'No One Decides To Be Destitute'

How One New Yorker Came To Commit the 'Crime' of Poverty

  In this recent letter to the Voice, Magie Dominic, a poet and theater veteran, describes how her life was knocked off its axis following an accident two years ago. As a result, she has been forced to seek public assistance, a numbing descent into long lines, cold shoulders, and bewildering bureaucracy. Dominic also provided copies of documents tracking her food stamp and welfare applications, as well as an example of her published poetry and a Who's Who excerpt.

As she seeks public assistance, Dominic works one day a week, for which she earns $118. She pays $869 a month for the Chelsea apartment in which she has lived since 1985. Last month, she made the rent with the help of two theater funds that offer emergency grants.

Dominic's is a story that would be recognized by thousands of New Yorkers who have, for one reason or another, turned to the government for assistance. It also is a bracing reminder of the precarious nature of existing in a town where not everyone is benefiting from the Wall Street boom or the oft-reported renaissance of New York City.

Tim C. Okamura

I am a 54-year-old white woman, fairly intelligent, and have worked since I was 15 years old. But something happened to me and I found myself needing help.

Welfare, public assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, emergency assistance— whatever you choose to call it— no longer works.

I've been trying to obtain help for almost four months, beginning with the initial search for the right location, then waiting for months for some form of temporary emergency help.

I began searching for help as a result of a terrible accident in May of 1997, when I was found unconscious in the middle of a street, with my face completely bashed and the right side of my body filled with trauma. I've had occasional unexplained seizures in the past, usually at times of personal stress. This wasn't consistent with a seizure. This was consistent with a car accident. I have no memory and there were no witnesses. The plastic surgeon who worked on restoring my face said I may have become dizzy in traffic and been thrown by a car. I may simply have been struck by a car. Whatever the cause, something immense happened. The emotional as well as physical damage was immense. I qualified for no disability because my employment— working with costumes in theater— is sporadic. Sometimes work lasts for three years, sometimes three hours.

I was told disability required that a person be employed by a consistent employer.

Over the past 24 months I've worked on healing my body as well as my self-confidence and worked as much as I could despite obvious obstacles. I lived off a tiny savings account, with occasional work, but once the savings was depleted, I found myself in a crisis situation. This is where many people find themselves. It's not planned. No one decides to develop a life-threatening situation. No one decides to be destitute.

I found myself unable to find work, with rent and utilities due, with no food and no money.

I sold what little furniture I had for groceries and postage for mailing résumés.

This is how quickly life can change. And to deny it is to deny life itself. It can happen to anyone: an accident, demolished face, no work or money, alone and without food.

It isn't planned. It happens. Like weather.

Some people crumble under these circumstances. They go insane. They get guns and shoot away their insanity. They get drugs for the same reason. I'm not advocating either.

But this is exactly why programs of assistance must work.

A series of appointments began for me, and so did the waiting. On four occasions I asked for emergency food stamps to help me get through the week, but on all four occasions was denied. Health care and food were my only requests. It isn't unusual to wait five or six hours, for days in a row, to be told to return the following week, when the process begins again. I've been photographed, had numerous appointments, had two workers come to my home, filled out a mountain of documentation, answered hundreds of questions and been fingerprinted. Poverty is not a crime.

A woman waiting beside me this morning said she'd been waiting for eight months. During the fifth month she had a breakdown and had to be hospitalized. She was released and was still waiting. We both were. People bring food, if they have it, for their children. They know they'll be waiting all day, and children get hungry and don't understand. Workers are often insulting, hostile, or indifferent. Just what a person in a crisis situation doesn't need.

I don't have a solution. But my experience has been life-changing and terrifying. This current system borders on slavery. It treats people who are down as if they deserve to be there, should remain there, and always belonged there. And with enough insults and long lines and waiting, it's almost guaranteed.

Lack of food, absence of health care, and stress are weapons aimed at a particular segment of society, children and adults alike. Being poor is not a criminal activity.

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