No Relief

Giuliani's New York: The View from Below

One month ago, the Voice published a letter from Magie Dominic, a 54-year-old poet and theater veteran, whose life was knocked off its axis following a traumatic accident two years ago. In the letter, Dominic described how her subsequent need for public assistance had turned her life into an odyssey of lines, fruitless appointments, and bureaucratic rejections. Dominic is still trying to get some relief, as she explains in the letter below:

Things happen to me. Things some people find unbelievable. So I've been documenting my life, in ink. Some of the ink is red. It comes from the heart.

I've been writing about emergency assistance, Medicaid and food stamps, and laws written to make things impossible. About bureaucracy and long lines.

A mixture of emotions overcomes a body waiting in these relief lines. Relief isn't one of them. These lines can shatter a person's self- confidence. Their will to live.

In May 1999 a new welfare system went into effect in New York City.

People had to return to main offices, fill out new forms, and wait for new cards.

I was warned. "The lines are going to be very, very long. I'm warning you now, so you don't write about it anymore." Words I'd written had come out in the Voice and my caseworker had phoned.

I was told to report to the first floor of a 14th Street building, for a form, then take it to a building 10 blocks away.

The next day, in the morning, lines were long and chaotic.

A well-dressed man screamed into a wall phone. He screamed with a rage bordering on tears. He'd been waiting three hours. He'd arrived early and waited outdoors. Had a job interview which now he'd missed and no one would talk to him here. A little girl clung to his knees.

People tried not to stare, and looked at their documentation, their child if they had one, their cart if they were homeless. He continued to scream, but how could he cry? He was a grown man in a suit, in public, with a small child holding his knees.

After an hour I was told there was no form. To go to the third floor and wait.

In the elevator to the third floor, a man in his twenties or thirties paced frantically. People moved to the corners. He'd lost his job, he said. He'd lost his insurance. His teeth were aching and he was in pain. He'd applied for Medicaid three months ago but received nothing. He had no job, no insurance.

When you lose your job, you lose your dignity.

When you lose your job in New York, you lose your teeth.

Forty-four million Americans have no health insurance of any kind.

No one in the elevator headed for the third floor had health insurance.

This man needed medical intervention. The phrase "human capital approach" is often used when intervention is needed. It equates a person's value with the amount of money they'll make in a lifetime. Women have less value than men. The homeless have zero value. The often unemployed have zero value.

On the third floor, caseworkers and clerks were overwhelmed, understaffed, and at a breaking point.

A homeless man, heavy jacket stained with soup or coffee, held a newspaper and laughed hysterically. He had a thick scarf tied around his waist. He was dressed for a storm.

Several people sat in plastic chairs and rocked back and forth. Some of them wore headsets.

A guard walked by dangling a nightstick. It wouldn't have to be used. The implication was clear.

A middle-aged woman in front of me kept wiping the area beneath her eyes. She was neatly dressed, alone, and crying. She kept turning around as if she were looking for someone.

A woman I'd seen before was there again. A thin, homeless woman, probably in her seventies. She'd been in Brooklyn the day I was sent there weeks ago. She sat with perfect posture, in a worn suit and worn hat. An organized broken cart. Possibly an organized broken heart. She was an old, homeless woman who refused to surrender her dignity.

People were confused and crowded the front desk. They yelled at clerks and clerks yelled back.

The place was combustible. There was a commotion and people jumped on chairs to see. There was no gunshot, but the room filled with the feeling anyway.

I saw a young man lying on the floor, silent, near a desk.

A guard said he'd had a seizure. He'd been there the day before and also had had a seizure. He wasn't taking his medication, the guard said. Another guard stood at a distance.

I told the main guard that I'd had seizures in the past. That I could talk with the young man if he wanted me to. He looked at me without speaking. I said I'll tell him how important it is to take his medication. I walked into an area where ordinarily I would have been forbidden. The man had a hand across his forehead. I knelt beside him and said, "I've had seizures in the past. It's really important to take your medication."

He said, "They won't give me my check. I don't have money for my medication. They won't give me my check and I'm not leaving this hospital until I get my medication." Then he corrected himself, "I mean office."

If the man lying on the floor was ripping off the system, he had a bizarre way of celebrating the fact.

After four hours, I was sent to the building 10 blocks away with the form and told to wait for a new card. Unlike the old cards, which contained images of tired, expressionless people, the new cards have only a name and a series of numbers. The new cards are faceless.

After four months of waiting, I didn't receive Medicaid. I did receive permission to buy $250 worth of food, for which I'm very grateful. I bought non-perishable food that will last for months.

I may never receive food stamps again. I hope I never need them. The system may change again in August. Everything is unknown. I bought a few bags of apples for the homeless in my area. On the scale of things, these apples are worthless. The problems of the poor, the working poor, the homeless, are of such magnitude they require immediate assistance— from everyone.

This week I walked to a library with computers for the public, signed a waiting list and, when my turn came, walked to the terminal.

A man was seated in front of it, right hand covering his face. I touched his arm and he jumped. He'd been sleeping. He picked up a cloth bag, then awkwardly gathered bags hidden beneath the table. He was wearing two jackets and three shirts. He was wearing all of his clothes simultaneously because his body had become a hanger.

He was a homeless, middle-aged man, sleeping for 30 minutes at terminal No. 1, and I was about to uproot him, so I could read about the hungry.

He apologized without looking up. He apologized for being exhausted. For being in the chair. For having all these bags. He apologized for everything. His body was filled with shame.

There's a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is: I made a mistake. Shame is: I am the mistake.

Tonight I received a letter from a friend. She asked, "Where are the homeless? I don't see them anymore."

The homeless are hiding between cracks in buildings, behind dumpsters in cardboard boxes. They're 60-year-old men with paper cups filled with pennies. They're 70-year-old women wearing worn-out felt hats. They're men who've gone crazy. They're in Orange County being arrested for drinking a Sprite. They're standing on subway platforms pretending to have destinations.

The homeless have no soap, no towels, no toothbrushes. They have no money, no food, no shampoo. They have shopping bags, memories, and newspapers.

They have nowhere to wash, nowhere to sleep, nowhere to stand. They have nowhere to sit, they have to keep moving. They try to vanish.

The homeless and hungry and sick are being ignored, abandoned, and stepped over.

A system responsible for this needs to be torn apart before it explodes. Needs to be transformed, before it destroys everyone.

The willful neglect of one part of society will have a domino effect.

There's an old saying: "In hell, the chopsticks are very long, so long people can't reach their mouths and they starve to death. In heaven, the chopsticks are the exact same length, but in heaven the people feed one another."

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