Leslie Pinder is among the hundreds of homeless mothers who could lose their children once New York City officials begin enforcing their new work-for-shelter policy. Pinder, 29, lives in a two-bedroom apartment which is actually a city shelter. On a recent night, Pinder and her five children gathered around the television in the living room, transfixed by the celebrity-studded tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center.
The Pinders eat dinner in shifts, since the table in the corner seats only three. At the moment, nine-year-old Courtney is the only one still working on her pork with gravy. Before 9 p.m., both beds in the living room function as sofas. Turquoise, 12, lounges on one bed with eight-year-old Reggie, struggling to concentrate on her grammar homework while he channel-surfs. Two-year-old Milo climbs on the other bed and begins smacking his 11-year-old sister Brittney.
Welcome to Apartment A42, located in a seven-story, redbrick building near Houston Street on the Lower East Side. How the Pinders wound up in this homeless shelter is an all-too-familiar story of a young mother struggling to pay the bills on her own. Pinder has five children by three boyfriends, and she and the kids have been crammed into this apartment since June. While many single homeless adults sleep on rows of beds in cavernous, crime-ridden rooms, the Pinders were lucky enough to land a place at one of the city’s best homeless shelters. Eighty-two families reside in this six-building complex, which is known as the Urban Family Center and run by the Henry Street Settlement.
The Pinders are among the 5100 families currently living in New York City shelters. Starting as soon as December 13, they and other shelter residents will face a new set of rules, including a work-for-shelter policy touted by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Parents who do not follow all the requirements of public assistance, including participating in the city’s workfare program, risk being ejected from their shelter or losing their children to the foster care system. Pinder is desperate to avoid this fate, so she combs apartment listings and fills her date book with broker appointments.
“Do you want to see my room?” Turquoise asks. She snaps shut her grammar textbook, and the tour of the Pinder home begins. Turquoise sashays toward the bedroom she shares with Brittney. The two closets along one wall hold all of the homeless family’s belongings. Tweety Bird and Scooby-Doo dolls peer out from atop a bookcase, and Ricky Martin’s face decorates another wall. Turquoise pops the Backstreet Boys in her cassette player and hunts down an issue of Teen with the band on the cover so she can solicit opinions on which member is cutest.
Next stop is the second bedroom, where Reggie and Courtney sleep in metal-framed bunk beds. Reggie flops on the bottom bunk. “It feels like a jail bed,” he says.
“Have you ever been in jail?” Brittney asks.
Their mother interjects. “He probably saw it on TV,” she says.
“When I lay down, my back hurts,” Reggie says, thumping the mattress. “See, it’s not bouncy.” Reggie yanks up a sheet to reveal a rock-hard mattress with a lime green plastic covering. The bed may be uncomfortable, but it came with the apartment. When the Pinders moved in, the shelter also gave them blankets, sheets, pillows, towels, dishes, and pans. Leslie says she is thankful. “When you come,” she says, “all you have is what you can carry.”
The decorations are minimal, bought with Leslie’s welfare checks. She got a shower curtain covered with birdhouses. She pinned up a picture of herself at age five. And in the living room, she hung a poster of The Notorious B.I.G. “When I move to my own home, I’m going to have the pictures framed and put up,” Leslie says. “I don’t do so much here because I don’t want to get comfortable. I don’t want it to be so comfortable that we’re content because it’s not mine.”
Leslie describes the shelter as “really nice,” but she also calls it “boot camp.” She says she has to sign in at the front desk every day, and her children sign out each morning on their way to school. She has to make an appointment to do the laundry. And if she misplaces her key, she has to talk to her social worker before she can get a replacement. Living in a shelter—even a clean, safe shelter—”you’re not your own person,” she explains. Still, this shelter is far less restrictive than others, which have strict curfews and post a security guard out front.
When the Urban Family Center opened in 1972, it was the nation’s first transitional-housing program with services specifically for homeless families. The array of services includes day care as well as live-in social workers, a housing specialist, and a job counselor. There are also arts and crafts classes and bingo games with prizes like cleaning supplies and Christmas ornaments. Residents are only supposed to stay six months, but it often takes a year before they find an apartment they can afford.
Leslie doesn’t fit the stereotype of a homeless person. She has neither a rap sheet nor a history of drug addiction. The only child of a doctor, she grew up in a three-bedroom home in Philadelphia. Her parents separated when she was nine, and Leslie moved to New Jersey. By age 16, she was a high-school dropout with a baby. “I followed the wrong people,” she says. “Maybe I’m not the typical homeless person. I just made wrong choices.”
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.”