By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In November 1998, Leslie left her five children with her mother in Cape May, New Jersey, and moved to New York City. The plan was to find an apartment and a job, then return for her children. Leslie's résumé included stints as a home health aide and a Wendy's cashier. In New York City, she found work behind the counter at a Rite Aid and a gift store inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At the time, she was crashing with the mother of her boyfriend, who was in prison for burglary. When her boyfriend's mother tired of her, Leslie wound up at the Emergency Assistance Unit, the Bronx office that is the entry point to the city's shelter system. From February to June, she bounced between shelters and ended up quitting one job to ensure she could sign up for a bed each night.
When her mother had two heart attacks in June, Leslie found herself back at the EAU, this time with five children in tow. The family spent one night at the EAU sleeping on metal benches and then three days in an "assessment center" in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, before arriving at the Urban Family Center. The Pinders were far luckier than most families, who make multiple trips to the EAU before they get into a shelter.
Recently, Leslie was certified for two subsidized housing programs, and she has visited 11 apartments in the last month. The New York City Housing Authority offered her a seventh-floor apartment at a Coney Island housing project, but she turned it down. She worries about how her asthmatic son Reggie would fare if the elevator broke. "He's barely making it up four flights of stairs now without the pump," she explains. Her social worker at the Urban Family Center says Leslie will have to take the next place NYCHA offers unless she can find another apartment on her own before then.
Social Security pays Leslie $405 in survivors' benefits each month since the father of her three middle children is deceased. (Reggie Wakefield, Leslie's boyfriend for a decade, died at age 28 from congestive heart failure.) Leslie also collects $130 a month in public assistance and $486 in food stamps. But a few weeks ago, Leslie learned that the city plans to shrink her welfare checks and food stamps because she did not show up for workfare, known as the Work Experience Program (WEP). "How are we going to stay in a shelter, work for WEP, find available housing and take care of all the issues that arise with the children in school and [with] public assistance?" Leslie says. "It doesn't seem possible."
If Leslie refuses to participate in workfare once the work-for-shelter policy goes into effect, city officials could take away her children or evict her from her shelter. Her social worker says this is unlikely, though, since Leslie will probably move out before mechanisms for enforcing these new rules are in place. As she crisscrosses the city visiting possible future homes, Leslie clings to the hope that a subsidized apartment will be the solution to her plight, enabling her to hold a job and support her five children without winding up back in a shelter. "As long as I'm in the system," she says, "I feel like my life is not my own."