became the first Puerto Rican in the Bronx to have his memoir published by a major publishing house (Simon & Schuster).
That same year, I signed a second book deal and was named one of the “2009 Top Ten “New” Latino Authors to Watch (and Read),” by LatinoStories.com.
With my star rising rapidly, I had no way of foreseeing that what they actually meant to say was, “Top ten Latino authors likely to become homeless in New York in 2009.” But that’s exactly what happened, and it all occurred in the blink of an eye leaving me dazed and confused.
My newfound homelessness was the result of getting in the way of a domestic violence situation in which the landlord of the house thought it was OK to use his fiancé as a punching bag.
Unfortunately for him and me, stopping a woman from being beaten took precedence over having a place to call home.
And with the majority of my income going back to Virginia Beach to take care of my three daughters, no money in the bank and not much disposable income… I dropped the “Welcome Home,” mat in front of my truck.
At the time I had no way of knowing it was illegal to live in your vehicle, not that I would’ve cared at that moment. I was stressed and sleepy so I drove to a safe neighborhood in Riverdale and fell asleep with a few tears in my eyes not knowing how my life had taken such an unlikely turn.
Latinos are a proud people, and asking for assistance isn’t one of our strong suits. It’s that double-edged sword that keeps us cutting ourselves on both ends.
Although I didn’t know what being homeless was going to be like, I did know that if I was going to be this way for any length of time I’d need one of those signs to let the world know about my plight.
Maybe the sign should read, “Will ghostwrite for room and board…” or perhaps, “Will write for a clean place to shower,” since I wasn’t actually going to be living on the streets, but rather comfortably in the backseat of my Ford Expedition.
The next night I slept across the street from Harris Baseball Field by Lehman College where I used to play little league as a kid.
There was something about the memories of playing ball there as a child, coupled with missing my own children and the sound of heavy rain beating on the roof of the truck that immediately sent the tears streaming down my face just as hard as the rain that was falling that night.
I was sad, I was alone, I felt hopeless and I was officially homeless…
And even if I took that pain and multiplied it a thousand times over, I don’t believe I’d understand the pain of a parent that ends up homeless with his children.
Yet in these difficult economic times that’s exactly what’s occurring at an alarming rate throughout the country on a daily basis.
We see the news reports every night about the banks foreclosing on record numbers of homes.
But do we ever stop to think about where the residents of those homes are now living?
TIME magazine reports more homeless people living in cars and campers than ever before.
The New York Times reports on another Latino author and poet, Tato Laviera, ending up homeless this year after emergency brain surgery.
Interestingly enough, I met Tato last week at United Bronx Parents transitional shelter, Casita Esperanza (Little House of Hope) where I’m currently employed, and where I washed up in the basement when I was homeless for those three, seemingly never-ending days.
And if being homeless wasn’t enough of a challenge, the New York Daily News broke a story last week about a Brooklyn High School senior, Rosa Bracero, who was refused her High School Diploma after being forced to sit in a shelter intake process with her family while missing a Regents exam.
Can you imagine being a whiz student, being homeless and then being stripped of your education just as you’re starting to feel some hope in your life?
Seems these days the Bloomberg administration will do anything to keep an education out of reach of a minority. After all there aren’t enough jobs to go around these days.
The story prompted MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann to name New York State Education Commissioner the “Worst Person in the World,” on Tuesday February 9th of this year. And while he rightfully deserves it, I’d still give that title to Mr. Bloomberg on most other days for the mess he’s made of New York.
There is paper out called Undercounting the Homeless 2010, in which “A Columbia University professor hired by the city to help conduct an annual estimate of homeless people has disavowed the project, saying its methods cause the number to be understated.”
Does anyone else see a problem here with New York’s inability to report valid numbers whether in crime statistics, educational statistics and now homeless statistics?
Or have we all just given up on humanity?
Luckily for me, my homeless streak ended after three days and a phone call that came seemingly from the heavens.
The caller – a good friend of mine – as well as a poet, actress, activist and all around compassionate human being who shall remain nameless for the time being, saved me from another day of wondering where I’d shower next, when I’d be able to use the restroom again or whether I’d wake up in the middle of the night to someone trying to break into my new home.
And by the time that call came, my pride had faded enough for me to share with her my plight.
She acted without hesitation and later that evening I was renting a room from one of her family members.
With my journey of wandering aimlessly coming to an end, I learned a very valuable lesson in humility, in humanity and in compassion.
And while I’ve always been the type to give money and clothes to the homeless, living through this ordeal for as short a time as three days, introduced me to a horror the likes of which I had no other way of ever understanding.
So when you reach into your pockets to send money to Haiti, remember that we have a backyard filled with our own that are hurting as well.
When you walk past a homeless person understand that circumstances beyond their control may have appeared out of nowhere, in the blink of an eye.
Don’t be afraid to extend yourself and travel outside of your comfort zone to help someone in need.
After all, these are dire times and if the scholars, financial analyst and people paying attention to what’s going on are correct… we haven’t even begun to see the bottom just yet.
Before you lay down in your comfortable warm bed tonight… ask yourself, “Have I done enough this week to help someone in my community?”
You just never know when you might be the one in search of a warm bed…
For more information on the homeless issue, please visit The Coalition for the Homeless.
Ivan Sanchez is the author of Next Stop: Growing up Wild-Style in the Bronx (Touchstone – Simon & Schuster, 2008). The book is the first memoir released by a major publishing house written by a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. Sanchez is also the co-author of It’s Just Begun: The Epic Journey of DJ Disco Wiz, Hip Hop’s First Latino DJ (powerHouse, 2009). He was awarded the National Novel honors for his first fiction offering and is currently working on several new books about NY Latinos. He is also the co-host of Rebel Radio on Urban Latino Radio.