'No One Decides To Be Destitute'
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.
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.
I've been waiting since February when I began my search, March when I began the forms, April when I began the long series of appointments and waiting. It's now almost the end of May and I've received absolutely nothing. I have managed to get a tiny bit of work, making $118 per week, which disqualifies me for emergency aid. How people on welfare, public assistance, or whatever we call this system survive is beyond me. Given a choice, this is not where I would be. Given a choice as a middle-aged woman, writer and artist, and wardrobe assistant, I'd choose to be working at a decent job, paying my bills with enough money left over to be able to make a thick sandwich.
But this is where I am momentarily. And most of the people on these long lines have similar stories. The minority are cheaters.
There's an attitude of indifference that permeates this system and that indifference has a source.
This morning, despite decades of work, I found myself in need, showed up for yet another appointment, heard my name called after an hour of waiting, signed my name on the form, then was told to go downstairs and wait for the form to be brought down (I couldn't bring it down myself). Downstairs I waited an hour and 45 minutes, then heard my name called again, signed two more forms, and was told to go to another building 25 blocks away to have another photo taken.
After the bus ride, I signed another form and delivered one. Grown men and women were holding onto these thin pieces of paper as if they were a small child's lunch pass. After waiting for an hour downstairs, a large group was taken outdoors, in a line, to another building. We were stripped of all dignity, walking through that street in a line.
Then inside we were taken upstairs, through a maze of desks and cameras, and told to wait outside in a narrow hallway. We stood there, against the wall, most of us women alone or with children, for another 45 minutes, until the names began.
I had another photograph taken and was told to go home and wait.
The woman in the photo looks tired and defeated.
Some people crumble under these circumstances. Many people crumble. And I'm wondering now if this is the plan.
May 16, 1999
Supervisor, Section Six
Dear Mr. Boyd,
I wrote to you almost a month ago, asking why I have been denied food stamps. I received a call from my caseworker, Ms. D. Perez, and was told to come into the office on 14th St. again. I did and was then told to go to the 34th St. office and be photographed again. I did this also, on May 5.
When I had my very first visit with Ms. D. Perez, there was a great deal of discussion regarding the fact that I'm not a U.S. citizen. It was explained to me that the new ruling was that only U.S. citizens could receive food stamps. I have permanent resident status and am a Canadian citizen. I've lived and worked in New York for over 30 years. It was decided, after I brought in documentation to establish that fact, that I would be eligible.
But as you can see from the enclosed vouchers, I continue to be denied. . . . Would you please let me know if I'm doing something wrong, in order to be eligible. All I'm asking is emergency assistance with food stamps and Medicaid.
Who's Who: Magie Dominic
Bio: Dominic, Magie, writer, artist; b. Corner Brook, Nfld., Can., July 15, 1944; 1 child, Heather Rose. Diploma, Art Inst. of Pitts. Prodr/dir. Children's History Theatre, Woodstock, NY, 1978-1984; freelance wardrobe asst. Met Opera, NYC, 1986-; freelance wardrobe asst. Broadway and TV NYC, 1986-; assoc. curator Caffe Cino Exhibit, Linc. Ctr. Libr. for the Performing Arts, Astor Gallery, NYC, 1985. Editor, author: Belles Lettres/Beautiful Letters, 1995; author (anthology) Outrage, 1993. Pushing the Limits, 1996, Countering the Myths, 1996; author words to final movement of "Symphony #2 Visions of a Wounded Earth," Internat. Symphony Orch., 1996; art work in pvt. collection St. Vincent's Hosp., NYC, the Malcolm Forbes Collection; created the Gown of Stillness installation, Toronto, 1995, NYC, 1996. Recipient Langston Hughes award Clark Ctr., 1968; Children's History Theatre grantee Am. the Beautiful Fund, 1979, '80, Shaker Found., 1980, '81. Mem. League of Can. Poets
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter